Tag Archives: simplicity

Search terms: quaker values as a unifying force

This phrase, ‘quaker values as a unifying force’, appeared in my search terms recently and I think it makes a couple of assumptions which are worth discussing.

Are Quaker values really a unifying force? Is that what brings Quakers together, or what helps us work with others? And what are ‘Quaker values’ anyway? Is this a useful way to think of what might also be called ‘testimony’ or ‘the testimonies’?

When people say ‘Quaker values’, I think they often mean the list of abstract words which, in the mid-twentieth century, began to be used to describe the actions we are led to take, the ways we make our faith concrete in the world. The list varies a bit, but it usually includes peace, equality, truth, simplicity, and sometimes community, integrity, sustainability, earthcare. These are often called the Quaker testimonies. This is both a strange way of using the word ‘testimony’ – think of giving testimony in court – and tends to make these things remote and sound acceptable to everyone. That has political uses, for sure. But it also hides the counter-cultural nature of many of them. Having an equality testimony could be mistaken for a belief or paying lip-service to equality, rather than actually behaving as if everyone is already equal – as we all are in God’s eyes, but very much aren’t in the social structures in which we live.

Instead of a list of abstract values, we can also see Quaker testimony as something more like the testimony we might be asked to give in court. Like in court, we’re called to give it – and the quality of it will be judged by our peers (the jury) and by the judge (God?). Like a witness statement, it will be individual – if I didn’t see the crime, I mustn’t say that I did; and if you and I both saw it, we might still have seen very different things. Multiple testimonies might point in the same direction (the butler did it!) but they can’t be reduced to that conclusion. Instead of a crime, though, we’re giving a witness statement about what we see as the truth of the world, revealed in our spiritual experiences and through meeting for worship. And as well as using words, we can give our testimony through actions – behaving as if the world we’ve glimpsed, the Divine Commonwealth or Kingdom of Heaven, is already here.

Will that be a unifying force? The list of values certainly can be unifying in some ways. Lots of people agree that peace, truth, and equality are a good ideas. What we tend not to agree about is how we should get there – the pacifist and the just war advocate both want peace, but they don’t agree about the route to it. Sometimes it isn’t obvious – I don’t use any titles because I want to achieve equality, but in some professional settings where sexism is a strong factor, not using my earned title, Dr, might prevent me from being treated equally with men who are my peers. Neither path is an easy or automatic route to equal respect for all people. Explaining our reasons, as well as acting and naming values, might be necessary in order to make common ground with those who agree with our aims but might be using different methods.

Another question we might want to ask is: do we want a unifying force? It sounds good, but it might not be that simple. I would need to think carefully before I declared myself in unity with, or even on the same side as, some of the people who are working for the same goals – but through means that I think are contrary to those goals. Consider, for example, the ‘this just war is this one which will bring peace!’ position. As a pacifist, who thinks that war is always wrong, does it help me to be ‘unified’ with people who hold that view? Or those who uphold ‘equality’ between some people by contributing to the exclusion of others – speaking out against that, rather than trying to be unified with it, might be part of my testimony.

Alternatively, perhaps the searcher was wondering whether the Quaker values are a unifying force within the Quaker community. I would say that they are to some extent. The list of values can be useful as a shorthand, a teaching device, or a test of knowledge – starting any analysis of anything by reference to ‘the testimonies’ can provide a shared structure from which to move forward. However, the existence of different lists in different communities, and the problem of explaining that the lists are recent convenient devices rather than a core or central truth of Quakerism, suggests that they are not as unifying as all that. The lists can also be a bit lacking or weak – why don’t they include Love and Justice, for example? Given that, would we want them to be the unifying force in Quakerism? Do we need anything extra to unify us as a community? This sometimes comes up in discussion where there’s an underlying anxiety about something else – that our theology is too diverse, that our practice of unprogrammed meeting for worship isn’t clear enough or lacks a shared understanding, or that our bonds of friendship and love aren’t strong enough to hold us together.

