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Chronic Relativity

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Earlier this year, my meeting was drafting a rental policy for our new building when the question of whether or not to allow alcohol use came up. During the discussions, only a few Friends felt that this issue was of great concern. Many asked, “What’s the big deal if we allow people to drink champagne at a wedding?” while others said, “We Quakers don’t even use alcohol.” We were clearly not all on the same page. Eventually, we found unity on the rental issue but brushed aside the matter of alcohol and alcoholism as a wider concern.

During these deliberations, I picked up Robert Levering’s Pendle Hill pamphlet, Friends and Alcohol: Recovering a Forgotten Testimony. A passage there struck me:

Testimonies are essentially assertive. They proclaim how the world ought to be, and thus, by implication, what other people ought to do. . . . The social assertiveness of Quaker testimonies creates “a certain uneasiness” among Friends today. Many of us are uncomfortable with the notion of “ought,” let alone the suggestion that we know what others ought to do.

Published 20 years ago, Levering’s pamphlet called us to not only address our historical testimony of temperance, but also corporately take on an issue with major impact on some of our membership. His writing challenges those who do not have problems with addiction to consider how their actions affect those struggling with alcoholism—a challenge that reveals we live in a world of relativity, a state of dependence. While I do not want to repeat his eloquent and still relevant call, I would like to share my personal experience with this issue as a Quaker addict.

When I was a teenager, our young Friends group had a discussion on drinking. The adults wanted to impress a sense of our own responsibility for the health of the community. Rather than telling us that alcohol was forbidden (or illegal), they instead reminded us that it often falls into a pattern of exclusive behaviors. We all agreed that people excluding themselves for any reason, whether to drink in secret or pair up to make out, wasn’t really “friendly.” Rather than telling us what we ought to do, the adults encouraged us to consider the consequences of our actions and make up our own minds. It felt healthy and grown up to wrestle with these issues for ourselves. Despite this conversation, though, that very night I proceeded to participate in several exclusive behaviors I came to genuinely regret later. My thoughts immediately after that experience were: How could I have been so sure one minute and felt so completely differently the next? What’s wrong with me?

While I didn’t realize it at the time, this dilemma was my first experience of the paradox of my addiction. I respected my faith tradition for giving me the responsibility to ask myself hard questions, yet I felt alone in asking myself, “What went wrong?” Later, I would come to understand my addiction to drugs, alcohol, and manipulating people as a true mental insanity. There were symptoms everywhere, but I could never pin down the root cause of the behavior. By being honest with myself and others, I began to understand more about how much damage I was causing by being consumed by my cravings. My entire faith tradition was built on how I lived day to day, so why couldn’t I live my life without escaping it or hurting other people? Why couldn’t I judge my actions while drinking with the same judgement I experienced while sober? These may seem like simply answered questions to those without addiction problems, but for me they were impossible riddles that plagued me for years.

I was able to start healing from my addiction only when I began answering these questions truthfully. Before that, I argued with myself endlessly about the extent of my troubles and measured my actions favorably against those of others who clearly had the real problem. Everything was relative: why should I feel so badly about not remembering parts of my weekends if others were drinking every day or losing their jobs? I couldn’t begin to tackle my problem because I was so caught up in these kinds of mental justifications. Surrounded by well-meaning Friends who strived to maintain an upbeat outlook on a broken world, I rarely saw examples of Friends taking a hard line on actions within our own community. We spoke about “moderation” and “finding the good in things,” and we waved signs on the street corner but struggled to see life or death issues among us. As I began to feel the creeping hopelessness of addiction catch up to me, I felt alone and completely unprepared to face myself and the community.

I was not living my life in line with my values, so meeting for worship increasingly became a painful hour of replaying my frustrations or shortcomings of the previous week. I avoided participating in social activities and isolated myself while railing against minor shortcomings of committees and business meetings. I don’t fault my meeting for not seeing the depths of my misery because at the time I did not want to be seen or held accountable. Our yearly meeting recently offered a consultation on “disruptive behaviors in meeting.” Many of these behaviors described mentally ill people. By the end of my active drinking and using, I felt and often acted mentally ill. I was mentally ill. I was increasingly living in my own reality, divorced from people around me and increasingly distant from God.

After finishing school, destroying yet another partnership and increasing my use of drugs and alcohol, I finally realized that this was the only life I had and that I wasn’t happy with it. I still couldn’t see where my problems began, and I couldn’t understand how to change my life. As Levering describes our Quaker cultural discomfort around testimonies, I was never encouraged to consider “oughts.” Where could I get started on tackling my problems when I had no idea what I ought to do? What perhaps started as “moderation” or “experimentation” had become “obsession” and “self hatred.” I had justified or qualified increasingly destructive behaviors to such an extreme that I drove people away, lost confidence in myself, and couldn’t quit. I felt completely out of control both mentally and spiritually, but by that time I was so delusional and isolated that few people could see the extent of my problems.

