On Being a Quaker in the World

In my life, I can’t tell how much influence has come from Quakerism, but I do strive to live by its principles. I like that I can have strong opinions, different from most people, and still be able to talk with and hang out with and get to know them. For example, though I don’t use drugs, I am still able to be friends with people who do and have good conversations about both our similarities and differences, and about life in general.

One of the principles that I follow is to believe that people have made the best decision that they could in difficult situations. People who use drugs, then, have just not been able to come up with a better solution to their problems. Almost everybody I know who smokes says that they want to quit but now is not the right time because they smoke to get away from other problems they think are worse. If I can give them some relief, by having conversations with them and letting them tell me what is going on in their lives, then maybe things can go better for them. Maybe they won’t need to do drugs, but even if they do I’ve given them another thing to think about.

The original reason I had for not doing drugs was that I didn’t want to destroy my mind if I could have fun with people without being under the control of any substance. Now, having held that viewpoint for so long, I feel as though people expect me not to do drugs. I know for instance that my friends who smoke wouldn’t let me join them in doing so even if I said I wanted to, because they would know that I would not be thinking clearly and it’s not who I am. Perhaps they want to have somebody in their lives who gives them hope that people don’t have to make the choices they have made.

I knew that I had made an impact on others one night at a party, where I believe I was the only person not under the influence of at least one substance. I took a chance to get to know people there, and over the three hours that I spent with two young women, neither of them had another drink. It was good enough to just have a conversation, to just hang out. We talked for a while and took a walk around the neighborhood at 2:00 a.m., then sat outside because it was too crazy inside. I wasn’t drinking, and because of this, it seemed as though they weren’t as interested in drinking either. They knew that people are stupid when they’re drunk, and that most people just drink to not be out of the loop. Having somebody who was out of the loop, and fine with it, helped them see the possibilities.

Another instance of my different thinking concerns male behavior. It seems difficult to spend time talking with other guys my age unless the topic is sports or sex. I remember one time at school asking a guy, who was saying how bored he was, what he wanted to do. It was a new idea to him that he could choose to do something and other people would do it with him, no matter how different it was. At first he didn’t know, but then he said he wanted to go outside. Once we were outside, he said he wanted to wrestle on the grass, so we did. It was useful to find a new activity and not get stuck in the pattern of simply doing what we normally do together (playing basketball or playing cards).

I feel as though I’m offering challenges to people by not acting the way others do. It feels weird to say something to someone I don’t know, or to say hello to someone on the trolley whom I’ve never met before, but I try to do so to challenge myself and the world around me.

For example, I talked with a man on the subway here in Philadelphia one day, and he started telling me about his life. People were looking at me as if I were crazy to be talking with someone I’d never met before and as if it were really odd that he felt comfortable enough to actually be open to me. In a place and time where everybody has suspicions about everyone else, I was breaking the age, class, and race barriers, along with the general taboo against being friendly with others in public.

I had many feelings about that experience. First, I felt strange when he started to talk to me, because I was in a mindset of keeping to myself. Then, after I realized that he had something important to get off his chest, I felt awkward because other people were looking at me and thinking that I shouldn’t be responding to him. I felt odd when he started telling me about all of the different things that were going on in his life; he was acting human with me. Breaking those barriers and having a real conversation with somebody I’d never met before and probably will never see again was an eye-opening experience for me, and something I’d like to try to do more often. Seeing that the man felt so comfortable with me also helped me realize that people can be interested in human contact even if they aren’t already acquainted.

I started playing basketball at the local park about a year ago. I enjoy the game, and I want to be able to play without having to reserve a court in advance or wait until I go to school the next day. About two months ago I went out with my housemate, and we played with a group of about ten other people, all African American. By that point I already knew enough of the people and enough people knew me that I didn’t feel that I was out of place as the only white person on the court. The culmination of this experience came the day after, when I was riding the trolley home from school and I ran into one of the guys I’d played with the night before. Instead of seeing an intimidating, larger black guy who was getting off at the same trolley stop, I just saw another guy that I might play with that evening when I went to the court, and we were able to have a brief conversation and make a connection.

The one Quaker principle that isn’t difficult for me at all is staying nonviolent. My school community has a code of nonviolent conduct. People understand the fact that it’s a strong principle for me, and it’s more acceptable to many of my peers than being against drugs or some of the other things that I’m interested in.

Last fall I was at a retreat of the Student Union, a group of high school students from all over the city working together for better schools. We were doing play wrestling, with everybody getting a turn. There was one person who didn’t want to wrestle, because she wasn’t the violent type. Everybody knew that I was the other one who didn’t fight—we’d made a strong enough impression just by how we lived our lives. So they all said, "Abby needs to wrestle" and "Andrew jump in!" and pushed both of us into the middle. We sat down on the mats and had a conversation about why fighting was not the solution to the problem, while the others laughed. Then we decided that we were finished, and other people went in and had very violent wrestles.

Our fellow participants were mainly inner-city black folks, some of whom are in the armed forces. It was a contradiction to them to see the two of us not ready to get into a physical fight. But that difference wasn’t a problem in the group. We don’t have to butt heads every time we get to see each other, because we have another reason to be together. We get together because we want to reform the school system, not because we want everything about us to be the same. I don’t understand why people take one thing they don’t have in common with each other and use that as a basis for not having a relationship. It makes sense to me that people can find and have a common interest no matter how many differences there are, and you can base a relationship on that common interest.

Andrew Esser-Haines

Andrew Esser-Haines is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. This is a revised and updated version of an article that appeared in the Friends and Education Newsletter, June 2001.