A place for nerds in the Society of Friends?

One of the questions asked in this year’s Spiritual Preparation for Yearly Meeting is:

  • Do you consider yourself to be ‘spiritual’, or an activist? Do you find the distinction helpful in considering your own journey and experiences?

My answer to this is: neither, and therefore, no.

When I picture an activist, I think of people who do things for which I don’t have the time, energy, or social skills. I do little bits of activism – the kind of things which get mocked in internet articles – like signing petitions, discussing politics with friends, and donating a bit of money now and again. I very rarely go to demonstrations, I almost never hand out leaflets, I’ve never been arrested, and the ways in which I’ve changed my life to bring it into accordance with my principles are mainly invisible. I’m often practical, but I’m by no means an activist.

When I picture someone who is spiritual, I think of people whose spiritual life works in a way which mine doesn’t. I’ve been going to meeting for worship my whole life and I’ve never really been able to ‘centre down’. I don’t have a prayer life to speak of, I’m immune to whatever people get out of sacred music, I like to look at religious art but rarely get beyond looking, and when I read scripture I come away with more questions than answers. I do sometimes have experiences which I can only describe as ‘spiritual’, and I value being in an organised religion because some of our structures help me feel spiritually connected, but whatever ‘being spiritual’ involves, I feel outside the category.

So, what I am? I’m a nerd, a swot, a geek, an over-educated over-thinker. This is, as that link suggests, common among Quakers – but it also, often, unwelcome. In a time when rationality has been staked out as the realm of atheism, there seems to be a trend among the religious towards rejecting thought and rigour. I’ve considered it carefully, and concluded that this could be a terrible mistake. However, because I’ve ‘considered’ and ‘concluded’, I suspect my ideas are liable to be thrown out without being heard, on methodological grounds.

When I call myself a geek or a nerd, people sometimes tell me off for putting myself down. This tells me that these words still have a power which can be reclaimed. After years of bullying and social exclusion for being ‘weird’ and ‘clever’, for being articulate enough to give right answers in class and bothering to do so, for enjoying learning and working hard at it, I’m not going to start pretending not to think. I admit it: I think about things at home, I think at work, I even think in Meeting for Worship.

I’m not suggesting that you should do this too (unless you want to). For me, though, prayer and philosophy are closely connected. To think something through, to consider it from all angles, to ask questions like “what do I really know about this?” or “what assumptions underlie the way I am approaching this?” is a way of holding an issue in the Light. Sometimes this leads to activity: “if I hold this view, and this view, then I ought to…” Sometimes this lead to spiritual perspectives: if God loves me as I am, then She’ll love me even if I ask the hard questions.

I am neither spiritual, nor an activist, but approach the world through questioning, thought, and wondering. My Quaker journey is strongly shaped by that even – especially? – when it seems unpopular.

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13 responses to “A place for nerds in the Society of Friends?

  1. Thank you, Rhiannon – this speaks to my condition.

  2. Actually, I know a few Friends, including myself, for whom the Quaker business method is a central part of our belonging. That feels connected with the geeky-nerdiness to me?

  3. All thinking higher than your belly button is metaphoric: mappings from ‘This’ (which I hope I understand) to ‘That’ (which I hope will turn out more-or-less isomorphic.)

    There are tight metaphors (which don’t fit much, but fit what they might fit quite precisely) aka allegedly-right-handed/left-minded style; and then there are loose metaphors (which fit anywhere, but might not really match well enough to whatever you’ve wrapped in them) aka allegedly-left-handed/right-minded style. The tight stuff is fine for whatever a person can do well habitually; but in emergencies (& stress) the mind starts sketching out larger, looser patterns in hopes that something not-yet-considered will come along.

    So it isn’t thinking per se that deserves the bad rep; but using the wrong thinking tool for the wrong job. Failure to find the right one and trying to make do with whatever’s left. Focus too loose to see a barn or focus too tight to see the stuff around it, etc etc.

  4. There is a difference between thinking about something and the activity itself. That is, there is a difference between thinking about thinking and the activity of thinking in itself.

    To think about something is to keep it at a distance. To live in the activity of thinking itself is to experience directly, and without the mediation of ‘thoughts about,’ the Life and Impulse that exists between the ideas and it is most often the invisible animating thread holding thoughts about together.