Articulating our testimony/testimonies can help us explain and teach our faith, and living a witness to the truths we know is part of that faith itself – but ‘Quaker values’ can’t stand in for other work we also need to do.

Hotel Transylvania – a Quaker review?

Hotel Transylvania, and the sequel Hotel Transylvania 2, are cartoons about Dracula, who runs a hotel and wants to protect his daughter from dangers, such as humans. We watched them on Netflix and I liked them enough to go on thinking about them, although as you’ll see in this post I have some questions. Inevitably – spoilers coming, although this is genuinely fairly obvious as plot twists go – Dracula’s daughter not only meets a human but falls in love with him.

They’re funny films. There is some cartoon violence – they are, after all, monsters – although this is frequently subverted. Having watched them both, I found myself wondering what a Quaker reading of them might be. And saying ‘bleh, bleh bleh’ repeatedly. (It’s… I can’t explain, you have to experience it yourself.)

One possibility is to look at the themes around equality. Like a lot of other stories which involve ‘normal’ humans mixing with ‘monsters’ (usually human-like in many ways but with extra abilities or strikingly different bodies), the Hotel Transylvania could easily be read as incorporating metaphors for difference within the human population. The core ‘vampire falls for human’ narrative can easily be given a queer reading (as is often done for narratives like the X-Men). The story in the second film where there’s conflict over whether the child is really a vampire or really human could readily be taken as a story about racial equality (compare with the struggle sometimes seen over whether biracial children are ‘really’ black or white – I embedded my answer in the choice of the term ‘biracial’, of course). The emphasis on bodily difference – does the baby have fangs? can humans disguise themselves as monsters? – could be considered from the perspective of critical disability studies, asking, for example, why it is the monsters who have both extra abilities (vampires can fly) and disabilities (extreme sun sensitivity).

None of those themes is a perfect fit. Some of the narrative elements are extremely mainstream – although Dracula’s daughter Mavis falls in love with a human, the story rests wholly on the concept of a ‘one true love’, with whom you, in the film’s term, “zing”. This commitment to lifelong monogamy, and the idea that both partners (and the rest of the world) just know and accept that is distinctly heteronormative. The issues around race are dealt with in quite a shallow way, with one character’s misidentification of a very hairy man as a werewolf played entirely for laughs and an assumption that it is personal prejudice, not systemic issues, which are the root of the problem (‘humans like us now’, the monsters realise; and the aged grandfather who hates humans comes round as soon as he realises his granddaughter is happy with one…). Although the possible representation of disability is more complex, characters are shown easily overcoming physical limitations (can’t go out in the sun? just wear a big hat!) and the moves towards equality which are made by showing ‘monsters’ sympathetically are balanced or overwhelmed by the extent to which disabilities are always the basis of jokes.

There could be a peace theme. Although there are violent moments and attacks, the overall narrative also shows the end of a years-long conflict. Frankenstein (actually his monster, as Frank will explain when he gets a chance) is afraid of fire and all the monsters begin from a fear of humans, after lifetimes of being attacked. By the end, monsters and humans live in harmony – the vampire children’s camp has adopted human norms (mockable ones, of course, like friendship and health & safety), and the human family can come and visit Hotel Transylvania whenever they like.

It isn’t this simple, though. The monster attitude towards humans improves during the two films, but the proclamations that it ‘doesn’t matter’ whether baby is a monster or a human never quite ring true – everyone knows that it will affect his future. The human attitude towards monsters, at the same time, tends towards the touristy. Having got over fear, the humans we see in the wider world usually go for either hero-worship or requesting selfies. It’s nice in the short term but it doesn’t reflect genuine comfort. To return to my reading of the story as a racial analogy, it’s rather like the white woman who told me how ‘wonderfully colourful’ Birmingham is. Delighting in the exotic certainly feels to the oppressor like a step forward from fear or disgust, but it’s a long way short of true equality and can be extremely stressful for the oppressed group, who are often pressured to perform correctly in that exotic role.

