I’ve been thinking about mutual aid a lot lately — the way that it is a tool that is used to show compassion and build community. How it is a method of saying I care about you or We’re in this together or even I love you. How it allows us to be useful or find purpose or give back to a community that has previously supported us.
A simple way to define mutual aid, if you’re not familiar with the term, is a voluntary, reciprocal exchange of resources and services for the benefit of all involved.
Mutual aid is, for practical purposes, a difficult thing to explain because it has the potential to be so multifaceted — and often is. The exchange of resources and services is usually more complex than apples to apples, and the time lapse between exchanges can vary. I point this out, because sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of mutual aid when it doesn’t come in our expected time frame, or in an expected way. It can be easy to lose sight of mutual aid if the thing we need most in a particular situation isn’t being given to us (having our proverbial cups filled) — and so we find it difficult to see, or accept, the other forms of mutual aid that are potentially being offered.
My first notable experience of mutual aid occurred in 2008, when a brand new friend wouldn’t let me pay her back for my half of a small thing she bought for us to share. “I think it all comes out in the wash,” she said. I was skeptical. That hadn’t been my experience, and I think I said as much.
But, it did. It has. It continues to. Our friendship runs deep and trying to describe it wouldn’t do it justice. That’s the way it always seems to go with friendship. I drafted, again and again, a paragraph trying to explain my friendship with the person who I first heard the term mutual aid from — and nothing seemed adequate. Suffice to say that friend, who I met volunteering at a soup kitchen, opened my eyes to a lot and has cared about me and fought for me and worked to lift me up again and again. He was, and is, willing to love me for me. Suffice to say, I hope I’ve done the same for him and that he’ll continue to let me.
Mutual aid has been on my mind, in part, because I find myself feeling driftless among a sea of communities. I’m drifting to find purpose and to get my various needs met. I’m drifting because the mutual aid that I once had easy access to is less easily accessible now, due to a variety of factors that have changed in my life over the last year.
Mutual aid has also been on my mind as I’ve talked with, and worked with, people experiencing a variety of things — neurodivergence, abusive relationships, divorce, the death of a parent or close friend or partner, homelessness, addiction, suicidal ideation, pregnancy and children being (difficult) children, the beginning or end of a relationship, moving to a new place, joblessness and job-hating.
Because, let’s face it, life and our life experiences, influence our ability to participate in mutual aid. What we can give of ourselves fluctuates. About 6 months after I moved to my current city, because of a variety of circumstances, I faced being homeless*. A good friend offered me a place to stay, if I could find a place for my pup — despite the fact that that might have made his living situation much more complicated.
This was an act of kindness and beauty and mutual aid.
I volunteered with this friend once a week at a place where he was, and is, for all intents and purposes running the organization. We bantered a lot. I’m sure he could see the distress written on my face each week — and if not, my tears anytime anyone asked me about my home or life should have made it plenty obvious. He didn’t push too hard. For my part, I kept showing up to that volunteer activity even as I was dropping out of the rest of my life and ending any other obligation I could. Continuing to show up and volunteer was all I could offer at the time because all my other energy was being poured into just surviving the factors that put me in that situation to begin with.
I’ve never told him this, but on some level, that offer saved my life.
The fact that he continued to be present with me, even just once a week also helped save my life.
Which is, I guess, kind of my point in this post. We don’t know what’s going to save someone. We don’t know what others are going through or how their life experiences have shaped their current world view. We don’t know how hard it might be for someone to ask for help or to accept it or even to offer it.
We also largely don’t know how to talk about mutual aid. I still don’t know how to talk with it very well with people who don’t already talk about it, but if this is all new to you here are some examples: We exchange books. We exchange ideas. We bring groceries to someone who can’t go get them without any expectation of anything in return because community. We stay sober when we go out to support a friend who has decided they need to choose sobriety. We make dinner together or use our relative privileges to aid someone else in the ways we can — money, a ride, an amplified voice, a hot meal on a cold day, a lunch and a sympathetic ear to someone’s heartbreak because someone once did this for us. We swap massages for editing work or fire cider for a cup of coffee and a conversation. We travel to help a community that isn’t ours that’s in distress (i.e. – think of communities coming together to offer support after a flood or other natural disaster). We offer up our homes. We reach out to someone who is new to town, who is ending a relationship, who has lived through the death of a loved one or a tough medical diagnosis and see what they need — and then provide what we can. We listen as others rage against oppression or we rage with them or we co-conspire. There are so many examples. So many.
But we live in a system that is focused on capitalism. We live in a culture that holds fiercely to the myths of bootstraps and independence and hard-work-as-redemption, without realizing how much this alienates us from one another. How much it serves to divide us. How this perpetuates the myth of hyper-independence and subsequently the sense of shame and subsequent isolation that comes for so many if they can’t live up to this myth.
And if we can’t figure out how to talk about mutual aid — and to make it a more regular part of our lives (even if we already practice it), we will allow ourselves to continue to be divided. We’ll continue to think in terms of us and them. We allow a system that convinces us that we are failures or other people are, and as a society we largely numb those feelings through consumerism or our drug of choice (and let’s, for the sake of transparency, absolutely include sugar, caffeine, sex, and exercise in that list of drugs of choice) or other distractions.
What would happen if we said enough was enough and we opted out of the dominant narrative in favor of cultivating a new narrative? What would happen if we all engaged in more acts of mutual aid (both giving and receiving)? If we decided to trust that, mostly, it all comes out in the wash?
*A different friend, who I lived with at the time, was advocating hard on my behalf to keep this from happening, but our house-community had imploded and I wasn’t confident that he would be able to succeed in that advocacy.
TL;DR: Mutual aid is critical for our survival. We’ve got to talk about it. Talking about it will be hard.