Leggings, Solidarity, and Suffering
Holding our relationships to a higher standard
For the past week and a half, campus, and apparently the country, has been up in arms over an opinion piece in The Observer titled, “The Legging Problem.” The article, which I won’t recap here, sparked multiple on-campus protests in which hundreds of students proudly donned leggings for the day.
I also put on my leggings for my Wednesday classes. But as I walked across campus or headed into lecture, I found myself having almost the same conversation over and over again: “Yeah,” a friend would tell me, “I’m wearing leggings in solidarity! That article was ridiculous!”
Whether or not the article was ridiculous, an understanding of solidarity grounded in matching clothing and shared outrage seems, to me, to be a simplification of a beautiful and desperately needed quality.
In his encyclical letter, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI writes: “the true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer.” Humanity is measured by the ways in which we live in relationship when it is most difficult. Suffering challenges, breaks, and burdens us. It can quickly isolate us, or separate us from our relationships. When we love well in suffering, not in spite of it, we are loving as we are called to. And, this relationship is more than just the acknowledgment of someone else’s suffering: “to accept the ‘other’ who suffers, means that I take up his suffering in such a way that it becomes mine also.”
That, dear readers, is what I want to say that solidarity is. It is shared outrage, sure. It can be recognition and resistance to injustice, absolutely. But it seems to me that solidarity exists most profoundly where it is hardest to find: in the taking up of another’s cross as my own. By sharing in suffering, being in solidarity with another in their pain, light, and love enters in.
In this solidarity in suffering we encounter Christ in a powerful way. Jesus Christ became man so that he could suffer “for and with us”. “Man is worth so much to God that he himself became man in order to suffer with man in an utterly real way” (Spe Salvi). In our pain, underneath the weight of our crosses, we remember that he lived in that same pain, underneath the weight of his own cross. Solidarity is not found in a Facebook-organized leggings protest: it is found on a tree on Calvary.
That is, of course, a challenging example to live out. I do not handle suffering as well as I would like to. When I encounter hurt, it’s often with discomfort. I feel useless, unable to fix things, and eager to escape that feeling. It is easy to feel insufficient when others are suffering. But God is not calling me to be the perfect fix-it-girl. He is not asking me to have all the answers. When I am blessed enough to have a friend approach me in their suffering, they don’t want me to rattle off a solution. They are just asking me to be with them.
As much as I want to fix everything—to end the hurt, heal the pain, calm the anxiety, shut out any and all darkness—I cannot do that, for myself or for those I love. What I can do is be in solidarity, simply in presence. For me, that has been a friend sitting with me on a chapel floor, staring at the tabernacle. It’s been a cold walk around the lakes, or a meal that is longer than it “should” be, because of a conversation that needed to be had. It is, and ought to be, quiet prayer intentions, tight hugs, shared tears, vulnerable moments, and admittance of weakness that allow us to be more fully and completely human.
If we approach solidarity with compassion, if we suffer with, we might be able to set aside the instinct to fix, and settle instead for the presence and empathy that we can offer. And if we enter into that compassion with consolation, if we are with those we love in their solitude, suffering ceases to exist in isolation. We then exist in solidarity, not because we offer solutions, but because we are willing to be present.
Solidarity is difficult. Asking for the presence of others, even those you know love you, is hard—I can be really bad at it. But by entering into real and intentional relationships, we find people who can, imperfectly and temporarily, help us to carry what we must. Those people, in turn, point us to the One that, perfectly and eternally, carries us.
Maybe, if we start to do that, we can live out relations in love and leave pants protesting in the past.
Maggie Garnett is a freshman studying Theology and Constitutional Studies. She owes much of this piece to Fr. Kevin Grove and his Foundations of Theology Seminar. Chat with her about how amazing BXVI is at firstname.lastname@example.org.