Shadowing Pádraig Ó Tuama: The Political is Personal

This is part of an ongoing series on my month shadowing Pádraig Ó Tuama, poet, theologian, and leader of The Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland. To read the introduction to the series, click here. To read the rest of the series, click here

I’m sure all of us have heard someone say, “Don’t take it so personally; it’s just politics.” Maybe you’ve even said it. I probably have. Sometimes we assume that our political positions or actions shouldn’t hurt or offend someone—as if politics exist in the land of abstractions. Like it’s all just theory.

When Pádraig was giving a talk outside Belfast, he encouraged those listening to remember that in any given room, “some people will have theories, and some will have trauma.” And some people’s theories are other people’s traumas.

Everything political is personal for someone. Politics, at its etymological root, has to do with how we organize our lives and affairs with the people we live among. And how we live among each other affects us all in personal ways. For some reason, we think we can speak as if our political language shouldn’t wound others. Political language supports and creates policy, though, and policy directly affects people’s lives.

One of the basic rules for any facilitator is never to assume what’s in the room. You cannot know all the stories of pain people bring into a space, what battles they may be fighting, or what injustice is threatening them. This reality mustn’t make us paralyzed, afraid to say anything because we might say something wrong. Instead, it should cause us to take care, to pay attention to what we say and how we say it. What we may see as political—conversations on race, policing, immigration, abortion, or anything else—is personal for someone. And possibly for someone within earshot.

“Some people will have theories and some will have trauma,” Pádraig said. Another time, when he was speaking to a church about the inclusion of LGBTQ people, he reminded them—or perhaps informed them—that anytime they have a conversation about LGBTQ people and issues, there will almost certainly be a fearful, closeted person in the room. “What may feel like theoretical argument to us,” he said, “may cause others to go home and bleed.”

So take care in how we argue with one another. It’s not theoretical for everyone.

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