A Quaker Witness Remembered

There haven’t been any Quakers in our family since Grandpa Morey, my great-grandfather. Denominational affiliation probably changed when the family settled in Iowa and later Minnesota, where there were no other Quakers nearby.

I was a young boy when Grandpa Morey died. Yet I remember him very well. He was soft-spoken, tall, and straight with deep blue eyes. I was amused as an adult to learn he was only of average height. My memory of him was when I stood half the adult distance from the ground.

He was a very respected person. He had been a successful farmer who developed a cooperative out-of-state marketing business for the potatoes he and his neighbors grew. He also began a cooperative general store for the community and served as a member of the village council for many years. Always he tended his extensive garden with a never-ending love for horticulture. I remember the garden had rows and rows of flowers. He gave most of them to others.

His favorite project was a butternut tree. We lived too far north for butternut trees to survive naturally. So Grandpa had wrapped the small tree each winter with straw and burlap to protect it from the cold. I don’t know how many years he had tended this tree; it stood six or eight feet tall.

We were invited to their house for an evening meal. After dinner our parents visited with Grandpa and Grandma the way big folks do. My brother, age five, and I, age seven, were told it would be all right to play outside. I remember coming around the corner of the front porch just as my brother finished slashing the butternut tree with an axe. He hadn’t simply cut it off. He had slashed up and down on the side of the tree until it toppled like a weary toothpick. I knew this was bad!

Just then the door to the porch opened, and there stood our great-grandfather. I was sure I was about to witness a flood of raw anger. Instead he spoke with steadiness. "Put the axe back where you found it, Son." I waited, but that was it! He must have felt a terrible loss, but that was all he said!

The incident of the butternut tree occurred 45 years ago, but it is as clear in my memory as if it had happened yesterday. Even as a small boy I marveled that anyone could respond so reasonably to such an obvious emotional hurt. Years later my father told me he had never heard Grandpa Morey raise his voice in anger.

As a professional psychologist, I am aware anger can be an expensive emotion. Most everyone would agree retaliatory anger has few, if any, constructive benefits. It seldom does away with the turmoil and hurt we feel. There is risk it will foster easier use of anger in the future. And, it likely will impose excessive hurt on others, causing them to want to get even.

More interestingly, how was it possible for Grandpa to be so seemingly rational? Many of us have identified our most vulnerable moment as the first few seconds after being confronted with unfairness. Our immediate thinking seems to be limited to behavioral reflex.

Several seconds usually pass before we can begin problem solving. Defensive outbursts, confusion, or fear-provoked retreat are probable first behaviors, just as animals instinctively respond to attack by fleeing, freezing, or fighting. Surely Grandpa Morey must have felt wronged as he witnessed the destruction of the butternut tree. How did he respond so reasonably? I wondered if his Quaker upbringing were a factor.

Recently while on retreat at Pendle Hill, I posed that question to Madge Seaver, the co-leader of a course in basic Quakerism. She seemed aware that it was a question I had labored with for many years. I’m sure she sought the Spirit’s leading, for she didn’t give an answer until our final day together. She then shared a longtime Quaker practice once common in raising children.

"Quaker children were taught by precept and example to think of a way of mending the situation. They were reminded not to be angry. Instead, they were told to prayerfully ask themselves, ‘What shall I do now?’"

I paused to consider what she said. At last I understood. Grandpa hadn’t demonstrated rational creativity. He probably was overwhelmed with pain, confused, and reduced to reflexive response like other people. But the reflex wasn’t retaliatory anger. The repeated childhood training he received had conditioned a different reflex.

In the helplessness of that moment, he answered the deeply ingrained question in the only way visible. He instructed my brother to "put the axe back. . . ." As limited as his thinking was, his Quaker-conditioned response was dozens of times better than an angry outburst.

I’m sorry Grandpa experienced pain that day so long ago. Maybe if he could have known how much his example would mean to me, the tree would have seemed less important. I so would like to be as he was. With much repeated practice, it may still be possible.
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This column originally appeared in Friends Journal in October 1989. Madge Seaver died this past year.