I have been exchanging emails with a good friend who is suffering through a difficult time just now. In her most recent email, she thanked me and said she felt “accompanied.” Her statement touched upon a concept that I learned only in the last few years: accompaniment.
Merriam-Webster defines accompaniment as: 1) (music) an instrumental or vocal part designed to support or complement a melody; and 2) an addition, such as an ornament, intended to give completeness or symmetry to something. Obviously, my friend did not mean either one of these definitions.
Renowned physician and anthropologist Paul Farmer uses the term accompaniment to refer to the approach one must take to be effective in global health, human rights, and sustainable human development. Accompaniment begins most simply with the idea of walking with those in need. Farmer says that he was introduced to the term by liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, OP. Accompaniment is related to solidarity, social justice, and the preferential option for the poor.
To accompany someone is “to go somewhere with him or her, to break bread together, to be present on a journey with a beginning and an end.” It is a sense of “I’ll share your fate for awhile, and by ‘awhile’, we don’t mean a little while.” Farmer believes that everyone who draws breath needs accompaniment at some stage of life and some need it more than others. “True accompaniment does not privilege technical expertise above solidarity or compassion or a willingness to face what may seem to be unsuperable challenges.” In other words, we may have the technical expertise to “fix” someone else’s problems, but what is more important is the willingness to stand compassionately with others even while they are in the midst of their problems.
My friend is not expecting me to find solutions to her difficulties. She is not even expecting that I have the right words to comfort her. She merely asks that I walk with her.
To learn more about accompaniment, I recommend In the Company of the Poor: A Conversation with Paul Farmer and Gustavo Gutierrez (Orbis, 2013). There are several videos on the Web of Paul Farmer’s addresses and interviews. I recommend “Accompaniment: Liberation Theology, Solidarity, and a Life of Service”, a conversation of Paul Farmer and Boston College Professor Roberto Goizueta, January 12, 2016. The video is about 75 minutes; they first talk about accompaniment about 20 minutes into the video.