Reading the title of this pamphlet calls up images of the challenges Rex Ambler intends to address. If we are paying attention to what is going on in the world these days, we are likely to feel overwhelmed, battered, knocked off center, and awash in disbelief and despair. Yet I didn’t expect Ambler’s response to be attention to the advice of early Friends. What could the seventeenth century offer the twenty-first? The answer turns out to be “quite a lot.”
Ambler focuses particularly on William Penn. Penn suggests that if we look straight at our own condition, we will see ourselves more clearly; if we shift that perspective a little, we will be able to see the world in a new light. The important issues of life are not solely out there as matters of fact that can be investigated, known, and acted upon; they are within us as well. “Looking into our own spirit and meditating thereupon,” says Penn, “you will have a deep and strong judgment of men and things.” In their experience of God’s light, early Friends discovered that they were not what they thought they were. By accepting what they saw—both the darkness they had chosen to avoid, and the light they had never imagined—they were transformed. Then, by turning the “glass of truth” slightly, they could see the world as it really was.
To access this truth in the present, says Ambler, we have to relinquish our preconceptions. We have to let go of our egos and our need for control. We have to let go of the images and stories, both about the world and ourselves, that make things feel more manageable and reassuring.
This means looking at the darkness, into the darkness, and through the darkness. We have to face the reality that we are not separate; we cannot influence the world from the outside. We are not good people seeking to change bad people; we and the world are all askew together. We have the choice of realizing this oneness or resisting it. Thus, the struggle in these dark times is, as early Friends said, to “mind the oneness.”
With this perspective and sense of connection, we can see how anxious attempts to put things right are rooted in the fear and vulnerability that come from separation. We can cherish and love this remarkable creation, of which we are a part, that has lost its sense of itself. The good news is that living in response to the world as we experience it, rather than to our ideas about it, allows us to bear witness more powerfully.
I am reminded of Danier Snyder’s suggestion, in his pamphlet Quaker Witness as Sacrament, that we “cultivate inward activism and outward prayer,” and I am grateful to Rex Ambler for this brief and simply written framework for living courageously in dark times.