I recently got nominated for an award at work and this week was the conference where the winner was announced. What made me proud to be nominated was the fact that this particular award was about encouraging others. It was about drawing out and developing the ideas of other people; it was about getting folk to think about their ideas from another angle and make them even better; it was about building up people whose ideas I didn’t even agree with – helping them understand the big picture and opening myself to the idea that I might in fact be the one in the wrong. It wasn’t about me at all – but what I could do to serve others. And it made me really happy that the place where I work would recognise that kind of work, that they see the value in folks who aren’t just out for themselves. It’s rather refreshing.
I’d like to think that this kind of behaviour characterises not only that one aspect of my work life, but all of it. I’d also like to think it characterises all of my interactions in life, in my various friendship groups, in church, with family, with the folk that I share everyday community with. It’s certainly my aim – I’m not entirely convinced that I hit that bullseye every time. But I’ll tell you this, friendships based on this type of interaction often prove to be the strongest. They also prove to be the powerful engines that can change the way we all interact within our society as a whole. It’s these kind of mutually encouraging friendships, relationships where each member lifts the other over self and communities of submission that provide the real revolutions of history.
And this is why I love the women of “The Help” so much. Because here I see women supporting, encouraging and sublimating their own wants. I so love the line where Aibeline says to Skeeter “What if you don’t like what I have to say about white people?” and Skeeter’s answer is ” This isn’t about me. It doesn’t matter how I feel.” That is how it should be when we tell our stories, when we get others to tell their stories and when we share community.
I wrote a few weeks ago now about my frustration with the portrayal of the “mean girl” as the natural state of women and (in some cases) as a behaviour to be admired and emulated. In this story of “The Help” I find the final (for now) response to my question “Are girls really wired this way”.
Not only do we have Skeeter drawing the stories out of the women known as “the help”, in a way where she shares their story, where it’s just as much her story as theirs, where she risks social and legal censure for merely sharing the story. No, not only that. And not only the wonderful, damaged, mother figure of Aibeline who is determined to give the children in her care the best start in life – despite the fact they may very well grow into the very people who use fear and control to keep people like her in their place – perhaps the encouraging words she uses are as much a form of defence as of building up her little charges. Aibeline exemplifies what it really means to love our enemies – these people who by their utter indifference killed her son. She says it herself that loving your enemy is hard, “but it starts by telling the truth.” And she not only tells the truth in the general sense through the stories she shares with Skeeter, but she faces the classic ‘Mean Girl’ Hilly Holbrook (whose cruelty, bullying and vileness has taken a toll on almost everyone she encounters, including a physical toll on herself) and tell her in no uncertain terms that she is a godless woman. Aibeline does not stand by meekly when faced with Hilly’s final attempt to silence her – having been given the strength to speak by being asked what it feels like to be her, by being seen by Skeeter and the audience of the book as a person, rather than “the help” – she can firmly speak the truth to Hilly. It’s not your expected “fluffy” love your enemies moment, but it’s a genuine moment, a truly loving moment because it potentially could lead to Hilly’s change of heart, attitude and a redemption for even the worst of enemies.
And then there’s Minnie and Celia. A friendship where acceptance heals them both. Where generosity, acceptance and treating the other as humans gives the other strength and a peace they did not think they had. Celia and Johnny, by treating Minnie to a feast and being truly welcoming give her the strength to leave her abusive husband. In turn, Minnie by her presence, her truth and her spark of joie de vivre gives Celia a hope she had lost – in Johnny’s words “She’s been better since you came.”
If I could have any goal, it would be that someone would say to me that things are better because of me. If I can make one person feel like they’ve been heard, that their story has been shared, that they can look at tomorrow with more hope than they woke up with today. That’s what girls are really like. And boys too. All of us – what we’re wired for is community, is for encouragement, is for not talking about each other as “them” or “they” but as “us”. What we’re wired for is sharing the credit, sharing the load, sharing the blame. What we’re wired for is using words that build up, not knock down; using words to contribute, not to lay claim; using words for truth. So once in a while tell yourself, tell your friends tell your enemies (be honest, we ALL have them) that one phrase that gives power and worth to us all – You is smart, you is kind, you is important.