What We’ve Learned

In my bedroom, I keep a framed copy of Professor Dumbledore’s end-of-year speech from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I made it—because the first time I read the book, I knew I needed that text on my wall.

“The end of another year…Cedric Diggory was a good and loyal friend, a hard worker, he valued fair play. His death has affected you all, whether you knew him or not…Cedric Diggory was murdered by Lord Voldemort. The Ministry of Magic does not wish me to tell you this…it is my belief, however, that the truth is generally preferable to lies…

“[Our] aim [this year] was to further and promote magical understanding. In the light of what has happened – of Lord Voldemort’s return – such ties are more important than ever before…we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.

“Lord Voldemort’s gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great. We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust. Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open…

“Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right, and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.”

Dumbledore made a speech at the end of pretty much every school year. They weren’t all as memorable as that one. He was also imperfect; there were years when he said and did, in his end-of-year summation, things that (in my opinion) were biased, even flat-out wrong. But he always made the speech. He always took the time to consider what he—and his people—had learned, and he stood in front of the school and reflected it back to them.

For a group that so values continuing revelation, I sometimes feel as though we Quakers spend very little time reflecting on what we’ve learned. We do speak the things we’ve learned, and we spend a lot of time writing (both journals and reports), but we often speak and write these things as we’re learning them. We don’t always go back after the fact, crystalizing, reassessing, reviewing. And the process of reassessing and rearticulating is part of what cements new knowledge for learners. It also might keep us from reinventing the wheel.

I’ve often wondered what would happen if every state of the meeting report, every end-of-year committee report, every periodic answering of queries began with this question: What have you learned this year?

I’m no Dumbledore, and I haven’t been watching you all for the last 365 days, so I’m not going to try to reflect back to you what you have learned. But I am going to put into words the most important things that I’ve learned this year—and I invite you to do the same.

1) Even those of us who are deeply committed to the equality of all people—to naming this equality, to living it, to witnessing for it—are biased, often extremely so. This includes people I respect. This includes people I love. This includes me. It is a function of growing up in cultures that teach us to be biased. The ways in which this bias expresses itself are slippery and, to those of us showing the bias, often invisible. Behaviors and ways of speaking that we each consider “normal” are often exclusive in ways that we don’t understand. Feeling guilty about this is neither necessary nor helpful; guilt and shame tend only to put up walls that prevent us from listening and learning. The way forward is to listen when we are told that a certain pattern or behavior is racist, or ageist, or sexist, or homophobic, or ableist, and to believe the speaker and seek to understand why.

2) The fact that someone is angry does not indicate that they are wrong.

3) The gospel order method of dealing with conflict, as detailed in Matthew (first go to the person directly, then bring along an elder if the person doesn’t listen, then bring it to a larger group if that is still necessary) can work. When we are hurt or frightened or angry, it is phenomenally difficult to walk directly up to the person who’s hurting us and ask for a conversation and sit in worship with them and be vulnerable and talk the thing through. But it is worth trying, because it can work, and because it’s part of taking responsibility for the health of the community.

4) EXCEPT. The first step of that method, talking one-on-one, is not always healthy, especially in situations of a power differential. There are many reasons why one person might feel unsafe, or actually be unsafe, in a one-on-one situation. Sometimes it’s okay to skip to step two.

5) Even when it’s true, “this is the way things are done” is never acceptable as an answer when someone’s been hurt by the system. At the very least, engage with why this is the way things are done. And “this is the way things are done” is never more important than the health of the people as a whole. Or being faithful. Also, see #1.

6) God heals. I knew this before, but I learned it again.

7) And sometimes, God does not heal.

8) “Sabbath” doesn’t have to mean every-seven-days, but not to keep Sabbath at all is unfaithful.

9) Use everything God’s given you to do the work God’s given you. And the work God’s given you will likely not look like you would have imagined.

10) Speaking generally, you can’t make decisions about whether to trust, or whether to love, based on mathematics. Give humanity as a whole another chance.

One thought on “What We’ve Learned

  1. I think we could do this more easily if we reevaluated how we use minutes. We have a tradition of using the process of drafting a minute on a topic as a way of reflecting on, recording and sharing gathered knowledge. I much prefer that to the “minute as policy statement ” approach, which is disturbingly common.

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