This article originally appeared in the December 15, 1981 issue. It is being included in the web version of the February 2014 issue to accompany a book review of The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, an in-depth account of the antiwar activists’ break-in of an FBI office in 1971. Ann’s then-husband, William C. Davidon, was the principle organizer of that action.
Over several decades I have worked with Friends. Many of my relatives have joined (or been born into) the Society of Friends, and some of my best friends are Friends. By my understanding of what it means to be a Friend, I am one (despite total water immersion as a Baptist at an early age). Yet I have never actually joined the Society of Friends, and I have often asked myself why not.
The most obvious reason is that I haven’t found a meeting where I feel completely at home, or where I would like to spend my Sunday mornings rather than do other things—have a leisurely brunch with my children, read the. Sunday papers, write letters. And apparently—not unreasonably—the only way one can be admitted to this mystic society is through its local cells.
But, I tell myself, how can you begin to feel at home if you don’t keep going back and getting to know your particular group better? And how can you do that if you don’t discipline yourself to go out and attend meetings? Can’t the other things be done on other days, making Sunday morning a special time for relating to people of similar persuasion in the silent communion that you do often appreciate once you get into it?
Well: so I attend a meeting in my area now and then—or in town or in other places where I happen to be. And people keep breaking into my silent reveries by popping up and talking about whether the Bible or Jesus or George Fox meant this or that. (My feeling is I’m just glad if they happen to coincide with my own found truths.) Or they talk about personal encounters with family, friends, neighbors, nature, the universe, or their notion of the deity. I try to redirect my thoughts to what they’re saying and feeling and relate it to my own life or interpret it in terms that make sense to me.
At times I even begin to feel an articulated response or observation welling up within me, causing me to quake inwardly (and sometimes outwardly). It makes me tell myself, with some amusement, that I must really be a Quaker—though I don’t know if it’s “the Lord” shaking me so much as plain old stage fright and the trepid thought that anything I have to say might not be worth disturbing other people’s meditations for.
But I do speak up sometimes, and it often doesn’t come out the way I’d been thinking. At times I wish I had just stayed silent and not risked making a fool of myself. Usually I try not to let my critical judgment be so harsh as to condemn others for making “fools” of themselves or saying things that seem trite or rambling or fuzzy-minded: meeting is a time to criticize and question oneself, not thy neighbor. So I try to absorb their words, try to sense what may be moving or troubling or elating them or what message they are really trying to convey. I try to remain receptive or at least tolerant, keeping my mind open to positive reflections, interpretations, vibrations. (Or my mind wanders, and I study cracks in the walls or wonder why the lights are on while shades are pulled and they worry about money and energy waste.)
And then occasionally what a person is saying “speaks to my condition” and gives me further insight or a new perspective. But often the platitudes bore or annoy me, and the pretense of a shared community which does not seem to extend much-beyond the meeting itself (a general problem in our fragmented society) strikes me as artificial. Then I wonder what I can find here, or bring here, that I don’t already find in (or bring to) the many other meetings I attend. In those groups there are people of like mind or sympathies, but with specific common goals which we attempt to accomplish through planning and dialogue—and sometimes silences too, when they seem appropriate.
Obviously you don’t understand, I can hear some Friends tut-tutting: that’s not it at all. In our shared silence, they tell me, we deliberately don’t have agendas and worldly or external objectives. (And wouldn’t you think I’d be relieved not to have those after all the thousands of organizational meetings I’ve attended?) Rather we reach down into the depths of ourselves and go where the spirit leads us. Well, I can go with that—but maybe not,on such a rigid, traditional weekly schedule with people I hardly ever see otherwise.
In any case, why do I have to join to do that; why can’t I just do it with friends when and where the need seems to arise? “Where two or three are gathered together,” and all that? Would Jesus—if we want to bring him into this—have attended a Quaker business meeting? And why not meet in people’s homes? Why do we need to create and support a structure that becomes burdened with property, personnel, investments, fundraising, business meetings, and all the other trappings of entrenched institutions? Still, I put up with all these (barely) from other organizations I belong to, and I should concede that these are what many people may need and want to provide security, continuity, etc. But if these aren’t what I feel I need or want in my “religious” life, am I not then a true Friend? Must I pass the tests and get the seal of approval before I am admitted into that ‘ exclusive Society where I and thee are the truly anointed and committed?
My understanding of being a Friend is that I consider all people friends. The creative force that produced us all (and the universe) is also in each of us and must be nurtured and not destroyed or alienated. Why do I need a membership to proclaim this and act on it? Why separate myself from the rest of humanity by one more enclosure/exclusive act?
I do have to admit that if there weren’t some organized group that embodied even this simple doctrine, there probably wouldn’t be the Friends Journal, the Friends Center, the AFSC, yearly meetings, and many other Quaker institutions that I’m rather glad are there, whether or not I read all they put out or join them or attend them or financially sustain them. But is it fair to benefit from these, even indirectly and occasionally, without sharing more direct responsibility for their upkeep? What—other than all the above reservations and vacillations, plus relative poverty—is keeping me from committing myself?
Well—at times I get so impatient with Quakers. (I get impatient with myself and others too, but I expect that.) Maybe it’s just that many people who were born Quakers or passed through the needle’s eye of the local meeting seem to have misconceptions of what they’re supposed to be. Some seem to think they have to be so meek and humble that they have no strong feelings or opinions about anything.
Others seem so set in their opinions that their silent smugness makes you want to pinch them. Some hold in their thoughts and feelings so they will not appear abrasive or combative, risk embarrassing themselves or others, yet seem to be passing judgment inwardly or in devious ways. (Critically assessing situations, actions, and probable consequences is different from superior judgments and moral condemnations of people.)
Some think they must be somberly self-righteous with adversaries, or else that they have to be obsequiously pliant or chummy. Or perhaps they are syrupy sentimental, proclaiming a love that does not appear to exist in their real feelings and attitudes. And some get so “into” their feelings that they make little sense.
Am I saying I think Quakers should be perfect and all of one kind? Whew, what a bore that would be! But one can have a serious and silent temperament without being heavy or smug, or be cheerful and chatty without being a prattling Pollyanna. One can have a sense of life’s tragedy without being gloomy and sour, and of its absurdity without being cynical. One can have, wit without being cruel and a sense of humor without being a fool or clown. One can be open and honest without being hurtful, discreet without being hypocritical. And one can approach all people as a friend without being a card-carrying Friend.
Of course, we all struggle throughout our lives with these imbalances and imperfections, and maybe I think I can’t be a real Friend till I’ve overcome them in myself. Yet by becoming a declared Friend, wouldn’t I at least make my view, my faith and hopes, more clearly known to the world? Wouldn’t an additional member help strengthen the Society and therefore all it stands for?
Wouldn’t it be a kind of shorthand convenience to say I’m a Quaker and not have to define and explain myself all the time? (But then wouldn’t it enable others to pigeonhole me too easily, perhaps dismiss what I’m saying because, of course, I’m one of them and that’s the kind of thing they’re programmed to say?)
And finally, is there any meeting I really want to get out of bed on Sundays for? Or for that matter, any meeting that would have me, especially after a confession like this? These are the questions, big and small, that I have been wrestling with in the closet all these years. If I were to pop out and claim now, after so much vested energy in stubborn resistance, that I’m really a Friend—would they call the cops? Make me join a meeting and pay my dues? Disown me? Or maybe elder me?