“Please save my dolly” — on the sharing of experience and a politics of solidarity

A child with her doll sheltering from the bombing in Donetsk, Ukraine (Source: UNICEF)

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation 

(Click on this link to hear a recorded version of the following piece)


As a minister, I often find myself talking with and, in a painfully limited and inadequate way, trying to help, and finding help for, refugees and asylum seekers who, despite the many cruel and unfair blocks put in their way by the UK Government, have successfully made it to these shores seeking escape from poverty, hunger, fear, political and religious repression, and violence. 

Whenever I meet a refugee or asylum seeker — or indeed, for that matter, any British-born national who has become a refugee or asylum seeker from their own home because of domestic violence, bankruptcy, mental breakdown, drink or drugs — their unique, personal experiences are almost always profoundly shocking to me and almost always very different from my own. Because their identity is so uniquely theirs, and mine is so uniquely mine, the differences between us can sometimes feel so great that it seems almost impossible there could be any real communication and genuine sharing of experience between us.

Belief in insurmountable difference and uniqueness has, alas, become ever more widespread and deeply embedded in our individualistic, unique-selling-point, non-fungible-token obsessed culture, so much so that, in some quarters, personal identity has now become totally solipsistic and weaponised, and I’m sure many of you will have overheard at one time or another the claim that, “My identity is not your identity, so how dare you think you are able to share and understand my experience in any way.”

The result of this has been, of course, not greater human solidarity and justice for all but only deepening and widening division, conflict and competition.

But as a minister in the Unitarian and Universalist Christian tradition, my understanding of human identity is very different to this. My own Universalist hero and exemplar is George de Benneville (1703-1793) who, as you know from this church’s Sunday morning liturgy, proclaimed in the late-1700s that “The inner spirit makes us feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things” and that, therefore, we are called to “preach the universal and everlasting gospel of boundless, universal love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular.”

De Benneville powerfully believed that:

“The spirit of Love will be intensified to Godly proportions when reciprocal love exists between the entire human race and each of its individual members. That love must be based upon mutual respect for the differences in colour, language and worship, even as we appreciate and accept with gratitude the differences that tend to unite the male and the female of all species. We do not find those differences obstacles to love.”

But, for this Universalist aim to be genuinely meaningful it has to be true, no matter how factually divergent and apparently unique, that human experiences are eidetically analogous, which is simply the technical way of saying human experiences can, in some real fashion, accurately and vividly be shared with another person. If this were not generally the case we would all be condemned to live out our lives imprisoned in hermetically sealed, individual bubbles.

Both De Benneville’s and my own Universalist wager is that we are not so condemned.

So, in the midst of another rapidly developing war and refugee crisis, as a counter to our culture’s disturbing move away from a politics of solidarity and towards a politics of identity, I want to conclude my words for you this week with a brief story by the Czech philosopher Erazim Kohák (1933–2020) told whilst he was in America as a refugee from Communist-run, and later Soviet Russian invaded, Czechoslovakia. I offer it because it touchingly illustrates how human experience can be shared so as to create possibilities for a better understanding and solidarity amongst all the peoples of the world:

“A lifetime ago when my children were small, a tiny friend of theirs, rain-soaked and scared, knocked unannounced on our door on a stormy night. She drew a well-worn doll from under her coat and begged us anxiously, ‘Please save my dolly. Mummy wants to burn her.’ She disappeared as quickly as she had come. Only a year later, hiding behind a stack of canned soup in a supermarket, she whispered to me, ‘Mr Kohák, how is my dolly?’ When I last saw that house, the dolly was safe, tucked away with my own daughter’s old toys and a sprinkling of naphthaline under the time-darkened rafters in the attic. That girl was an American. She will never have to live through the fate of central Europe a generation ago. But she will understand, as few of her compatriots can, the desperate love of women going to their deaths who could save their children only by giving them away” (“The Embers and the Stars”, University of Chicago Press, 1984, pp.64-65).