10 November 2009

Gossip as the Dark Side of Community

 Exodus 20:16
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

Matthew 12:36
But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.

Ephesians 4:29;31
Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers... Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.

I've had my interest picqued to the discussions online about gossip lately (http://emergingquaker.blogspot.com/2009/11/gossip-and-quakers.html, http://www.quakerranter.org/gossip_and_ownward_spirals.php).  It's an issue that has alternately plagued and perturbed me, so I'd like to throw in my lot, including a bit of perspective I've learned from 12 step programs:

The attraction of gossip, as I see it, is that when I am involved in talking about someone else, I am able to avoid a host of other things, like taking responsibility for myself and my actions, saying uncomfortable things to people (like, "stop talking about others, please!").  Then there's the entertainment value of gossip, which, while occupying an extremely low rung in the intelligence/entertainment scale, I'll admit, does seem to be what gets people started.

Something in human nature has us crave information about others.  On a certain level, it is a part of what being community is, caring about your neighbors, thinking of others, etc.  However, almost as soon as a word is uttered, the dark side of community is out.  Here all of human nature turns on itself, and we are drawn to the colorful, the curious, and most certainly the weakest.
It's a little like the wounded cat in a den of lions; even though they know it to be one of their own, they cannot resist picking at it, sometimes even killing it and eating it!  It is a short route from caring for ones' own to destroying the weak link.  Is this a part of humans too?

I've seen it even in little children as they pick on the weakest in their lot.  This morning I was involved in a discussion with some friends about how we handled being bullied as children, and how we taught our own children. Even though I frequently felt defenseless as a child, something in me gave me the courage to line up my neighbor friends against the baseball backstop and rail at them when I felt they had hurt my little brother.   I raised my children to be non-violent, to be thoughtful of even the smallest or weakest in the group, to show mercy to all, and to have compassion as they would want.  Never, I told them, was there a reason to strike another, and the route to dealing with bullies was to ignore them.  I know for a fact they sometimes suffered at the hands of bullies as a result, but I know as well that they remain committed to non-violence, as I do.

Another friend told of her mom teaching her how to make a fist, and to hit once and as hard as possible, to deter bullies.  Another said her mother fought her battles for her.  We were trying to look at how these philosophies stood us as adults, when our neighbors or co-workers seemed determined to dog us.

I still maintain that my strongest offense is being prepared, and that planned ignorance gets me a long way.  What always comes to mind is Ghandi's refusal to respond to violence with violence, and how ultimately those perpetrators came to look foolish or weak in the eyes of others.  I have seen that same thing happen when one refuses to accept gossip about another.

This seems, however, like the hardest issue to make any headway with people about:  When people start to gossip, tell them you would rather not have this information, I say.  Even if it's about you, trust me, you don't want to know it.  In AA they have a saying, "what other people think about me is none of my business."  It's true, and it is good advice.  What I don't know can't hurt me, and when you tell me, trust me, it is going to hurt me, and you can't possibly know how much.  So while I can't stop you from gossiping, I can certainly try to keep you from giving me the information.

I have to be compassionate towards myself as well as others.  If I allow another person to pass gossip, I am as responsible as the other person for the results, which will inevitably be more far-reaching than I could ever have seen.  Try as I may, I can't guarantee (nor can you, I'd reckon)  that I won't pass information on, particularly if I think it could serve some "good purpose."   I can't predict what effect the information is going to have on me either, as far as coloring my otherwise good relationship with a person.  Try as I may, I am pitifully poor at remembering that this information is only one opinion about the person, and the more juicy the information it is, the more amnesiac my brain becomes.

I hate that part of myself, and I hate it in others.  So there seems to be only one solution, which is to never let myself hear the information.  I can't stop the harm that others might be bent on doing me, but I can certainly refuse to take notice of it.  I can refuse to lower my standards of living my beliefs, by not letting slander into my frame of reference.

I have been the victim of this kind of gossip, in my own meeting, so I speak from a place of knowledge of both sides of the street.  I know that the people who passed information about me that was hurtful were convinced that they spoke "the truth."  If it was, it was their own truth, not mine.  What they interpreted as ignorance or blindness on my part was in fact an attempt to be compassionate, in a way that did not fit those individuals; definitions.  The result was that we all felt separated and alone, wounded, in the midst of our community.

In our meeting, we have since tried to address this kind of behavior by teaching each other that if a friend comes to us with information, we reply, "Let us go together to this person to see if this information is true or has any merit," or "Let us seek out the help of elders together, so that we can see our way clear of this."  We do not want to "accidentally" pass on erroneous  information, nor do we want to fail to address a situation that might be cause for alarm.  By going to the individual to seek clarity, or by seeking the help of wise others, we will hopefully avoid unnecessary hurt.

Over and over we have heard that this path of ours as Friends is one of attraction not of promotion.  How can we claim this and not see that the most powerful lesson we teach is the power of example.

