Monthly Archives: May 2022

A Living, Breathing Blessing

Nothing is the same as two years ago. The general condition of the Religious Society of Friends seems hard to perceive. With few in-person visits, I rarely hear the unguarded moments over coffee pots where truth is told. Even formal reports are less accessible. That’s ironic; they’re all online now, so surely, they’d be more accessible, except I tire of videoconference events. My body and spirit long to be outside moving.
 
How are we, as Friends? My best sense: coping. Truth told, as organizations, we are barely doing that. Quaker institutions of all sizes struggle to find enough volunteers. Staff turnover seems high. Various groups are internally squabbling or fracturing. Some yearly meetings aren’t really functioning. Many pastoral meetings are looking for new pastors now or have just hired new ones. Monthly meetings don’t seem very sure of who they are.
 
I suspect this stems from us all as individuals. We’re tired. We’re aging considerably faster than the chronological calendar is moving…stress and isolation do that to people. Politically and culturally, quite a lot feels very scary, and it’s worth noting that this is true for people from nearly all political and cultural backgrounds. In this time of extraordinary fear, there’s a doctrine of ideological purity in which many have taken shelter. It tells us we must accept wholesale one set of beliefs or another and that moderation and compromise are fundamentally unethical, not to mention dangerous. And some who would be willing to engage and cooperate across differences are afraid to do so publicly because of the censure and ostracism that often result.
 
When I do witness joyful, beautiful, life-giving moments, they’re often small, between just a few people. Someone opens a door for someone else. Strangers watch a toddler discover gravity. Relative to international warfare, starvation, and human rights violations, such moments seem completely inconsequential. But they are not. We are social creatures made by God to live in community, and we require enormous amounts of ordinary kindness—both giving and taking—in order to thrive, not just cope, in this world. 
 
It makes me think about the famous Fox quotation.  We often say “there is that of God in everyone,” but what he really said was considerably more complex.
 
“Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come…”  Not in just the right places, or the comfortable places, but wherever we happen to be.
 
“…that your carriage and life may preach…”  Not our words, but our carriage and life, including all the boring bits, like greeting the bus driver and retweeting a meme and answering phone calls from Aunt Sophia.
 
“…among all sorts of people, and to them…” Not people with whom we agree, not people we respect, not people we like, but all sorts of people.
 
“…then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world…” Remember what it’s like to walk cheerfully? There have been times in the last two years when I’ve found it nearly impossible to access that feeling. But Fox said that this can and will happen again, if we can practice being patterns and examples.
 
“…answering that of God in everyone…” Which presupposes, if we are answering, that that of God is speaking in others first. What an amazing presumption.
 
“…whereby in them you may be a blessing…” To answer that of God in everyone is to be a living, breathing blessing.
 
“…and make the witness of God in them to bless you.”  And to be a living, breathing blessing causes us to be blessed, too.

tl;dr

I listened to a podcast this week that reminded me of some research I’ve heard about before. In this case, the story began with the British parents of Muslim children who’d been born and raised in the United Kingdom, made it all all the way through medical school in London, and then astonished everyone by abruptly moving to the Middle East and joining ISIS. Their families were fearful for their children’s lives, horrified by their children’s actions, and extraordinary dismayed–how could this have happened? To their children, who’d gone to ordinary schools in a pluralistic society and worshipped at moderate mosques and faithfully called their parents every weekend? How could there have been no prior warning whatsoever?

A pair of sociologists filled in the details. They explained a research-based theoretical framework about extremist groups and young people. The basic idea is that, in such cases, the most powerful influence over a young person is their friends, and that influence becomes almost insurmountable when the friends articulate a particular kind of message. The unbeatable message is any message that talks about a greater purpose, a fight against oppressors, self-sacrifice, and glorious legacy. These med students had encountered other twenty-somethings who pitched the story of ISIS as a self-sacrificial freedom fight. The actual ideology of the group, according to these sociologists, was probably irrelevant to the students’ motivations. What hooked them was the promise of a dangerous greater purpose. (And once they’d physically entered ISIS camps, other forces kicked in, and they weren’t permitted to leave no matter what.)

Consider, the theory goes, the competing story from the students’ families. What did they preach? “Calm down; go slowly; use good sense and moderation.” That message is not exciting. And once the students had devoted themselves to the greater purpose narrative, such a message could not possibly reach them. Inherent in the extremist belief system is the idea that one’s greater purpose is more important than anything else, including one’s family and other personal relationships, and giving up these relationships only feeds the self-sacrificial feeling.

Wow. This concept resonates with me. I’ve never joined a terrorist group and would very much like to think I never would, but the search for a greater purpose (and the tendency toward self-sacrifice) is familiar. Some of you will understand my shorthand when I say that I’m an enneagram one. Not all people are motivated in precisely the same ways, but a fair share of us are drawn to big purpose and self-sacrifice (regardless of one’s enneagram type or whatever other personality test you want to reference). Many people would rather have meaning than comfort.

This tendency might be even stronger in adolescents and twenty-somethings, whose prefrontal cortexes often haven’t finished developing. It means they’re more likely to make decisions using impulsive centers in the brain. They’re also unlikely to accurately assess risk to their own safety. Various scientists have different ideas about why our prefrontal cortexes develop so late, but I like the woolly mammoth theory (that’s my own phrase, not anything you’re going to find in a peer-reviewed journal). Back when we were hunter-gatherers, it was to the community’s advantage if young people were mildly stupid risk-taking glory seekers. Somebody had to be willing to hunt the woolly mammoth. Doing it might get the hunters killed, but if they succeeded, the whole community would eat for the entire winter. So young people’s brains evolved to prioritize glory over caution.

Or–it could’ve been God’s idea. It does still have advantages today. Young people do all kinds of wild things, some of which result in innovations that benefit all of society.

Anyway…for most people who are hungering for greater purpose, regardless of age, “calm down; go slowly; use good sense and moderation” is not a message that’s likely to get through. But at this moment in time, I think it’s essential. Yes, we face enormous injustices that need to be resolved yesterday. Yes, God calls us to speak and act prophetically. But at the same time, I don’t see much convincing evidence that extreme and unyielding ideas, alliances, and actions are at all effective in addressing most issues. Extremism seems to breed more extremism, on both the same and the opposing side. If we can’t talk about things, acknowledge complexity, and compromise, we don’t move forward from an oppositional stalemate.

(And right there is where my message gets boring. “Acknowledge complexity?” tl;dr)

Except.

Acknowledging complexity? It’s dangerous.

You want to risk being ridiculed? Try acknowledging complexity on Twitter. Looking to flirt with ostracism? Publicly affirm the fact that the opposing side has some reasonable arguments. Mercy, empathy, and compromise are not rewarded in today’s society. Bizarrely, it does seem possible nowadays to be self-sacrificially moderate. (Avoiding extremes of behavior or expression: observing reasonable limits; calm, temperate; not violent, severe, or intense.)

A meeting I joined this week was talking about being a non-anxious presence. I think that’s part of this, too. A single, persistently non-anxious presence can change the whole tenor of a room or an organization. Could there be such a thing as being deliberately, prophetically, self-sacrificially and publicly…calm?