Comfort the Afflicted, Afflict the Comfortable



Recently I posted these words: “It is good to recall that ‘comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable’ often needs to include myself/ourselves. We learn and grow more that way.”

They were written in response to a conversation I was having on Twitter. I was trying to explain how our comfort level sometimes needs to be challenged, our assumptions need to be startled, and our privilege questioned. Sometimes that means we walk away from a conversation – hopefully temporarily – because we feel so discomforted by it. We are shocked by the new, or by the simple holding up of the mirror. That is OK.

Our job is to feel the discomfort. Our job is to examine our reactions to it. Then our job is to decide what to do or not to do. Hopefully we learn something either way. This may take time.

Challenges to feelings of comfort can happen in many ways. Sometimes we self challenge: daring ourselves into situations that stretch us, that pit us against things we are not 100% sure we can take. Other times it is as simple as reading something difficult, having a conversation that feels risky, or getting up early to practice and exercise. The animal in us that loves its comfort also loves a challenge if we allow for that. Through rising to challenge, we get to learn something new about ourselves and about the world around us.

The converse is true as well. We might get into a mode of always challenging our comfort, of not asking for help, of being too stoic. Then we need to comfort that in us which feels afflicted. We need to take the soothing bath, or ask for the open arms of a friend. We need to take succor in music, or Nature. The animal in us needs to find ways to feel she is cared for, and then open to that love. Sometimes we just need to stop pushing and be cradled in the now.

“To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” was first written of by Peter Dunne as one of roles of journalism. This phrase was taken up by such radical social activists as Mary “Mother” Jones and Dorothy Day. They took the phrase to heart, challenging those in power and championing those in need. This is still necessary, and there are many of us who take up this task today. It becomes vitally important to turn those words toward ourselves the more we are engaged in helping or challenging others. As teachers, as healers, as activists for human or earth justice, we need to not forget: We are included in the fabric of the very things we are working for. We are not separate from the old growth trees or the endangered waterways. We are not separate from the women and children needing protection. We are not separate from the families of young brown and black men being shot and incarcerated for little or no reason other than racism. We are not separate from the workers organizing for better conditions, or the families needing to be fed.IdleNoMore - Thorn's back

On Saturday, I joined a couple hundred people in solidarity with Idle No More. Chief Theresa Spence has been on hunger strike for more than 25 days now, challenging the Prime Minister of Canada to a meeting regarding the sanctity of the earth and indigenous sovereignty. Idle No More is standing up – singing, drumming, dancing, and blockading – for the rights of free waterways, and land unpolluted by dangerous fracking. I want to support this challenge, this attempt to afflict the closely held privilege of the short sighted governments and corporations that are only seeing the immediate need for profit or even more insidious: an upholding of a level of comfort that we've come to think of as a need. We don't need to use as much fossil fuel or natural gas as we currently do. We could instead adjust our lives to use less, or more wisely. But most often we don't, because we – as a society – like our comforts. Idle No More has the ability to challenge, not only the governments and corporations, but to challenge our own assumptions about what it is we need. They are doing the job of comforting the afflicted of the land and the people and creatures on the land, and afflicting the comfortable – the prime minister and those of us who want to consume all the things we are used to.

They are doing what we all can do. We can take into our arms and hold that which needs comfort. We can take courage and challenge that which should not be allowed to remain comfortable. The whole world lives inside of us. And we are part of the whole world.

We must stop thinking we are separate. To forget our deep connection is the source of our undoing. Let us help each other to become more whole. As Lakota Harden said to us on Saturday: "We've been waiting for this time. This time is now!"

Comfort and challenge. Challenge and comfort. How will we do this work? How do you do this work? Does something inside you need either comfort or a challenge? And is there something outside you worth raising your voice for?

I look forward to reading your thoughts.

7 Responses to “Comfort the Afflicted, Afflict the Comfortable”

  1. Sarah

    Here’s one tiny one: I moved back into the city recently and started a practice of handing out dollars to homeless people. I don’t think that this is anything like a solution to the problems of poverty and an insufficient safety net in our society, but it does challenge my discomfort with encountering homeless folks on the street and my judgements about who deserves the right to decide what they will buy.

    • Thorn

      Small things are often the best ways to engage ourselves and others. It sounds like a really good practice.

      Isolating ourselves too much from poverty narrows our world view too much. Anything that helps us to confront this is of help, I think.

  2. Cath

    I think of myself as a healer, so I am always about comforting the afflicted. Afflicting the comfortable is a real challenge for me; lately I did it by speaking up politically during the 2012 campaigns. It is so very uncomfortable, though. I’m not very good at sustaining the effort. It’s so much easier to comfort, and I find value in that; I get immediate feedback telling me other people value it.

    It’s a total contrast to the afflicting part–because the immediate feedback is that there is negative value in it, and that’s hard for me to deal with. It goes against my lifelong conditioning to spark negativity from people. Finding some sort of balance with that is pretty difficult for me.

    • Thorn

      Cath, that is a very real challenge! It is intriguing to find out what within us needs to be strengthened in order to learn the lessons on either side of the equation – either comforting or afflicting. I think some of us are better at one than the other, and are served well by learning a bit of both.

      Everything is an opportunity to learn. I’m glad to hear how you are working with this.

  3. Cedar

    I have lived for too many years in a job and a town that leaves me depleted, angry, fearful, and horribly depressed. My depression became quite severe over the past year, as I’ve felt utterly trapped and entirely powerless. I’m fortunate to be in a partner relationship with someone who saw my pain and offered me a way out, b/c on my own, I can’t imagine that I would have seen it. I need help, I need to let go of my ego, so that someone can “take care of me.” This is so hard for me, my bones are angry and trembling, b/c I’m giving up control, I’m risking being seen as “weak.” But my heart knows I need to do it. I need to leave this place, and let myself receive the comfort of those who love me.

    And yet, it is my work to “afflict the comfortable.” I have been called an activist, tho my job isn’t clearly an activist type of employment. I need to make a contribution to the world around me, and in order to do that, I need to take care of the core of me. From this cave of pain, I cannot do the work I feel called to do.

    So often, Thorn, your words (here and in your podcast) speak to the core of me. Thank you.

    • Thorn

      Thank you for sharing this with us. Oftentimes the hardest task is to admit we need help, comfort, and support. For me, coddling my weakness became *not* asking for help and trying to do it all myself. Learning to be more yin is my work right now. The yang energies are much more familiar.

      As I said to Cath, each of us needs to figure out which work is easiest and which feels more like a challenge. We move further toward wholeness the better able we are to test the less familiar ground. Good for you (and fortunately for you!) that you have chosen/found a partner who can help you with this work.

      I’ve seen too many burnt out activists who never learn that to ask for help from the core that needs it is to feed the very fires that keep the work going.

      How do we make our lives those of renewal? That is a question for us all.


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