On Control

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“Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to Adam to see what he would name them; and whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name.” (Genesis 2:19)

This rodent is my son’s pet; that rodent is food for my daughter’s pet snake – and those rodents, those are vermin. These people helped me once; they are friends. Those people hurt me once; they are treacherous. In the beginning was the Word, indeed.

The “Word of God” and the words of human reason and habit reverberate through different levels of our consciousness. In Quaker worship, in waiting worship, we wait for unencumbered meaning. We wait for the straightjacket of vocabulary to loosen its grip on our awareness and grant us glimpses of naked reality: We are finite. We are dependent. We devour, and we are devoured. We are but children. We wield the power of reason, but the power of reason is a fragile thing among all the other powers that enclose us – the momentum of history and nature and infinity and beyond. And reason is also a fragile thing among all the other mental forces that suffuse us – unexamined assumptions, automatic reactions, the certainty that we are central to our own lives.

Humans are social animals. Within our own groups, we experience compassion, generosity, and candor. But towards other groups, we respond too easily with self-righteousness, resentment, and suspicion.

The power of reason is a thin veneer over other forces of the human mind, yet by reason we make progress against global hunger and disease; we make progress towards democracy and universal human rights. We do so by allowing our reason to reverberate with the Word of Truth, which says that all of reality is “our own group.”

And without that reverberation, it seems that “our own group,” writ small, must eat or be eaten. Human reason can coldly engineer horrific winning strategies for the home team. As described by Martin Ennals in his Preface to Public Policy and the Use of Torture by Friend Eric Baker (1975), “Prisoners have often been tortured for the purpose of punishing or taking revenge on them, for the purpose of intimidating them or a broader public, to force them into co-operating with the authorities and, to judge by the gruesome quality often found in the recent practice of torture, for the sadistic pleasure of their captors.” (Both men served as Secretary Generals of Amnesty International.)

And without some reverberation with the Word of Truth, objective reality – observable, measurable, replicable reality – becomes moot. People spout brazen falsehoods to demonstrate group loyalty. “Identity-protective cognition (IPC) . . . refers to the unconscious tendency of people to selectively credit and dismiss factual information . . . [for] the protection of one’s status within an important affinity group,” explains cognitive researcher Dan M. Kahan of Yale Law School (2017).

Therefore, Friends should celebrate whenever we fail to sing from the same song sheet. One of Friends’ greatest gifts to the world is our practice of seeking One Truth by each of us doing our own seeking, and all of us seeking separately together. Then we come down to earth to figure things out – how to create peace and justice, how to heal body and soul.

“The only excuse for having embarked on a deliberately restrained and, in the proper sense of the word, ‘academic’ discussion of [torture] is the conviction that civilized habits, however frail, will in the end re-assert themselves . . . through the process of rational discussion.” – Eric Baker (1974)

Let each of us take our humble place in the grandeur of reality. Let all of us civilly help each other name what we are seeing, see where we are going, and learn what we must do.