Quakers have always been resistant to accept authority or established norms about right and wrong. This questioning attitude has given us the freedom to discern thoughtfully, and over the years, it has increasingly focused on individual leading as a path to continuing revelation. But if we are truly to be in this world, rather than of it, we must also be prepared to come together and take a collective stand. While the world is finally shifting past some old and outdated moral certainties, we are also less in touch with ourselves and less accountable to one another. The revolutionary “question everything” culture of the 1960s has evolved into an attitude in which anything can be justified, especially if you do it alone and aren’t hurting anyone. How can we even know what we’re hurting when our society is increasingly built on industrial exploitation of the planet, the Global South, or even our own neighbors? Some of the true victories of the 1960s—collective consciousness and community solidarity—have been slickly repackaged as “globalism” and “connectivity.” Dogmatic hardliners are responding to these twenty-first-century changes with regressive calls for “old fashioned values.” As aging radicals with comfortable lives, Friends often struggle to respond to the urgency in our own lives.

I take full responsibility for my own actions and the harm they have caused. I would also like to take Levering’s message to heart by saying that for someone like me, born with addictive chemistry and nurtured in an “everything is relative” environment, it became particularly easy to lose myself.

I believe there is another way. I believe that we as Friends could do more to stand up for each other and our vulnerabilities in our meeting communities. Rather than platitudes, calls to moderation, or “live and let live” behavior, we could take opportunities to rally around each other and seek deeper—sometimes uncomfortable—unity on taboo subjects. When a Friend mentions something in a committee meeting about struggles at home, how often do you take him or her aside later to ask if something is wrong? When someone says something truly out of line in worship, is there a threshold of inappropriateness that leads you to approach him or her with another Friend to offer guidance? When a few voices speak nervously on an issue like serving alcohol at the meeting, do you press on for a sense of the meeting so you can make your Sunday afternoon commitments, or do you pray for gentle intimacy in the business process?

While I could not expect meetings to take up every cause that is of concern to every member of the meeting, I do ask that we consider the seriousness of chronic relativity as it affects our communities. I urge us to admit how vulnerable we are and accept hard truths about ourselves. Levering addressed this very eloquently in the context of addiction 20 years ago, and I believe we’d do well to revisit his words on that issue as well as others. This exercise may make us uneasy, but only because we are out of the habit of holding each other accountable for the ways that make us uncomfortable.

We do not stand by our testimonies simply because we know they are right or they make us feel good. Occasionally our concerns are a matter of life or death, and occasionally the Friend sitting next to us in meeting looks to our collective example to find wholeness in a broken world.

Evan Welkin is a member of Olympia (Wash.) Meeting. He and his wife, Federica, are re-envisioning her family’s agriturismo in Italy; follow their journey at agriculturaprofetica.wordpress.com.


Posted in: Features, May 2014

3 Responses to Chronic Relativity

  1. Tam May 11, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

    City & State
    Mansfield, VT
    “Quakers have always been resistant to accept authority or established norms about right and wrong. This questioning attitude has given us the freedom to discern thoughtfully, and over the years it has increasingly focused on individual leading as a path to continuing revelation. But if we are truly to be in this world, rather than of it, we must also be prepared to come together and take a collective stand.”

    Beautifully said.

  2. Avery Welkin May 12, 2014 at 8:23 pm #

    City & State
    Portland
    Thank you, brother, for stating a well-hidden truth. I often wonder about the question of addiction for our youth today, it has come up over and over. How do we recover the act of Truth-telling as prophetic ministry, part of our tradition? How counter-cultural can we allow ourselves to be?

    • Evan May 13, 2014 at 5:34 pm #

      Thanks for the encouragement. One thing I explored and eventually cut out in the section on changes since the 60s was how use of marijuana particularly has been tied to antiauthoritarianism and anticonformity. While the wider culture of resistance, consciousness-raising and collective action has been coopted, the old assumptions about pot use as countercultural still prevail. The reality is that it’s no longer revolutionary to get high. It’s legal in my state. It’s also not evil to get high, and in some cases folks are recognizing it can heal chronic problems. So in my eyes, the real truth about chemical use starts with getting real about its meaning to the user, which can in turn help the user get honest with themselves if they find they can’t put it down.

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