Thick Skin and the Girl Who Doesn't Have It
“I’m not political,” I said.
“Must be nice,” she replied.
Know what’s weird about this conversation? I don’t remember with whom I was speaking. It has transcended an actual setting and characters. All I recall is that I was in a majority class - white, Christian, straight, able-bodied, whatever - and my friend was not.
This simple dialogue has taken place in various ways on more than one occasion, boring itself deeper and deeper into my psyche, each time convicting me that I enjoy privilege I have not earned.
These conversation partners would prefer to have the luxury to say, “Need I speak up on this issue? Nah, I’m good.” They do not eagerly await the opportunity to be the person who has to take a stand, to advocate on their and/or their loved ones’ behalf on controversial issues. But they do it because that is how they have earned rights - or reclaimed them, in some cases. That is how they bring attention to their plight, because a lot of the rest of us don’t get it.
I haven’t gotten it in the past, and I’d bet a fair amount of these friends would say I still don’t. But I’m learning that I don’t get it, which I’d like to think would evoke a small nod from Socrates.
These friends have absurdly thick skins from having to be the designated killjoy, saying, “This isn’t okay,” when we in the majority assume it is. So when I started watching them experience fear from different actions taking place in our country, I knew it was a big deal. I felt sad because I loved them, and, I admit, I was anxious for them, too. I kept reminding myself about the guidance in Philippians 4:6 to “be anxious for nothing,” instead taking care of such predicaments with prayer and thanksgiving; nevertheless, the stress over their struggles was pervasive.
Then a weird thing happened to me: I went into a depression. As the news piled on, each item affecting a specific person for whom I cared deeply, the rending of my heart worsened. I assumed it was a grief reaction, which it was. But that wasn’t the whole story.
I was pouring out my sorrow to one of my marginalized friends named Shai, expecting empathy from her and a brainstorming session on how to Galatians 6:2 the current immeasurable burden I believed she was facing. Instead, she shrugged. “Yeah, it’s just Tuesday for us.”*
That said it all.
I was doubled-over from a teaspoon of the reality she drinks throughout every day.
My pale skin was too thin to handle what hers had endured during our equal lengths of stay on this planet. We had similar backstories of a difficult home life and bad relationships, but she had experience from a societal component that I could not comprehend, which thus allowed her to walk through bizarre and intense situations without crumbling.
Yes, she felt fear, but it was no greater than that which she had learned to cope with at school, in the workplace, even riding public transportation.
This feelization that I was receiving a compressed file of some of those sensations - a kind of cultural sensitivity intensive training - helped me to sit with my depression instead of fight it. In that space, I had to confess with no small amount of shame that there had been many times I had practiced a compassion borne of intellect, not heart.
Though both are forms of compassion and share a goal of honoring another’s suffering, intellectual compassion maintains a distance. It’s like the city-dweller who visits her uncle’s farm with genuine offers to help, as long as it doesn’t mean getting dirt under her fingernails. It isn’t that she’s trying to be condescending; she just doesn’t know what farming is all about.
I do a lot of apologizing these days. I’m okay with that. That’s where I’m trying to develop my thick skin: Recognizing and owning up to how many times I’ve gotten it wrong in the past. Perhaps it’s a sign of maturity to reflect on our mistakes, take responsibility for them, and promise we’ll make even more in the future. Or maybe it’s just an indication my friends should sign a disclaimer when they agree to join my life.
Either way, to my friends who are not of my demographic, I’m sorry for the times when you’ve needed heartfelt compassion and all I had to offer you was the intellectual kind. Please forgive me for thinking I could opt out on things that directly affected you. I’m trying to put my love into action so I can be the type of good neighbor Jesus talked about in the story He told in Luke 10:25-37 - you know, the one where the hero was from a different religion and culture than His own.
To that last point, my friend Sebastien, one of my favorite humanists, asked me recently if Christianity shaped my belief in social justice. I answered with honesty: Not entirely. Because Christianity, like any belief system, has human flaws and limitations. What has most shaped my belief in social justice is Jesus. When I spend time reading about His life - words, actions, attitudes, scripture He quoted, friends He chose - I can’t help but want to live mine in a way that brings out the best in others. (Then I pray He’ll fill in the gaps when I don’t.)
So, to all of you, thank you for loving me despite my biases and shortsightedness. If it means anything, I’m depressed because I care so freakin’ much about you. When I get a thicker skin to go with my tenderized heart, let's get down to business, okay?
Freely you have received; freely give.
Matthew 10:8 (NIV)
* - Shai asked me to clarify that she can't take credit for her pithy remark, but was actually quoting Samuel L. Jackson.