A friend of mine is a clergywoman who grew up in the South and her mother died of cancer when my friend was 32 years old. I am also a clergywoman from the South and my mother died of cancer when I was 32 years old. We have the same story.
Except, not really. We certainly share a bond but our stories are totally different.
So consider the ridiculousness of trying to convince someone that “I know what it’s like” to give birth to twins or have a parent in prison or grow up with brown skin or lose a leg in Afghanistan when nothing like that has ever been part of my story. I have no idea what it’s like to experience those circumstances.
I don’t even know what it’s like for my clergywoman friend from the South whose mother died of cancer when my friend was the same age I was when my mother died of cancer in the South. Everybody’s experience is her/his experience.
This reality means that:
- We are wrong to judge people (“I never would have done that“) because we cannot possibly know the countless factors influencing someone’s decisions.
- We are wrong to shame people (“She should be ashamed of herself“) – at least in non-egregious situations when no one has been hurt. We cannot know all the details of someone’s life.
- We cannot assume that our personal life experience is normative for everyone. Just because my life has been privileged/miserable doesn’t mean that your life has been like mine.
Of course our sufferings and our joys are to be shared and this is one of the blessings of human life. Especially in the isolation that is 21st Century life, we in spiritual communities have invaluable opportunities to be that body that encourages shared suffering and joy. This is one of the marks of the First Century Church. And it’s one of the marks of a healthy 21st Century Church when people can trust each other with their real lives.
But perhaps the best part of being the church in this way is the opportunity to have variant lives intersect in the hope that we will connect:
Human Being A: I am having a rough time. My daughter is being bullied. My marriage is strained. And I’m scheduled to have a liver biopsy this Tuesday.
Human Being B:
I know exactly how you feel. I’m right here. Tell me what’s going on.
This is the church. I don’t know what your life is like. But I’d like to hear about it. And I’m not going anywhere.