Dictionary.reference.com defines solidarity as a union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests, as between members of a group or between classes, peoples. Whether it’s implied in the definition or not, I’ve always associated solidarity with a fierce loyalty, the romantic image of freedom fighters standing together against a common oppressor. Of course in recent days the romance has been totally removed with the sad news of Melbourne teenager, Jake Bilardi’s http://goo.gl/41Mjkq suspected involvement in a suicide bombing in Iraq on behalf of the Islamic State. The radicalisaton of Jake and others like him is a powerful reminder of what the promise of identity, purpose and belonging can do for someone who lacks it. Jake’s situation is sad with neighbours saying he had become more aloof and disconnected since his mother’s death in 2012.
It seems vulnerability led him to the internet where he was befriended by a propagandist from the Islamic State, which led to his eventual journey to Iraq via Turkey. My point in all of this is that perhaps Jake was looking for someone to stand with him in solidarity. Not to join him on his eventual quest, but to be close enough to him to hear his pain, to point him to meaning outside of his eventual choice towards violence and death. To help him sift through his beliefs and determine which ones were life giving and which ones would lead to death, his and others. Various politicians, includingGreens deputy leader and member for Melbourne Adam Bandt are calling for money to be given for on the ground responses, so that people in Jake’s situation are not radicalized. These issues are always so multi-faceted, whilst there may be the need for specialist programs, there is also an urgent need for communities to be strengthened so people like Jake don’t fly under the radar, so others who are experiencing pain and heart ache don’t turn to substance abuse, crime or worse.
However, our approach needs to be different. Quite often, in the past when money has gone into community strengthening, it has been used for bandaid measures, a picking up of individuals from the bottom of the cliff. Whilst necessary at times it is not a long term, sustainable approach to caring for and strengthening communities. Linked to this there is currently a lot of debate around the funding of welfare services and payments to people experiencing unemployment, disability etc. Australia has become known as the welfare state, a justifiable title, but have we really had people’s long-term interest at heart?
In days gone by the nuclear and extended family were seen as the main support for the individual experiencing difficulty. With an increase in mobility, family breakdown and estrangement, sadly for many this is no longer the case. Some would wistfully look back to those days and say we need to recapture our sense of extended family. They might be onto something as there is some evidence of an increase in 3 generation households. However for many they will never have that sense of family and here the community needs to play a part. I don’t think there would be much argument to the perception that as a nation we have generally become quite individualistic and our sense of community beyond our house and our interests is generally fairly limited.
A few years ago a friend and I tried to get a pilot program going called Spare Room. We were seeking to encourage people of faith who might have had a spare room to open their house and lives to a person experiencing homelessness. We worked hard to combat the stereotype of homeless people all being alcoholics and incredibly desperate and needy, we were offering support and training but to very little fruit. It is difficult for people to consider welcoming the stranger, offering hospitality with no strings attached.
But if we are to recognize our common humanity and to stand in solidarity with others, particularly those who are suffering, perhaps that is the response we need. We have become too reliant on the professionalization of care, seeing those hurting in our community pseudo cared for by workers that could never hope to replace the therapeutic value of a loving, embracing community, based on relationships of mutuality, concern and empathy.
If we are to go down this path, what will this cost us? Financially a lot less as a nation and as taxpayers, even if the cost of some of our caring was subsidized. As individuals, yep there would be a cost, a sacrifice, a giving up of something, but I wonder what the return would be. We know the accumulation of stuff and the pursuit of wealth are not a guarantee of happiness. We lament the loneliness and pain that at times we all feel, if we were to open our lives up to the stranger perhaps in some way that would be lessened and in helping we may even be helped.
Looking broader than our community, Alain de Botton writes on the news in his latest book (http://goo.gl/kK0Xef), raising questions about why some news stories grab us and others often leave us cold, including conflict and disasters from overseas. Aid agencies are well aware of compassion fatigue as the number of worthy causes around the world escalates. The challenge if we are to stand in solidarity is not to stare blankly at the screen and feel nothing when we see pictures of devastation, not to let $1.2billion be slashed from the Overseas Aid budget without batting an eyelid. Rather to let the pain of the world sink into the very depths of our being, not to become overwhelmed and to shut down, but to be touched at our core and in that way connect and stand in solidarity with those who are suffering. If we can do this perhaps we will have more empathy for those around us, those we are connected with who are doing it tough. And maybe then we will take part in the building of the community that we all need to thrive and flourish as human beings.