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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.

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.

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