Practicing refusal to lay claim to negative information about another, whether it be false information about a friend or the president, is one of the simplest forms of speaking truth to power.   I say, simply, "Please do not give me this information."   I ask, "What is your purpose in giving me this information?"  If I hear a cause for alarm, I say, "Let us seek the help of others."
I love my community, and I will go to any lengths to protect it.  Keeping secrets from others is never a safe or healthy form of protection.

07 November 2009

"Quakers live their principles." (Friends as a Corrective for Culture, Part 2)

I found this apt quote in the exquisite article in November's Friend's Journal, "Living in Right Relationship:  How Does Spirit Call Us?"  The writer was told by a good friend that they might be a Quaker, because "Quakers live their principles."  Simple. This revelation, which also came to me quite a few years ago, on a wistful New Years' Eve, has turned out to be the making of a life's journey.  That year it came to me that rather than making the proverbial list, I need to only "Live What I Believe."

Simple is not always easy.  What's refreshing about Hollister Knowlton's article is the suggestions towards action, "10 steps you can do that give me hope."  I love queries, but I sometimes like suggestions too.  In looking at how others have answered their queries, I am offered the opportunity to come to new places myself, places I hadn't thought of before.

Originally, I saw Friends as the corrective to the hypocritical, Sunday-go-to-church crowd I was sick and tired of from my traditional church upbringing.  I was seeking, but I was seeking out of anger and disgust and frustration that it seemed the world of the 1970s was full of people who liked to talk a big show but were incapable of or uninterested in living it.   Gradually, as I became immersed in a community of people who walked their talk, I was able to shed off the anger at "those others," and focus more on the doing and being myself.

I have an acceptance of what is that serves me well these days.  I'm no longer frustrated with the empty  talkers, and sometimes I'm even able to let the negativity sowers be.  Why?  Because the business of living what one believes does not allow much time for my own negativity.  When I find myself sinking to that point, I know I am avoiding some part of myself I do not want to face.

I'm not going to review Knowlton's article here, other than to tell you that it is good reading, good food for thought, and it offers a bit of a roadmap for living in right relationship with the earth, something we could all use.  Please read it; I don't think you will be disappointed.

For this discussion,  I'm using the article as a jumping off point for my latest soapbox, Friends as a Corrective for Culture.

I've been alarmed by some of the posts that I've found on sites like wikipedia and expert.com that stated that Friends follow individualistic spiritual paths. This is a gross misstatement of our manner of being.  While Friends may welcome others, wherever they are on their spiritual path, the path is neither an individualistic or solitary one.  For the path of being a Quaker is one that can not be defined in a vacuum; it must be experienced as a part of the whole.

What makes Friends a corrective for culture is exactly this point:  Friends were formed in the image of the most original followers of Christ:  those disciples that formed the original community around him.  There was an attraction that Fox felt to this haggard group of strangers become friends:  they were the ones who were so filled with faith from the hearing of the words of God spoken through one who felt himself to be God's son, that they were willing to leave everything behind in order that they might follow him.

There was nothing ordinary or regular about the action on the part of the disciples.  There was no reason given, no proof offered as a reason for faith.  It was something felt at a pure level of love.  Those who were touched by the spirit of the teachings of the young Jesus were never the same again.  Often they left their families, their careers, their sense of everything that was secure behind them, and they followed him.  No wonder Fox, beleaguered in his seeking, found renewed faith here.

Most of us are not so privileged to have this experience in our lifetime.  But this is the experience Fox had as he listened inwardly to the voice of Christ.  "There is one, even Christ Jesus who can speak to your condition."  These are the words he heard and spoke to others.

Living one's principles is the hardest thing we do in this world.  Often there is nothing in the external world around us that supports us in doing this.  I imagine this is how Fox felt.  He had traveled around his world, speaking to professors, to pastors, to scholars, to the faithful, and there was none who could speak to his condition.  The regular rituals of his families spiritual. practice did not speak to him.  I imagine that after such a period of searching, he must have felt close to hopeless.   In times I have had like this, I have even questioned (and I know I'm not the only one) whether this life is worth it.  In this low time, George Fox heard the voice of Christ, speaking to him personally, and speaking directly to his condition.

He did not remain alone for long.  Fox himself was moved by the spirit that directed him, and he could not keep quiet.  It did not take long before others were attracted to his message and had begun to gather with him to talk about what was missing in the church of the day.  Those who were uncomfortable and disconcerted met to discuss what they felt was needed to re-value the spiritual life of Christians.  They became so excited by this discourse that they in turn could not remain silent.

Ever since I realized that this was the time of the Bible first being printed in English and becoming available at least to the wealthy, I have been struck by what a new era dawning this was!  No longer was the populace subject to priests and their interpretation of the Word.  People now had access to the Bible, and they were relatively free to interpret what the Scripture said to them, if they dared.  This is where Fox found his direction.  The Bible, and the words of Christ in his heart, did not speak the same message that preachers had tried to teach him; indeed he heard something that might truly be considered heretical.