Is anything about this film simple? Well, perhaps. Many of the jokes are plain farce or wordplay. The plots are mostly straightforward with easy-to-predict twists. If you don’t spend too much time thinking about it – sorry, after reading this post it may be too late for that – these are fun, kid-friendly films with enough going on to amuse adults, too. And staying at home and watching Netflix is a pretty simple thing to do, and very important at the moment. Of course, paying for Netflix and the kit to watch it on may not – especially in ordinary times – be a key feature of the stereotypical simple life, but in some ways it seems to be worth it!

Choosing what to be good at

“You should be good at chess,” said the maths teacher who ran the lunchtime chess club when I turned up to try it one day. I’d played a little bit of chess at home, and I wanted to be in a supervised space rather than in what I experienced as the violent wilderness of the playground, so I went to see what it was like. Despite some initial attractions – indoors, sitting down, not being mocked for being clever – it didn’t keep me. That was partly because I didn’t get on with the company (the football playing boys outside were sexist and loud, while the chess playing boys inside were quieter but still sexist – and teenage girls could tell at a glance that I had Social Death Plague). It also had a lot to do with chess itself: although I’m fine with most of the individual bits of chess, can plan ahead, think about moves, remember patterns, etc., I didn’t actually have any motivation to use those skills for this task. I couldn’t see the point. Nothing much of interest happens during a game. At the end, you might win, but you might not, and both of you take it personally.

I was thinking about this recently when I heard some people making clear pronouncements about tasks they are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ at – specifically, a group were discussing various tasks, including one which involved devising systems and ways of organising things, probably with an IT element. Several people said in conversations about this: “don’t let me near that” or “I’m terrible at those things”. It got me thinking about who is allowed to declare such things and when: in that situation, such declarations were not challenged, while wheelchair users who can also walk even a tiny distance report that they are strongly discouraged from reducing the amount of walking they do, or even told they shouldn’t be using the wheelchair at all. And about how and when we make such declarations: recently, my mother found a list of my strengths and weaknesses which she had written when we were considering where I should go to secondary school. On the ‘good at’ list, she’d written ‘science’. It stood out as something which no longer seems true, although most of the other items were right (for example, the ‘bad at’ list included not getting on well with my peer group, which is probably still true and is much in evidence in the chess-club story above!). Somewhere between 10 and 13, I discovered or decided that I was bad at science. Even though my dad was a science teacher and my grandmother a researcher with a PhD in zoology. Even though my dad had a poster of Jocelyn Burnell in his lab. Even though I was taught science by women. Even though I wanted to be an archaeologist, and knew science would be required. What happened?

Bad teaching and bad school conditions (a top set science class with 36 out-of-control kids, in which it’s never safe to do practicals) probably had something to do with it. Lack of motivation for the immediate work, as with chess, is probably also a factor. But my sense is that there’s a broader issue, which is about capacity and personality formation. An adult member of my Quaker meeting said to me at around this age something like, “It’s hard to be a good all-rounder.” That remark seems to me to be onto something about the general pressures of these situations. I didn’t actually think of myself as a good all-round student – although I usually got good marks in most academic subjects, I was abjectly aware of all the areas of life in which I was a miserable failure. (PE. Making friends. Being happy. Music.) I did see what she meant, though. School performance is meant to be maintained. When you get a good mark, you don’t get to stop, you have to go on and get the same or a better one next time. In the absence of someone else saying, “that’s okay, you’ve done enough”, I found ways to choose to identify myself as good at things I actively enjoyed, things where persisting would be its own reward (reading, writing, and, err, more reading), and to declare myself ‘bad at’ things where I didn’t see the point or felt incapable of the level of effort it would take me to achieve the next thing which would be demanded of me. I did this with maths and PE before secondary school, science, music, and languages while I was there, and with hobbies: swimming, chess, horse riding.

