Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Quaker Ponies, Part II: I have called you friends

"I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you". John 15:15
"If you meet me in the road, kill me." Buddha to his disciples

I remember an evening years ago on the porch of my Quaker meeting house in Maryland, discussing Thomas Kelly's A Testament of Devotion. A well-respected Quaker said she couldn't decide her opinion of the book. Why not, we asked? She would have to meet Thomas Kelly first, she said, and evaluate the man before she could evaluate his work. 

This, I think, lies at the heart at what encourages Quaker "poniness." A Quaker "pony"--pony rhymes with another word--is someone who professes more than he or she possesses, someone who pretends.

Poniness particularly stabs at the heart of Quakerism because we stake so much on integrity. Much of our identity lies in plain speaking and honest acting, saying what we mean and meaning what we say. We strive to be the same inside as out. 

But in a faith group that levels hierarchy, that has no paid priesthood and no accepted path to ordination that sets some apart as leaders and sages, we face the same problem as the Friend who didn't know what to think of Thomas Kelly: How do we decide who to emulate?  Whose wisdom should we trust and follow? How do we find our elders, mentors, and wise counselors?

In absence of other criteria, it often comes down to personality and presentation. Who presents best as a Quaker? Which person seems like one of us? Who most conforms to our image of what a wise or weighty Quaker should be? 

If you have been around Quakers any length of time, you know how a wise, weighty Friend is supposed to look, dress and sound. Weighty Friends speak in a quiet voice, reflecting the peace inside their souls. (How many times do elderly Friends have to ask weighty Friends to speak up?) Weighty Friends are serious and filled with gravitas. They speak slowly. They support the right kind of causes, preferably heavily tilted toward the ecological and social justice. They use the right language of Light, Peace and Love. They clerk Quaker committees. Ideally, they show up to conferences in a Priuses--or having hiked or biked with their tent in tow and wearing all natural fabrics.

Woe to the woman who wears too much makeup. Woe to the man who drives up in a Cadillac or talks too fast. Woe to John Woolman when he showed up in a white hat when white hats were disdained as a worldly fashion statement. His fellow Quakers condemned him on appearances, although he was following the simplicity testimony.

When everything rides on how you outwardly present, the temptation to become a "pony" can become intense. 

But how do we discern our mentors and elders if not by how they present--doesn't the mature soul in touch with the Divine Source shine outward like a light? Yes--and so do ponies. 

At a conference I recently attended, someone came into a workshop all aglow and announced with great excitement she had just found a new "mentor" to "guide her." The mentor, I thought, looked very much like her. Is she creating an echo chamber, I wondered, surrounding herself with people who mirror back herself?  How, after all, at the end of a one-day workshop could she know the soul--really know the soul--of a person she'd just met? Wasn't she responding, however sincerely, to an appearance?

Herein lies the real issue: should we be looking for elders or mentors at all? Some might rise up naturally to fill that role--but should we be seeking these people or trying, self-consciously, to be that person? After all, didn't Jesus himself explicitly shed that role? Didn't he tell his disciples, in plain language, don't look to me as master or mentor, but look to me as a friend? Didn't he say he had already given the disciples-- us-- what they/we needed? Didn't Buddha command his own followers to do essentially what Jesus enacted: If you see me in the road, kill me? Jesus let himself be killed. Buddha commanded, "kill me." 

Jesus said treat me as a friend, not a superior. Don't we need to pay attention to what he was trying to communicate?

Both Jesus and Buddha told people to be real. "I have called you friends" is simply a continuation of Jesus' admonition that his disciples not be constantly jockeying for position. To jockey for position almost inevitably leads us to become ponies. Because in the end, humbling as it might be, we're really not better than anyone else.

I admit to a certain weariness in attending Quaker events where people either try to be elders or hunt out elders. We border at times perilously close to a cult of personality. How much desperately needed wisdom and guidance do we miss because we spend too much time evaluating what "we" think of person A, instead of listening to what that person has to say? What if Thomas Kelly actually had been a jerk: Does that mean God couldn't use him as a messenger? Mightn't we have been called on the love him all the more?

The real secret hidden in plain sight is that we all fail and soar at times. No one can possibly be an elder every single of second of his life and nobody who relies wholly on another human can fail to be disappointed. 

But we can all be friends.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Could this explain Quaker stagnation?

This is from theverge.com, originally from a Washington Post story. People would apparently rather give themselves electric shocks than sit with their own thoughts.

One caveat may make this study flawed: More men than women gave themselves repeated electric shocks. I wonder, given the machismo in our society, if the men--and some women-- actually got engaged in testing their pain endurance. In other words, was sitting in silence so odious that they would hurt themselves to avoid it or was sitting in silence not so bad, but less interesting than the  positive reinforcement feedback loop--a proof of masculinity (even in women)--created in withstanding repeated shocks? Were the participants so desperate to avoid their own thoughts they would do anything to escape them--or was the shocking a fascinating test?

"The experiment was simple. All the participants had to do was enter an empty room, sit down, and think for six to 15 minutes. But without a cellphone, a book, or a television screen to stare at, the assignment quickly became too much to handle. In fact, even when individuals were given time to "prepare" for being alone — meaning that they were able to plan what they would think about during their moments of solitude — the participants still "found it hard," Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study, told The Washington Post. "People didn’t like it much."

So the researchers decided to give each participant the option of doing something else, besides just thinking. But what they came up with wasn’t exactly pleasant because, instead of just sitting there, participants were now also allowed to shock themselves as many times as they liked with a device containing a 9 volt battery. Still, for many, that option seemed like a better deal.
Most of the people who decided to shock themselves did so seven times. These results baffled the researchers. "I mean, no one was going to shock themselves by choice," Wilson, told The Washington Post in reference to his initial position during the conception of the study, published yesterday in Science. One man even gave himself 190 electric shocks over a period of 15 minutes, Wilson told The Atlantic, but his data points weren’t included in the final analysis. "I’m still just puzzled by that."

Still, the fact that they chose to shock themselves at all, on their own, was unexpected. And this had nothing to do with curiosity about what the shocks would feel like, because the researchers made sure that each individual received a shock before the beginning of the session.
Yet, people voluntarily shocking themselves repeatedly wasn’t the only surprise. According to the researchers, men showed a marked preference for the negative stimulation. Out of 24 women, only six decided to shock themselves, but 12 out of the 18 male participants figured electric shocks were worthwhile. This, the researchers hypothesize, might have to do with the fact that men appear to be more willing to take risks for the sake of a intense and complex experiences than women.
The results of this study are tentative, however, and the sample sizes — a total of 11 experiments that included between 40 and 100 university students each — were fairly small, so researchers will need to repeat them. But for now, it would appear that humans, especially men, seem to prefer receiving negative, even painful stimulation, to suffering through the bouts of obligatory "mind-wandering" — which you could also call "boredom," depending on how you want to look at it."

The study was very small too. Yet if people can't bear sitting with their own thoughts--or in the Inner Light--for even a few minutes, this is food for thought. I believe the world desperately needs to get still and sit in the Light, but it may be that we are throwing people who really can't swim into the deep end of the pool without a life preserver when we ask them to jump into an hour of silence.