I finished a book by Deborah O'Keefe called Good Girl Messages: How Young Women were Misled by their Favorite Books. In it, O'Keefe is critical of much of girls' literature produced between 1850 and 1950 because of the passivity it celebrated in girls and young women, manifested in such poses as fainting, reclining, smiling, submitting, weakening, wasting and dying.
O'Keefe goes on to maintain that very little genuine evil exists in classic girls' literature. Many books relay the message that a girl with a radiant, upbeat, smiling and helpful personality can melt crusty hearts and inspire a new level of generosity, vision and gentleness in formerly irascible authority figures. O'Keefe cites Pollyanna as one of the fictional heroines whose golden, sunbeam personality and determination to find the positive in everything changes her environment.
When I was reading this account of Pollyanna, I was nagged by a memory: at one point I happened to read an article in a New Age publication. A woman wrote about her elementary school daughter coming home from school moping every day because "her teacher didn't like her." The mother had no patience with this whining and told the daughter that if she smiled at the teacher more and was nice to her--if she practiced the good karma of positive thinking and sent that out into the world --the whole situation would change. The daughter took the advice, went out of her way to be nice to the teacher and voila, happy ending!
I have to say I was exasperated by the article. I have no doubt that a positive attitude can help us make our way through the world to some extent, but to elevate that to the status of life strategy seems to me inane at best and dangerous at worst. It's based on the assumption that we will spend our entire lives in safe, secure, middle class world where evil is kept firmly in check. It essentially assumes there is no real evil in the world, just something more akin to bad mood or a bad hair day. Nothing a smile won't dissolve!
The denial of evil is one of my chief problems with New Age philosophy, a philosophy which I think has seeped into Quakerism. I remember a woman standing up in our meeting during the height of the Darfur crisis (or at least the height of media coverage of the crisis) and stating she had not believed in the existence of evil until she started reading about the genocide, but now, even though she hated the word, she could draw no other conclusion but that there is evil in the world.
I wondered --OK, I was being judgmental-- "what universe has this woman been living in?" but then I thought, I'm glad she is seeing the light. Looking back, I realize she was courageous. I think it was hard for her to stand up and risk sounding fundamentalist or narrow minded. There was a denial of Self-- a surrender of her own will that the world be in happy harmony -- in speaking her truth. She was acknowledging that she could no longer live in that false reality. And oh, do we long for that to be the reality, that day when all tears will be wiped away!
I appreciate the Quaker emphasis on finding that of God in everyone, emphasizing grace over sin and understanding every person as having direct access to the light of the Holy Spirit. But if this slides into denying the existence of evil, then we become a society of Pollyannas, hoping to smile injustice away or to melt cruelty because of our radiant "patterns" of good living. Da Nile is a long river.
Humans repeatedly get caught up in social systems that make it easy for them to do heinous things. This does not mean that certain people are inherently evil, and others not. However, it might be a worthy goal, in the words of Dorothy Day, to build a society in which it is easier for people to be good. We can't do that by denying evil exists or by thinking we can eradicate evil with the vibes of our positive personalities.
One of the chief goals of religion is to teach people how to live in the world as it really is, not the world of distortions we create out of own desires. This is hard. It means we have to be transformed to see the distortions for what they are. It takes time, at least that's what I have found, which seems obvious, but read on ...
What most repels some Quakers I have talked to about the Bible is it's seemingly endless litany of unspeakable violence and suffering. Some Quakers want to create their own Bible out of the nice verses--the Peaceable Kingdom, the Sermon on the Mount, 1 Corinthians 13. I like these parts too. But unfortunately, the ultra violence of the Bible more accurately reflects the world we still live in. By telling us about that world and the often mistaken ways characters in that story behaved, the Bible offers us strategies to deal with reality. It doesn't tell us the false story that this world is great. Mostly, it tells us that living in this world is hard and that we have to sacrifice to build a better world, but that if we work at it we can build a community of love that is stronger than all the evil around us.
In contrast, the New Age worldview offers religion lite. You fly in for a weekend and you fly out "spiritually renewed." A New York Times story recently ran about three people dying in a sweat lodge run by a New Age guru named James Arthur Ray. Ray's retreat typifies what's wrong with this kind of so-called spirituality: middle-aged people paying more than $9,000--$9,000!!-- to fly to Arizona for a short course in becoming Spiritual Warriors that included the deadly sweat lodge only loosely based on Native American models.
A website the New York Times linked to at http://Newagefraud.org/ is eloquent in its pleas for people not to confuse New Age shams with genuine Native American religious practice: "Learning medicine ways takes decades and must be done with great caution and patience out of respect for the sacred. Any offer to teach you all you need to know in a weekend seminar or two is wishful thinking at best, fraud at worst. ..."
The Native Americans are saying just what serious spokespeople from other religious traditions say: Religion is hard! It takes time! Decades! It's messy, it's dirty, it's perilous, it changes us in ways that challenge our egos... we don't so much erase our egos as have to jump over the barrier they put up. That's why faith is so often likened to a seed or a plant (Christian tradition) that gets planted in "dirt" and takes a long time to sprout, or seen as something that has to take place with in the cycle of Nature (Native Americanism), not in a room, not in a weekend. It comes with messy traditions that we don't want to touch... but that's part of what we grapple with, the darker sides of our collective humanity ... and yet some Quakers seem to want to just build a high-walled garden and pull out all the "pretty" parts of the "spiritual life" for themselves and have a little dabble of Native Americanism, a few verses from the ever-popular poet Hafiz, some watered-down Zen Buddhism, a taste of Roman Catholic mysticism through Gerard Manley Hopkins ... how can that work?
Anyway, to what extent do you think Quakers are in Pollyanna mode when we "speak truth to power?"