Writing this, I imagine that some readers are judging my actions. (I know the education system was judging me.) People say things like: Try harder! You shouldn’t stop, you should work at it! You can do anything if you put your mind to it! Proof that you’re lazy! Well, maybe. But what if it’s actually more like a process of simplification? In the group who were discussing various tasks, we ended up with four tasks to choose from, and I would honestly have to say that I thought I would be fairly good at and have something to contribute to all four. What I don’t have is the energy and focus to do all four properly, along with everything else which needs doing in life. Perhaps deciding not to try too hard, to allow oneself not to be good at some things – or even more controversially in a world where effort is meant to be key, to give up or not bother – is actually a move towards simplicity and not having too many irons in the fire.

I can indeed do all sorts of things if I put my mind to them. It must have been a great frustration to some of my teachers when they could see that I chose not to. There is a skill which might be learned from this refusal, though: a skill of discernment, a skill of attending to what is top priority, a skill of seeking to become what God needs me to be and not what others want me to be. I’m still working on this skill (there’s a good chance I’ll end up trying at least three of those four tasks…), but I am trying to honour it as a skill and not a failing, in myself and in others – some of whom will be choosing not to do something I think they could or ought to do!

Paddling hard or going with the flow?

This morning I walked to Meeting for Worship through the park. My route takes me next to a stream for much of the way, and at one place I saw a duck. This is a pretty common occurrence, but I noticed this duck because it was in the stream, well out from the sides, but seemed to be still. At first I thought the stream must be shallower than it looked, and the duck standing on the bottom. Then I realised that the duck was puddling upstream at exactly the same speed as the water was flowing downstream, so that it was working hard to stay in one place.

a tarmac path winds through autumn woodland, with trees on both sides

I didn’t manage to photograph the duck, so this is just a picture of a path in the same general area.

I took that image into meeting, where I was contemplating, as I often do, Advices & Queries 28: “undertake or relinquish responsibilities without undue pride or guilt”. Sometimes it seems like however many things I stop doing, I’m still just as busy! Of course, that’s because new things start, or existing things expand, and I notice the ‘no’s more than the ‘yes’es especially when it’s a struggle or my decision needs a lot of explaining.

As I settle into my new flat – I’ve been in it for a year, but it still seems new! – and my new city – I’ve been here for two and a half years, but it still seems new! – and my new relationship – less than six months, that genuinely is new šŸ™‚ – I’m finding myself needing more space and unscheduled time, or perhaps being more accepting of my need for space and unscheduled time. When you’re hunting for a job, everyone expects to be able to see your feet paddling as hard as possible, even if – like the duck in the park – you’re only going fast enough to stay still. Stopping, turning round and going with the flow, seems inconceivable.

“A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength,” says another passage in Advices & Queries (41). I find it’s much easier to ‘choose’ a ‘simple’ lifestyle if you already have certain things which are not simple at all, or easy to obtain. I can say no to paid work much more easily when I already have enough paid work to cover my bills, and I can say no to voluntary work much more easily when nobody is demanding to see my CV or asking me what I’m doing to develop my skills or build my professional networks. Is that really a choice, or an expression of the privileges which come with being middle class, white, educated and employed?

Enough for now

Life has run away with me. The seasons have turned, autumn is here, and I almost let September go by without writing a blog post.

an old storage heater has been opened - the red bricks are visible inside a beige case next to my blue sofa

Out with the old, in with the warmth

I like autumn. I like the sense of new beginnings, probably because I associate it with school years starting. I like picking up conkers. This year, I’ve had new heaters installed in my flat (the dramatic part, pictured above, was removed the old ones).

eight jars of various sizes, all with different coloured lids and filled with brown chutney, stand on a corner of a kitchen counter

Green tomato chutney.

