Let’s say that every summer Roger and I go to a Quaker “camp.” Every summer, “George,” let’s say, greets me with a smile and big hug. He remembers the names of my three children and asks after them. Then he sits down with me in one of the pairs of colorful Adirondack chairs scattered around the camp’s lawn and asks how I am doing—and I tell him. He listens intently, nods sympathetically.
Naturally, I like George. But by year three at this camp, I begin to notice something: George’s friendly greeting seems, well, canned: same smile, same hug, same exact question about my three children and same period of seemingly intent listening in the Adirondack chairs. Everything's fine, but our relationship seems just as distant as it was when we first met, as if George is using all his friendliness to try to keep me at bay.
That year, George invites a popular group of people to go into the nearby mountain town to listen to a talk about poetry. I am standing there too—and George, after all our conversations, surely remembers I am a literature person—but he pointedly doesn’t invite me after carefully inviting everyone else by name. Does he not want me to come or has he forgotten after all our conversations that I would love to go to a talk on Auden? Either way, I wander off.
A week later, back at home, over breakfast, I ask Roger about George, knowing that Roger has always instinctively veered away from him. “He’s so friendly to me at the camp," I begin, "but I also start to get the impression he could care less if I lived or died. He always wants to hear what I have to say—and even got me an alternative to blueberry muffins the first year [I am allergic to blueberries]—but he doesn’t seem to see me as a real person. Why does he do this? Why does he always act so glad to see me, almost overjoyed, if he doesn’t care about me? Why bother? I am no power. I am a nobody. I am not a weighty Friend.”
Roger stares at me as if to say, “how could somebody so smart be so stupid?” “Don’t you get it?” he asks.
“George is a word that rhymes with pony.”
A word that rhymes with pony. “Oh. That word.”
“Yes. A Quaker pony.”
It all falls into place. George is a good guy, but ultimately, at least in relating to me, he is a … pony. And I realize he is not the only Quaker pony I've met.
I think about this for a long time because I wonder why it is so hard for me to connect Quakers with … ponyness. I wonder if I, too, am unwittingly, a pony. It occurs to me that perhaps this is especially a concern for Quakers to grapple with, as “professing what you don’t possess--” another formulation for being a “pony”-- is particularly at odds with the Quaker testimony of plain speaking and plain dealing. So why do we do it? Why aren't we more honest? And yet ...
I think back, however, to a few summers ago at the same camp, when a cosseted young birthright Friend responded to a new Friend by stating “You know what? I don’t like you.” This new person, although good-hearted soul, had a nervous habit of saying borderline mean things as “jokes.” The Friend was right to be annoyed, but telling him she didn’t like him, if honest, was hurtful and not helpful. (It might have been better to say I don’t like it when you tell those ”jokes.”) In any case, an awkward few seconds passed, everyone as riveted as if she had slapped him, until he saved himself through abjection, saying, “You wouldn’t be the first one not to like me.”
So, “letting it all hang out” can also be destructive to community. Civility, gentleness and compassion matter. Surely we want to avoid being brutal, cruel and thoughtless.
But as I think back to “George,” I wonder, if, as is clear, he was fairly indifferent to me—which is fine, as we can’t all love everybody—why he went out of his way to pretend otherwise, to offer what might be deemed an excess of civility?
More next time, but any insights are welcome.
End of part I