Every email from my brother’s social worker begins the same way: Hello Rosalind, A’s well, everything’s fine.
It is an act of profound empathy, of imaginative companionship, to begin every exchange that way. The social worker knows, though we have never met, that each entry in my inbox that bears the name of my brother sends a lurch through my innards. She does not need to ask which seat of emotion launches the avalanche of adrenaline. She understands simply that there will be consequences to my body of her emailing me, and she does her best from the outset to mitigate the damage.
How we communicate what we communicate is itself an instrument of the gospel. We are a year into a global pandemic that has everybody weary one way or another, grief-worn. Nerves are frayed, neurons primed for bad news. Where I live, the year has been politically tumultuous, as our systems of democracy have been tried almost to their limit, and violence has overtaken our symbols of stability. We are far from alone in this trauma, too.
Our poor bodies are battle-weary, and we feel as though one more jolt could floor us.
Still, the cries come, for an end to injustice and the righting of wrongs; cries of outrage, demands for accountability, for repentance, which is our forte.
Forte, in musical terms, means loud. Its opposite is rendered most commonly not as quiet, but soft. Softly.
There is no doubt that I will continue to find myself needing to share hard news with my community, of death and separation, further grief and conflicting needs and goods. I have no doubt that I am called to continue to tell hard truths about the state of our society, and the need to root out evil. But as I think about how I can contribute to healing the rifts between us, the rifts of inequality and injustice, perhaps I can consider, too, how to do so without contributing further trauma to an overwrought population.
It drives me a little sideways when people use euphemisms for death; yet Jesus himself told his disciples that Lazarus had “fallen asleep;” he gentled them towards his tomb (John 11:11).
My brother’s social worker is not telling the whole truth when she emails me that “everything is fine.” Nor does her reassurance erase past wrongs; on the contrary, it recognizes their scars and gently touches them. Everything is not fine; but within the parameters of the disaster that could be and the hope that persists wherever life is present, it is well enough to err on the side of hope.
Not everything is fine, and not everyone is well. The trauma of the past year and the traumas of our past lives continue to provoke those bodily reactions that accompany the announcement of news before it identifies itself as good, bad, or indifferent. I know it in my bones.
I am not a naturally kind person, but like many other things, I have learned tips from others, from watching and practicing, impersonating them. The social worker’s policy of kind communication, one that recognizes the past and provides soft padding to the present, whatever the future may bring, is one I am trying to adopt as part of my repertoire, a balm to soothe the troubled soma.
A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit. (Proverbs 15:4, NRSV)
The Revd Rosalind C Hughes is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing, published by Upper Room Books, and contributor to the RevGalBlogPals book. She blogs at over the water and her second book, Whom Shall I Fear: Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, is due out later this year. In amongst it all, she serves as Rector of the patient and supportive Church of the Epiphany (Episcopal) in Euclid, Ohio.
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2 thoughts on “The Pastoral is Political: a policy of kindness”
Incredibly sensitive and true.
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We live near a state park, where there was a horrible fire that killed 7 people and burned homes ten years ago. They’re doing much better on landscape management, but this requires setting “prescribed burns” frequently. Every time they do so, they send out social media and broadcast announcements, so that people know it’s not another wildfire, that the smoke isn’t a sign of danger, that everything is under control. It strikes me as such a kind thing to do, just to relieve anxiety and reduce the trauma as much as they can.
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