In my recent post, ‘Choosing what to be good at‘, I wrote about how I made choices throughout my life, but especially as a teenager, about what skills I would work on and which things I would choose not to be good at. In discussion of this on Facebook, one of the themes which came up was: how does this interact with other people? How do my choices about what to do and what to be good at affect people in my community, whether that’s a small community like a household or family or a larger community, like social groups I might belong to? I want to spend a bit longer exploring this now because I think it raises all sorts of good questions about expectations, needs, agency, and the relationship between an individual and a community. I’m going to keep using personal examples because that’s what I have to go on, but of course my experience as a white middle-class British cis woman may not generalise.
Here’s a story from when I was about thirteen. At my school we had ‘food technology’ classes, mostly cooking but with a veneer of industrial process. I had mostly already done all the forms of cooking involved at home, I intensely disliked the way that ‘team work’ in the kitchens mostly meant boys threatening people with knives and girls doing the washing up, and I found some of the activities, such as ‘designing’ a pizza topping, laughable. One day the exercise was to bake bread rolls. My mother bakes bread at home, all the bread the family eats and almost all the bread I had ever eaten was homemade, and I had been joining in and making my own bread since… well, for longer than I could remember. I could make loaves and rolls and hedgehogs and basically any shape of bread. So I baked a batch of bread rolls in the classroom. They were fine. They looked just like the bread I ate every day. The teacher came over and she said, “I don’t think anyone would want to buy those, they’re a bit uneven.”
(I hope this teacher is now cringing every time she sees something ‘artisan’ for sale.)
Here I was at the crossroads between two sets of expectations. The expectations of my family about the right appearance for bread, about what qualities mattered in bread, and how to make bread rolls were at odds with the expectations my teacher wanted to create about quality control, regularity, the relationship of appearance to acceptability, and where I should focus my efforts. I hadn’t baked bread for sale, I had baked bread for eating. I was, unwittingly, choosing which community and set of values to follow.
Years later, I laid some of my frustration at what I saw as an unfair criticism to rest when I used my skills in bread making to make the bread which would be used in the communion service in Iona Abbey. That’s bread to be seen, but also bread to be eaten, and bread to bring us closer to God. (As a Quaker who had never taken physical communion before, I did put myself in a slightly tricky theological spot that way, but I really couldn’t think of the God I knew having me qualified to bake the bread but not eat it. And there was a non-alcoholic option. So I took communion there.) It’s also bread for the community of worshippers, and their expectations are not so much about the quality of the bread – although using ordinary home-baked bread instead of wafers does attract attention – but about the way it is used within the ritual to form spiritual connections.
If I hadn’t been so well supported in bread making at home, so relatively experienced and used to eating my own baking, I might have concluded from that lesson that I couldn’t bake bread. I’m sure some of my classmates did. I don’t know whether the teacher at some level intended us to conclude that home-baked was inferior to factory made bread; perhaps she did mean for us to appreciate how difficult it is to make and therefore learn not to waste it, or something of the sort. Instead I chose to reject her feedback and go on thinking that I was perfectly capable of baking bread. If I had drawn other conclusions, would I have been willing or able to serve a later community by getting on and baking the bread we needed on Iona? I would certainly have needed more and different support from the colleagues in the kitchens there.
What about a case where I am on the other side, lacking or refusing to get a community-useful skill? These are harder to identify and own up to because of course I think that my reasons for refusing some tasks are legitimate and discerned rather than excuses to get out of an unwanted task! However, I think I do have an example: hospitality. I am not naturally a very welcoming or indeed a social person; I find most people tiring and anxiety-inducing, and it usually takes a really friendly extrovert or a particularly close match of common interests, or a long time, to overcome that. At some times, I have made the effort to perform hospitality. As it happens, I also have an example of this from Iona. When I arrived to work in the kitchen there, I was told that part of the job was to eat meals with the guests, talk to them, and create a welcoming atmosphere. It was one of my least-favourite parts of the work, but because I had been told it was part of the job I did my level best. I did have good conversations and I hope I made people feel welcome. I also spent moderate amounts of time lying awake at night going over and over what I’d said or people’s reactions, frightened of doing it wrong, and thinking of ways to get time alone despite working in team, sleeping in a shared bedroom, etc. Near the end of my seven weeks there, someone else on the team said me, “I really appreciate how seriously you take the hospitality part of our work. So many people don’t bother but you’re really good at it.” Now, actually I think that people who are truly good at something make it look effortless, and it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to say this to them; but it is evidence that I tried and mastered some of the skills involved.
I know that my Quaker community also needs those skills. All communities need some hospitality work doing, and Quakers can fail at this easily. I have felt unwelcome or been ineptly welcomed at many meetings over the years. Even at the local meeting where I attend now, I wish I felt more welcome, and I don’t stay for refreshments after meeting because I don’t want tea or coffee or biscuits of unknown ingredients (and hence probably not vegan). That’s my fault – I could sign up for the rota and change things. I do sometimes welcome people at the door, and I can do door-holding and hand-shaking, and if necessary answer questions about Quakers and meeting for worship, but I very rarely know people’s names and I have to leave the small talk to others. I like it best when the weather is unusually hot or wet because then there’s something easy to say! I could try harder, as I did on Iona. But the fact is that I don’t.
Why not? Partly because I do at lot of this sort of work in my paid work, so I don’t feel I have spare energy to do it on a voluntary basis as well. I find it a little bit easier at work, where my role gives people a reason to engage with me and I don’t count ‘discussing something on which I am knowledgeable’ as hospitality in this sense. I still find it stressful and worry a lot about all my minor failures, though. And, ironically, I sometimes teach about pastoral care, of which hospitality is an important competent. I say ‘teach’: I don’t try and tell people what to do, but instead ask them to reflect on their experiences and compare with others to get a better of idea of what works and what doesn’t.
I could give other reasons, about the situation and the timings and lots of practical stuff, but the deeper truth is that I don’t want to and at the moment improving hospitality in my meeting doesn’t feel like a good use of my energy. There are other people who can attend to it, and many of them are better at it than me; and some of them, whether they have the skills or are learning them, are led to offer that service. I think I’m also especially resistant to the idea that I should be good at some aspects of caring and hospitality which are stereotypical traits of women: when I’m not good at them, I’m not going to work harder to correct that than a man would be expected to.
Is it fair or wise to expect from a community something which I am not willing to give? Yes, it is. If I trust that the community is diverse enough, large enough, strong enough – Spirit-filled enough – to work as a community, I have to do exactly that. Sharing is a community function. If I had to do everything myself, I might as well be alone. Sometimes, especially in a small community, there needs to be compromise and I will need to step up to do things I’d rather not do, but am more or less capable of. (Some jobs are better done adequately than not at all: I’m no good at arithmetic, but I can make a computer do sums for me, so I’ll step up to run the accounts if nobody else is better qualified. Other jobs should be skipped or passed on if they can’t be done well: it might be better to donate to someone else running a foodbank than to start one and run it badly.) I think what I’m talking about here is a finer grain of discernment. We might need to distinguish not just between what makes the heart sing and everything else, but between ‘makes my heart sing splendid operas’, ‘makes my heart sing an acceptable pop song’, ‘more like my heart having an earworm but I can live with it’, and ‘not so much singing as a horrible grinding noise’. A few horrible grinding noises and some earworms are necessary parts of life, but it’s okay to ask whether someone else might get at least a pop song if not an opera out of the same task.