In talking about making difficult decisions (when Rachel Muers and I ran a Woodbrooke course on this recently), one of the things we talked about repeatedly was that difficult decisions are sometimes only partly difficult decisions – they are very often decisions which involve difficult relationships. And when a decision which needs to be made makes a relationship difficult, we identified fear as a frequent component in the problem.
I want to start by saying that I don’t think it’s bad to feel fear. When I was a school fear was something one could be bullied for – being a scaredy-cat, being timid, being shy – and the pressure not to show fear came strongly from adults as well as a children. (In fact, it’s embedded in that classic and often ineffective coping-with-bullying advice, “ignore them and they’ll go away”. Not showing fear or any other emotion is integral to that strategy.) I think this is probably a mistake. Fear, like other emotions, gives us information – not necessarily about the situation itself, because our assessment may be mistaken, but about our assessment of it. “Feel the fear and do it anyway”, as in the book title, may be a more helpful approach. Perhaps, more precisely, “Feel your fear and use it as part of a wider consideration of whether or not the thing is worth your while doing it”. I don’t think that’ll catch on as a self-help book title, though!
Thinking about the decisions which might need to be made in a Quaker community specifically, we considered a situation in which a meeting might want to make a policy about what food is acceptable at shared meals. Sometimes this is obvious – a local ban on ingredients to which someone in the community has a life-threatening allergy. Sometimes this can be a matter of compromise – aim to bring things which meet most people’s dietary needs, even if not everyone can eat everything. Fear around those questions might focus on fear of being or making someone ill unnecessarily, fear of upsetting and excluding, or fear of making a mistake.
This issue can also touch on questions which go beyond the practical to matters of principle and livelihood. For example, some in the community might be committed to making food choices based on sustainability. This comes to affect the community when they eat together. They might have different understandings of what eating sustainably actually means or what should be the top priority – vegan? local? organic? There might be fear around the topic of climate change, both for those who have made such commitments and those who haven’t or have focused their work on the issue somewhere else. There might be an existential threat, the fear that a change attacks the very core of your way of living: this can happen anyway with food, and even more so if people in the community are involved in food production. (In the story we used for teaching, we made this especially dramatic by imagining that a member of the meeting was a dairy farmer – it might not always be that obvious, but lots of us are invested, financially or emotionally, in the current systems of food production.) For some, changing eating patterns have health implications, and those interactions can be intensely complicated. Food is also cultural; changing ways of eating can mean letting go of traditional dishes and childhood meals, and while this might be welcome, easy, or at least possible for some people at some times, it’s inappropriate, difficult, or impossible for others.
So far, so dismal! Fear is real and important and needs to be addressed. What can we do? In conflict and emotion avoidant cultures, there is a strong tendency to ignore it – to try and put off the decision, or talk around the topic in terms sufficiently vague or abstract that nobody has to discuss their real feelings, or to be dismissive. In particular, I sometimes see people who have made a specific dramatic lifestyle change dismissing those who haven’t or can’t as lazy or ignorant. I don’t think this is helpful; it might be better to acknowledge both that there may be other factors which aren’t being discussed (like emotions and personal circumstances) and that we can just disagree. Faced with the same set of facts, people may have come to different conclusions.
If that’s what is happening, repeating the same facts won’t change any minds, and making people feel guilty or annoyed won’t help either. In a community setting, it might be possible to check that everyone is working from the same set of facts – sharing and testing the sources you are working from – and to get into the deeper levels of the issue, too. This takes time and effort (in our discussions of process, we also talked about cases where it might not be possible to do this work and it’s better to say so rather than do it badly). How do we share the facts we think are important? It’s tempting to circulate lots of information in a written form, but this doesn’t always reach people or explain why some people identify one fact as important or striking and others don’t find it relevant or as significant. Within a Quaker community, can we find ways to share facts and their practical and emotional impact? There are lots of possibilities, and this is one of the purposes of a threshing meeting.
I wrote this post a couple of days ago and have hesitated over whether to publish it now. There is a lot of fear around at the moment about the coronavirus. People are sharing facts and their reactions to facts – and governments around the world are trying to take decisions which are difficult in just these ways, affecting relationships, involving some necessary but difficult changes in order to avoid other tragic effects, with all the options likely to harm people and their livelihoods in complex ways, and all under a lot of time pressure. Not everyone can be involved in the decision making, so we have to trust those who are – which is harder when they have been elected in a competitive system and are consequently the disliked ‘other lot’ to a whole section of the community. I’ll be thinking of all those affected, by the virus directly and by the measures against it, and those doing the research and taking the decisions.