Quaker Water

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There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” – David Foster Wallace, This is Water (2009)

The question that American novelist David Foster Wallace attributed to two young fish is one that he invested the last few years of his short life exploring. His book This is Water comprises the text of a commencement speech he delivered to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, which was also widely shared on YouTube. In that speech, Wallace was clear that his purpose was not to present himself to the graduates as a wise, old fish. Rather, he identified with the young fish struggling to fully understand and live in water every day, yet he was willing to share his explorations with others. Through that speech and through his final, posthumously published novel, The Pale King (2011), Wallace dove into the challenges of creating and sustaining a profoundly meaningful life. He calls such a meaningful relationship with life “precious freedom,” and his aspiration was similar to that of Friends who seek to live in relation with the “Inner Light.” Wallace considered the primary obstacle to precious freedom to be a Westernized society that continually pushes individuals to live through default settings: narrowly focused, gadget-obsessed, stress-drenched, value-draining, self-satiating modes that devour individuals within the products and structures they are encouraged to consume.

One hundred years earlier, Rufus Jones wrote of similar concerns from a significantly different perspective – his own peculiar form of Quaker progressivism. Most notably in two of his books, Social Law in the Spiritual World (1904) and The Double Search (1906), Jones sought to elucidate what he (and many others) saw as a marked decline in both American religious participation and spiritual vitality. Jones viewed two social forces as consuming the attention and energy that previous generations invested into spiritual devotion: on the one hand, the stifling practices of traditional religious institutions, and on the other hand, the popularization of scientific research, modernist perspectives, and a middle-class lifestyle. However, rather than identify these latter elements as the enemies of religion, he sought to explore how they could become avenues to reform tradition and inspire new spiritual vitality.

These works by Wallace and Jones – two men speaking while in their mid-thirties in separate centuries – complement each other in making a compelling case for participation in Quaker worship today. Both men conclude community building is the only real means to experience “precious freedom” or the “Inner Light.” Both are unequivocal: It is not despite the difficult attributes of community, but exactly because of them, that we are able find our way. The process that Friends call “discernment” is a primary example, a process that sometimes demands maddening amounts of time, energy, patience, empathy, relationship repairing, boundary testing, and self-examination.

Jones begins his exploration of theology and spirituality by seeking to illuminate the Divine-human relationship and the ways this relationship can help humans manifest God’s peace and justice in the world. He introduces the term “affirmative mysticism” to describe practices he advocates for deepening one’s relationship with the Inner Light. For Jones, self-sacrifice is critical to the process, but he distinguishes an affirmative sacrifice – in which one avoids obstacles that hinder one’s relationship with the Inner Light – from a negation sacrifice – in which one denies the very self that is seeking Divine relationship (a type of sacrifice Jones argued was over promoted, overly romanticized, and relatively unrealistic).

In Social Law, Jones explains he is hesitant to even use the term “self-sacrifice” because of potential confusion: “[Self-sacrifice] is not a very appropriate term for the great positive fact which we are considering. It turns attention to the loss rather than to the gain, to the surrender rather than to the attainment. Consecration is a better word, though perhaps at first it sounds too exalted. It is, however, no rare and uncommon thing. It is a feature of the most ordinary person’s life.” Jones goes on to emphasize that the Inner Light calls humanity to turn toward the world, rather than to seek to transcend it. For Jones, building community, social justice, and peace work are the true experience of a deep relationship with God.

Wallace, dramatically, states his central, existential concern is a genuine life in the Twenty-First Century West. “The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe even 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.” For him, capital-T Truth says we must work to retain our simple awareness, concern for others, and deep consciousness in decision-making, despite the mind-numbing tedium of daily concerns and routine personal interactions that tend to push us back into default settings and the pursuit of self-satisfaction. Wallace believes we all seek precious freedom, but we often misunderstand it and think of it as a static state that can be achieved through one dramatic action. Rather, precious freedom is an ongoing dynamic, sustained by the hard work of practiced empathy and daily choices to follow through on the small, “unsexy” community-building actions that are essential to becoming and remaining a whole person.

Wallace’s ideas are not revolutionary; indeed, they are the crux of nearly every civic ethics and religious catechism. However, the visceral examples and uncomfortable honesty he employed to make his points transformed the twenty-minute video of his commencement speech into a generational touchstone. In one example, he worked his audience into a cheering crowd by delivering a rant against arrogant, gas-guzzling, rude drivers with self-satisfied bumper stickers . . . and then he interrupts his own rant to make his point – that his audience’s ready cheers are exactly the sort of response he is encouraging them to resist. He emphasizes we must counteract our own arrogance and self-satisfaction, and resist our ready assumptions that we know who others are based on a few clues and our own self-focused immediate circumstances. He emphasizes, “It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.”

In contrast, Jones emphasizes the positive, practical, and renewing qualities a relationship with the Inner Light brings to an individual. The Inner Light answers existential angst by providing an indomitable source of inspiration and by revealing an unceasing call to fulfill God’s will in the world. In the Double Search, Jones states that through a relationship with the Inner Light, “We are no longer in the net of blind fate, in the realm of impersonal force, we are in a love-system where the aspiration of one member heightens the entire group, and the need of one – even the least – draws upon the resources of the whole – even the Infinite. We are in actual Divine-human fellowship.” For Jones, human community is the context in which the individual is able to both approach Divine communion and remain grounded in self. Much like Wallace’s conception of precious freedom, this path is not easy, nor static. It requires daily renewal. By imbuing the faithful individual with a sense of universal fellowship, God calls the individual to overcome systems of warfare, institutional poverty, oppression, marginalization, and existential threat. The faithful cannot ignore the systems that threaten human communion because they inherently undermine Divine communion as well. “We are all in this together” is no mere aphorism for Rufus Jones. Nor is it for David Foster Wallace.

There is no deliverance till the soul says, “I will be free,” and God and man tug on the same side. Wherever any citadel of evil is battered, God and man are there together. God finds a human organ and man draws on the inexhaustible resources of God. – Rufus Jones, The Double Search (1906)

[Real education] has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water. This is water.” – David Foster Wallace, This Is Water (2009)

Quaker worship is an odd, old practice of sitting together in silent, waiting reverence – perhaps punctuated by Friends’ “messages.” Here we prepare to answer the call to tug with God in opposition to the citadels of evil (warfare, poverty, oppression, marginalization, and existential threat). This call can be nearly imperceptible. Or it can be dramatic, sometimes frightening, even risky. Either way, it emerges when Friends nurture community together through worship – through simple awareness of genuine time, energy, patience, empathy, relationship repairing, boundary testing, and self-examination. Worship is Quaker water. ~~~

Jack Rowan is a Master of Divinity student at the Earlham School of Religion, focusing on pastoral care. He is a member of Missoula Friends Meeting and the Montana Gathering of Friends (NPYM).