Companionship in a time of change

By Jill Segger
December 16, 2020

There were two shelves of Everyman Library classics in my childhood home. These had largely been acquired second hand and I remember them as being in varying conditions of well-thumbed tattiness. The subdued colouring of the bindings with their tarnished gold patterning appealed to my slightly melancholy nature and were an important part of my early years of reading and discovery. As I ventured deeper and further into their browning pages, the foundations of a lifelong habit were being laid, and together with that, a gently burgeoning sense of what it meant to be accompanied.

The motto, which memory tells me was on the spines, though I am ready to be corrected, was both strange and comforting to my child's mind: "Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side". It imbued the volumes which I took with me to school, to bed, into the back yard and onto buses, with a reassuring character which was at the same time, a little challenging. I was not to be allowed to roam in a random manner, nor to remain unfocused for too long, but would be guided and nudged into fruitful pathways. It also acknowledged my only-child's need for something which could not be expressed, but was understood and did not require justification. It promised me a relationship which might not always be comfortable, but would have a quality of steadfastness.

There are obvious differences between the companionable state and that of friendship. Both relationships however, are likely to fluctuate over time as we ourselves change and develop. But to be a companion on the way is not a lesser condition, though it may be more intermittent and less intimate. The companion way can survive periods of absence, of dipping in and out, without leaving hurt and disappointment in its wake simply because it does not depend on the one-to-one nature of personal friendships. We may be companionable with individuals, but perhaps more often with groups and organisations with whom we share some commonalities of purpose, vision or discovery.

Our culture has become very fragmented. There is a marked tendency for people to identify themselves within quite narrow bounds and therefore to be less inclined to engage with the thinking and experience of those who are not part of their group. It seems that identity politics is discouraging us from curiosity and from forbearance with others: “he would say that wouldn't he..?” or “but what about her supporting X?” when expressing appreciation for something done by an individual or group with whom we might otherwise share very little, but which may have spoken to us. It seems that all or nothing is the increasingly the way for a great many people. Of course, it is some degree of shared values which brings us together. But that is never going to be a matter of 100 per cent unanimity for 100 per cent of the time. It may be in those frictions which inevitably arise that the spaces of learning are opened up. The worst outcome of culture hostility – even where that falls short of the outright war currently being fomented at every turn – is that we cease to consider it possible that we may be mistaken or that we might benefit from the slightly different point of view which has grown out of a different experience. Thus do we lose sight of, and insight into, each other.

To be in company along the way is enlarging. It has the capacity to shake us out of complacency and deny us the comfort of confirmation bias. When that service is rendered by others who have freely chosen to accompany us, the outcome is likely to be mutually nourishing. The literal meaning of the word makes this clear: a companion is one with whom you share bread – you might say, a messmate.

Listening, learning, forbearing and exercising humility seems a good way to navigate our journeying. In a time of rapid and frightening change, beginning to build forward better will require that we learn to build on what we have in common in order to use difference constructively. To be guide and companion "in thy most need” is both promise and challenge. It’s a good combination.


© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. She is the author of Words out of Silence published by Ekklesia in May 2019. The book is available here and here. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

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