The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt; it’s certainty. Even though “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Article 1 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights), human dignity is not, in fact, universally respected, but is instead routinely trampled under the urgency to build, achieve, instruct, repair, etc. People rarely exercise much patience for actions or attitudes that don’t fit into their own plans.
The goodness of life draws us forward. Then, every now and then, we are tempted to keep barreling heedlessly onward – into too much of a good thing. An insight, a calling, a mission, a responsibility, any of these can cut us off from the wisdom that’s only found in the messy confusion of loving our fellows. Then also, every now and then, we are tempted to run in the opposite direction, away from the goodness of life with its relentless demands and the terror of its impermanence. Despair, neglect, shame, loss, any of these can send us cringing away from the kindness of strangers or the kindness of family and friends.
In almost any group, an individual endures continual slights and offenses, continual opportunities to practice forgiveness. Feeling offended, a person can strive to clearly perceive the offending incident – and the real pain in the incident – actually receding into the immutable past, can focus on appreciating that the present and the future are rich with possibilities, and can banish from their mind all thought of pay-back. Forgiveness accomplished, the person then faces a decision about how to interact with the offender(s) going forward. For although an offensive action might be safely encased in the past, its consequences linger in the present, including new information about what the offending person or group is capable of.
As Friends, we are especially equipped with practices that can support us in respecting each other’s dignity and in seeking to make amends. Although a given individual might appear to have little to contribute in a given situation, every person is a full of surprises. Friends from the start have promoted practices that help make way for unexpected contributions, practices that help uphold the dignity of each person’s peculiar agency. “For the preservation of love, concord and a good decorum in this meeting, ’tis earnestly desired that all business that comes before it be managed with gravity and moderation, in much love and Amity, without reflections or retorting . . . since we have no other obligation upon each other but love . . .” (Wiltshire Quarterly Meeting of London Yearly Meeting, 1678) These practices are necessary but not sufficient for us to achieve our purpose as Friends, for as actual human beings, rather than ideal human beings, we frequently fail to treat all business that comes before us with gravity and moderation, but instead pick and choose which business deserves our respect.
Here we have the individual offended, facing the task of forgiveness and the decision about how to proceed. Here we have the offender(s), possibly unaware of the offending incident. Or here we have the offender(s), aware of the incident and possibly also feeling offended. Whether somebody leaves this group will depend upon whether the forces of attraction are stronger than the sense of betrayal that lingers in any of their hearts. It will depend upon whether any of them are willing to invest the time and effort that are required – and to risk the vulnerability – for love of others to overcome indifference and for humble faith to overcome smug self-certainty. It is not sufficient to merely admire our practices. It is necessary to practice them.
“Wherefore let whatsoever is offered, be . . . that the meeting may have opportunity to weigh the matter, and have a right sense of it . . . And also that but one speak at once, and the rest hear. And that private debates and discourses be avoided, and all attend the present business of the Meeting. So will things be carried on sweetly as becomes us, to our comfort: and love and unity be increased: and we better serve Truth and our Society.” (Wiltshire Quarterly, 1678)
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