Is it just me, or are others running into more cynical, escapist, or despairing people these days?
My Christian conservative brother, Bob, has always been an idealist, but during our last argument around the dinner table at his home I noticed a tone of resignation on his side. It wasn’t just that his strategy for a better world (Adam Smith plus Christian charity) was different from mine, but also that the "better world" part seemed a bit shaky—as if it’s okay with God for the United States to remain the way Hurricane Katrina revealed it to be. Or maybe that human beings, even with God’s help, just can’t do any better than this.
On a hunch, I began to tell him about Norway, a small country where I lived in 1959-60. I told him about Norwegian social movements of the 1930s, in which the people decided that poverty was unacceptable, so they went ahead and in the next 25 years eliminated it. I recalled the day I spent riding around an industrial town, unable to find poor housing anywhere. I told him about the Norwegian realization that "programs for the poor are poor programs," so they universalized everything: excellent healthcare, excellent schools, free universities, quality housing, and quality care for elders. I explained that Norwegians decided no one should be driven by want or fear of insecurity in old age, and how they went ahead and made the changes before the North Sea oil was found, when there was still less national wealth per capita than in the United States. I told him that this change was motivated by a vision of equality and community.
Bob looked at me, and a moment passed. "Sounds like a plan," he said.
George Fox urged us to walk cheerfully while speaking to that of God in those we meet, but these days it seems the Godseed is often well insulated by fear and despair. I don’t see how we can do the job Fox gave us without a vision, incorporating not only the daily creativity that people in the United States have in abundance, but also alternatives for the big picture.
Vision keeps us cheerful. The early ’70s were a despairing time for many activists; despite the protest movements of the ’60s, racism still poisoned the institutions of U.S. life and the war against Vietnam raged on. In 1971, some Quakers and others started a visionary group called the Movement for a New Society. When other concerned people encountered MNS, they gave one kind of feedback more frequently than any other: "You folks are so upbeat, so clear and purposeful, and downright cheerful!" It took me years to understand that a major source of the optimistic energy in Movement for a New Society was the vision work that we’d done; we proposed clear and realistic alternatives to poverty, war, ecological crisis, and the like.
Vision is responsive. I used to address non-pacifists as if they "just didn’t get it." How could they not understand how disastrous war is? Slowly it dawned on me that they might see war’s downside as clearly as I (with some soldiers, more clearly than I), and still support war because they saw no alternative. Was our movement actually proposing alternatives? I realized that I’d been disrespectful, unwilling to listen with an open mind and respond to what I actually heard!
Vision is unifying. People don’t have to agree about the content of a vision in order to experience its unifying force. Conflict can be a healthy and ultimately bonding dynamic when those who are fighting with each other really put on the table what they are fighting for. When we protest this or that injustice and offer nothing in its place, we invite the disparagement we receive: "Why don’t they get a life?" "Is this their cause du jour?" "Carping and whining all the time—I’ll bet they never had to take responsibility for something real in the world." When we do propose alternatives, the discourse improves.
The Norwegian owning class fought to keep its privilege, which entailed maintaining poverty and social insecurity. The owners even called out the army to defend their privilege. However, because the advocates of a new society proposed a clear vision, Norwegian activists were able to stay on the offensive, gain middle class allies (and even some owning class allies), and manage the transition without civil war.
Vision gives confidence. When we are confident, we don’t need to make jokes about the alleged lack of intelligence of our president or in other ways try to prop ourselves up by putting others down. When we have a clear alternative to the "war on terror" in our pocket, we needn’t be shrill, sarcastic, or self-righteous (all of which are signs of our insecurity). When we have a clear alternative to oppression, we can invite people to try new, more liberated behaviors rather than "call them out" for acting the way they’ve been socialized to act.
Vision attracts young people. Across the centuries, the dance of the generations always includes the unasked question: are our elders wedded to same-old, same-old, or is there space for innovation, for boldness, for the quickening of Spirit? The vision-filled early Quaker movement was also a young people’s movement.
Vision is practical. A lifetime of choosing the lesser of two evils is not only demoralizing, it also prevents genuine problem-solving because it keeps people from going outside the box. For example, Quakers ventured out unarmed in 17th-century Pennsylvania, created the first mental hospital, and protected threatened people with nonviolent accompaniment— the list of positive outcomes gained by vision is long.
Vision reminds us of the Source. The one prayer I’ve practiced repeatedly that has always been answered, without exception, is: "Please, God, help me to see this from a different point of view." Positive visions are linked in complex ways to the ongoing work of Creation. Of course there are also negative visions, so discernment is useful—one big reason for having a Religious Society of Friends. Kenneth Boulding used to talk about Quakerism as an evolutionary mutation that moved humanity forward; Elise Boulding has taught many a Friend the value of vision for peacemaking; Hugh Barbour has described even scientific epiphanies as happening in a holy moment not unlike meeting for worship.
I don’t know if Quakers are called to put forward visionary big-picture alternatives at this time. There’s a crying need for vision in the United States—people are perishing without it—but that doesn’t mean that Quakers are called to generate it. Ron McDonald argues in his Pendle Hill pamphlet, Leadership Among Friends, that vision isn’t what it used to be in our Religious Society because visionary leadership gets little support. The preferred leadership skill-set these days is consensus-building rather than vision-generating.
It’s right to appreciate the other gifts Friends have, but the downplaying of visionary leadership doesn’t bode well for the future. My own sense is that visionary Quakers haven’t gone extinct; they just express that side of their personality outside the Religious Society of Friends. The gift of envisioning is still among us, I believe, and if Quaker organizational culture shifted to appreciate the value of big-picture vision, it would strongly reappear. All Friends, no matter what their gifts, would thrive in a Religious Society inspired by vision.
The promise of vision for all Friends, then, is to stay cheerful, to be more responsive to people who disagree with us, to be a stronger force for unity in the midst of polarization, to become more confident, to become more attractive to young people, and to be practical by going outside the box of the lesser evil. The time for vision may have returned once again.