Last November, New York Yearly Meeting had a number of potentially difficult pieces of discernment to do. The fall sessions agenda almost had the look of a list of greatest hits in terms of “things Quakers get passionate about, and not all in the same direction.” I was a little keyed up going into it. So were a lot of people.
Spoiler alert–we did just fine. But one of my favorite moments was when a Friend rose during meeting for business and asked a super-articulate, obviously thoughtful, extremely specific question that made no sense at all. It stopped the room cold. It wasn’t the fact that she wasn’t making sense; Friends often say things that don’t make much sense. But her tone and vocabulary were so rational, so measured, that it seemed like she should be making sense. So it was weird.
After a moment, someone ventured, “Um . . . is it possible you’re talking about the wrong agenda item?”
She was. We were on Item #2; her question referred to Item #3. And in that context, it would have made perfect sense (and did, twenty minutes later, when she repeated it). We all laughed, including the Friend who had made the mistake. The confusion, in that case, was harmless.
But often, confusion isn’t harmless. In the past few weeks, I’ve been sharing elements that need to be in place for meetings before they are ready for culture change. The fourth and final one is this: A meeting that is prepared for culture change will commit to clear communication and mutual transparency. Nothing gets hidden under the rug. An unknown future is difficult enough; we can’t engage with the unknown future when we’re also using energy to deal with an unknown present or an unresolved past.
There’s a lot to unpack there, but I want to emphasize the last sentence, which says that we can’t engage with an uncertain future (change) if we’re also spending physical, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual energy on our anxiety about either the present or the past.
If we’re not communicating clearly and transparently–in other words, if some of us have one understanding about what’s going on while others have a different understanding–then we’re creating anxiety about the present. We demand sameness, or lack of change, moving forward because we’re so busy feeling uncertain about what’s happening now that we can’t possibly deal with uncertainty about the future as well.
And if we have buried conflicts, things we’ve never resolved, in our past, we’re spending emotional energy on keeping those buried. Our energy is going toward dealing with the past, so we can’t summon enough to engage meaningfully with the future. Therefore, again, we demand sameness, or lack of change, so that at least we know what to expect down the road.
A meeting that’s prepared for culture change will have dealt with its past and made its present transparent. Then, Friends will be equipped to dive into the future, the (only remaining) unknown.
(In other words, if you’re looking at Agenda Item #2, make sure that everybody else is, as well.)