I’ve had a horrible cold – the kind of thing we used to call ‘fresher’s flu’ – and have been obscurely glad that the growing season is coming to an end. Visits to the allotment down to once a week from twice a week; green tomatoes gathered in and made into chutney; soon the time of armchair gardening, when it rains and you stay at home and read seed catalogues, will be here.

a collection of objects on a shelf: a grey feather, a multi-coloured autumn leaf, four small conkers, a white stone, a green/terracotta clay Goddess image, a white and silver candle in a green saucer, in front of a black speaker

Nature table

In the midst of all this, I’ve found myself going back to one of the practices of my childhood: the nature table. It would be easy to big this up with long words (it’s mindful! it’s spiritual! it’s about connection with nature and gratitude and seasonal awareness!) but it for me it isn’t really motivated by any of those things. It’s an instinct: something interesting fell off a tree (or a bird, or came out the ground) so I’m going to take it home and look at it.

Enough for now.

Five Reasons Quakers Can Celebrate Christmas

InĀ Quaker faith & practice, passage 27.42 says:

A… testimony held by early Friends was that against the keeping of ā€˜times and seasonsā€™. We might understand this as part of the conviction that all of life is sacramental; that since all times are therefore holy, no time should be marked out as more holy; that what God has done for us should always be remembered and not only on the occasions named Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.

This is a testimony which seems to be dying of neglect. Many Friends, involved with family and the wider society, keep Christmas; in some meetings, Easter and its meaning is neglected, not only at the calendar time but throughout the year. What I would hope for is neither that we let the testimony die, nor that we keep it mechanically. I hope for a rediscovery of its truth, that we should remember and celebrate the work of God in us and for us whenever God by the Spirit calls us to this remembrance and this joy.

Janet Scott, 1994

With all due respect to my friend and sometime co-tutor Janet Scott, I want to put forward some reasons why we should not just let this testimony go, but actively get rid of it. I think we will do better at keeping what Janet describes as its truth – will do better at remembering and celebrating the work of God whenever the Spirit calls us to do so – if we set aside some times to do so consciously, not mechanically but regularly. puts on ‘devil’s advocate for God’ hat

1. We already do.

Meetings hold Christmas celebrations. They have special meals, sing carols, and let the kids do a play. They cancel study groups and committee meetings, and expect that people will spend time with their families. This year, December 25th falls on a Sunday, so this will be invisible – but when it doesn’t, meetings all over Britain hold special Christmas Meetings for Worship. Fewer meetings – but some – also hold extra Meetings for Worship on Good Friday (some serve hot cross buns as well). I once challenged this and was told that it was because people were free on the bank holiday, and indeed Yearly Meeting uses the May bank holidays for some two years of its three yearly cycle, butĀ it’s very rare for local meetings to use other bank holidays, and not on anything like the same regular basis. There’s no special end of August Meeting for Worship, so there’s something about Christmas and Easter. If we are to be honest, we need to stop pretending that we don’t celebrate these festivals.

2. We’re Christians.

Okay, some of us aren’t. I’m not, actually – from time to time I think I might be starting to get on not-so-badly with this Jesus guy, and then I meet some Christian Christians, you know the type, the sort who think I’m doing it wrong if I agree with Jesus rather than singing slightly erotic songs aboutĀ him, or who think I’ll go to hell for dating women, or who are sure that if I’d really read the New Testament I’d be going to their church. And when that happens, I decide that I’ll stay not-quite-a-Christian, thank you very much. As a Quaker, though, I am a member of a Christian church, and I shouldn’t be allowed to hide from that. Even stronger: I should be routinely offered the chance to engage with all that is helpful and enriching and spiritually fulfilling in Christianity in case I want to take the plunge and open up the maybe-I’m-Christian-even-if-I’m-not-one-of-those-Christians space. Celebrating Christmas is a chance for us to do that.