    Some people are come into and it has been discovered to them a way of being that is anchored in the direct experience of the activity of thinking itself in itself … they are ‘centered down’ into the activity itself in itself which becomes their identity, meaning, and purpose.

    It isn’t that thinking about something is, in itself, wrong. It is that once a person is come into and their conscience and conscious is anchored in the activity of thinking itself in itself, they are guided by the activity itself rather than the thoughts about, especially in matters of conscience and human relationships.

  5. Reblogged this on Non-theist Friends Network and commented:
    ‘Neither and therefore no’ appeals to me. The rest of this post by Rhiannon, one of our two keynote speakers at last conference I found very moving, hence experimentally re- blogging it here.

  6. In my view real Quakers are thinkers. “We” understood issues that needed to be addressed and took action. We contributed to science and commwrcw both creatively and morally. We created a culture and way if life that was the product of deep thought and if Meeting is not for analysis, assessment and creativity then I am in the wrong place – except there is no other.

  7. If you are moderating my little piece can you please correct my typos?

  8. To quote Rhiannon’s closing remarks:
    “I am neither spiritual, nor an activist, but approach the world through questioning, thought, and wondering. My Quaker journey is strongly shaped by that even – especially? – when it seems unpopular.”
    Having read the post again, and listened to Tim Gee’s speech at YMG2016 which is linked to from ‘Spiritual Preparation for Yearly Meeting’ in the opening of the post above, I think I’m inclined to consider and conclude that Rhiannon is both spiritual and an activist, like Tim Gee perhaps, and that perhaps there is no distinction between the two.
    Rhiannon’s questioning leads us further, even if it might sometimes be unpopular.

  9. Love it. Let’s reclaim ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’. All positive for me.
    And any movement away from thinking can never be progressive. Much room for critical appraisal of all we hear. Otherwise surely we imbibe ideas indiscriminately? Surely not a good diet for the soul?

  10. Spiritual/activist
    Questioning, thinking and wondering are surely very Quakerly things to be doing. Simply being – being still – surely feeds those activities, enriches them, and stimulates creativity.
    George Fox encouraged Friends to “let your lives speak” and as Advices & Queries No 28 encourages us to “Attend to what love requires of you, which may not be great busyness”. I feel there need not be a dichotomy between actively contributing to the life of the community, and the wider communities in which we live, and sharing in the Quaker tradition of silent waiting.
    Fox encouraged Elizabath Claypole (Cromwell’s daughter) to be “still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts…”(Qf&p 2.18) I have found that still quietness valuable in shaping whatever active contribution I make to life in general.
    There is a real value in the Quaker practice of being still and quiet – not in order to think – but just to be – still and quiet. The fruits of that experience are likely to come after Meeting for Worship has ended rather than during it – it can encourage clarity of thought, hopefully better judgement, some improved creativity, and a positive contribution to inter-personal relationships.
    I offer to Friends a workshop called “Prayer beyond belief” in which I share some of my own practices which I find enriches my understanding and practice of being Quaker. I make use of insights both from religious practice and secular practice – one item of which I have drawn from is the book Silence Your Mind by Ramosh Manocha, a research medic working in Sydney Medical School, Australia. I think his modern secular practice shows the value of doing exactly what George Fox recommended. To get the full gist of what he has found, Google Ramosh Manocha.
    Others disciplines in my workshop include just reflecting on the countless enrichments available to us in our daily lives, and finding aspects of so many things we all take for granted are awesome when we consider them in detail. I find I am enriched by recognising how grateful I am for so many super aspects of life, such as the natural world; and so many mundane things in life – such as the pair of spectacles on my nose, without which my life would be radically impaired!
    I also find it helpful to stop from time to time and do a self-assessment – seeking to identify attitudes, thoughts and actions of mine which I value, and those I regret, so that I seek to build on the positives and reduce the negatives. I have valued Advices & Queries for more than 50 years, as an Anglican and as a Quaker, and there is so much in them to help prepare to participate in Meeting for Worship, and then shaping our behaviour in the wider world.

  11. This speaks to me very much. I once hear someone talking about how they push themselves out of their shell and that this makes them a better part of the community. I am very much a nerd and an introvert also, yet I don’t see how only being extroverted can serve the community and society. I see people who work behind the scenes and support the workings of something as an equal part of those who are more “able” to do what I find difficult (and do it better).

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