What was unique about this gathering of seekers was that each brought to the conversation their own leadings.  Fox was as interested in hearing what the others were hearing, as he was in communicating his own message.  The community that evolved was something new indeed: they were freed from the bondage of strict interpretation by powers above them, to be in intimate conversation with the Christ within.

Have you had moments in your spiritual life where you have exhausted your resources, internal and external.  Life is leaving you flat, lacking meaning or direction.  There is no good reason you shouldn't follow the common thought on an issue, yet it doesn't feel right.  You search for justification and find none.  Still their is a nagging feeling inside of you that will not let go and you cannot settle yourself.  After a long period of confusion, you begin to feel a stirring and to find a direction out of your conundrum that is creative, if not outrageous, compared to the common thought.  Is it a relief?  Or is it a point of further confusion?

You must know, as I do, that there are times you have turned inward, and you have "heard" that still small voice, leading you forward in the way you know, without a doubt is the right way.  But what about the times that the leading, while intriguing, seems a little outrageous?  You may feel frightened, because what you feel led to is outside of your comfort zone.

Quakers live their principals.  Not always, not forever, not perfectly, but yes, when we pause to listen, we generally live what we believe.  Just how do we do that?

I know of no healthy person who can individually set out to live their beliefs, and have any success at doing so, in a vacuum.  I don't think humans are built with the ego strength to do such a thing.  Our thoughts can be amazingly creative, but they lack the consistency and clarity to make a real path without one essential ingredient:  community.   Without the support and challenge of those around us, we are quick to stray from what seemed only a second ago a clear path.

It is the community of Friends that brings our inner leading to be the thing which we live.   The voice of God, which we may hear so clearly in that moment, becomes distorted if we leave it to live within our own solitary mind alone.   What separates the sage seeker from the solitary psychotic soul, is the willingness to let the leading stand the test of coming before community.  Without this seasoning, how can be sure one has not just heard one's own narcissistic yearning?

In a strictly individualistic society, everyone is free to develop their own view of what is "ultimate".  The rest of us, who are not such strong leaders, will be led by the charisma of that single leading, if we are not encouraged to question and to challenge.  What makes Friends community different, in my experience, is that it is not a community built out of static teachings from a book.  The mystery of ongoing revelation is constantly unfolding, and the teachings are constantly evolving. It is the community of seekers that brings wholeness to the experience: no one of us can possibly possess the whole picture.  Each of us, listening intently in our times of silent attentiveness, brings to the community table our piece of the puzzle and adds it to the whole. 

Accordingly, one of us may possess the gifts for holding together the physical structure of the commmunity, another the teachings, another the creativity to add a process to the information, another a gift for healing and so forth.  Individually, the pieces may not even make sense.  But if we are willing to worship together, to work together, and to break bread together, we will find that together we form a much stronger and more complete whole.

I may hold a principal that says I should stand for peace.  Individually, I may stand for that peace, by holding a sign, by writing a letter, by praying, or by being a conscientious objector.  If my government, my neighborhood, or the society continue to tell me that I am unpatriotic, or unfair, or unrealistic, I alone may not stand for long by that belief.  However, if in the course of a week, I have a conversation with my friend about my struggle, I may stand a little longer.  If in worship, I hear leadings that speak to the heart of why I am for peace, I may feel strengthened.  In my prayers, I find myself led to speak to others, and they are strengthened.  Perhaps we travel together to a demonstration, or we write letters after worship.  We gather with a family whose child is approaching 18 and we talk about what the choices are.  Gradually, simply, God gathers us together and strengthens us.  The resources God means for me to have to live my path on earth are present in that community. 

If my leading is off base, there is a good chance that in worship I will hear leadings, inwardly or from others, that do not support what I think I am to do.  Thus I will not go too far down the path without a correction, like using a compass to keep my direction.  Gradually, as I am willing to risk sharing my leadings with others, I am offered the direction needed, and I do not feel desperate or lonely on my path.  A friend, who knows me well from participation in the meeting, may feel a leading to talk to me about my own direction, or a wiser, more experienced friend may feel called to "elder" me on a topic where I seem off base.  It's a simple matter of being a part of the whole.

The outside world, as Knowlton tells us, sees that "Quakers Live their Principals."  It could sound like a grand concept.  In reality, it is the end result of living one's life in relationship with God, and in relationship with the community that God has called us to be a part of.  As we understand that God has brought us together, we do not take either our friendships or our community lightly, and we come to live what we are called to, in faith, and with the support of that gift of community.

Friends live their principles, it is true.  As we stand together, as we share a meal, care for each other, push each other to grow, we each find the strength and courage to live what we believe.