3. Christmas – and Easter – hold key theological messages.

“In some meetings,” Janet wrote in 1994, “Easter and its meaning is neglected.” Although I do know a few meetings where it is celebrated, the theological meanings of Easter – the Good News about the Resurrection, for example – aren’tĀ the sort of thing we hear about very often in a typical Quaker meeting. Although Christmas is a bigger feature, how many Friends actually contemplateĀ the implications of God being born in a human body, rather than enjoying a few good tunes and a mince pie? If we opened up and said, yes, we are going to celebrate these things, we could look more directly at how we celebrate them and whether we are getting the most spiritual benefit from the process. In time, this might extend beyond Christmas and Easter to Pentecost and other stories which are embedded in the Christian liturgical calendar.

4. Seasonal cycles support our commitment to sustainability.

When we regard nature as alien and winter weather as an obstacle, it’s much harder for us to buy into arguments about why we should save the planet. The seasons change all the time, but Christmas is a point at which it’s socially more acceptable to admire evergreen trees, reflect on the days starting to lengthen, and appreciate the beauty of snow. This can be a starting point for a process of connecting more deeply to the natural world – animals, plants, weather, and climate. The understanding we gain through that process can shore up our determination to make lifestyle changes and campaign for larger social changes in order to protect our environment.

5. It’s fun.

Which is sometimes enough reason all on its own.

This isn’t an argument for extra buying, extra plastic, or doing anything you don’t want to do. It is an argument for enjoying the process of giving a few well-chosen presents and spending time with people you love. It is an argument for sharing and discussing traditional stories, stories which can have a truth beyond the facts. It is an argument for thinking about how your Christmas celebrations can be simple, truthful, sustainable, peaceful. It is an argument for not apologising: if you’re going to put up decorations, sing carols, and eat with family, don’t feel you have to add “even though it’s not Quakerly”.We canĀ use it as part of our Quaker path.

Simplicity and its antonyms

I recently read (via Facebook) a very interesting blog post about Quaker testimonies. It’s good; I suggest you go and read it. The main question it addresses is ‘why do Quakers have testimonies?’ which is an excellent thing to ask and deserves attention.

However, one stray comment in it attracted my attention for other reasons – in talking about the modern list of the testimonies, Derek points out that we are hardly alone in wanting peace, truth, simplicity, etc. Indeed, he says we are unlikely to meet people “who would say they believe in violence, dishonesty, discrimination, and complexity”. Well, I think there a few around for the first three – quite a lot of people can accept dishonesty when it’s to their benefit, for example. The last one, though, seems like a misplaced word. I’m a Quaker. I try and live out a testimony to simplicity as best I can. But I don’t think it’s opposed to complexity.

Perhaps it helps to begin by thinking about another Quaker word, now a bit out of fashion but a traditional and useful one: plain. Think of plain dress, plain speech, use of plain names, and so forth. The opposite of plain is decorated. Dress which is un-plain is fancy, in lots of colours, lots of patterns, etc. A plain name is just a name, with no title or other additions. Plain speech can perfectly well use complex sentences, with sub-clauses and other features, but it aims to say what needs to be said without untruth, flattery, or embellishment.

Complexity, on the other hand, is a feature of the world – and denying it doesn’t help. At the beginning of that post, Derek talks about his nephew asking about how plants grow. Photosynthesis is a very complex process, which is vital to life on earth, and yet I don’t take plants – which are just going about their ordinary business of living – to be un-plain. (Putting flowers on the Meeting House table we can debate.) Plainness might be opposed to unnecessary additions of extra complications. My understanding of plainness in dress leads me to own a small number of basic and hard wearing shoes, for example, rather than a pair for every day of the year. Complexity isn’t a problem, though – as the computer programmers say, it’s a feature, not a bug – and wishing for ‘simplicity’ won’t take it away.

As I pray over the very complex situation in Syria at the moment, a situation which seems to beĀ  short on plain speaking, perhaps I won’t try to simplify things, but to understand their complexities and express them plainly.