A thrill is in the air when a storm is on the way. Some creatures run and shout and seek the highest vantage point. Others look for the nearest root cellar. Reckless versus responsible, selfless versus selfish – any reaction to danger can be seen in various lights. Some good neighbors rush to warn the rest to hurry up and take cover. Some keep busy in the cellar, shoring up the weight-bearing timbers.
Public-health and traffic-safety experts have expressed surprise recently about the steep increases in reckless behaviors that they have measured during the pandemic. After decades of improvements in U.S. traffic safety, the rate of highway fatalities rose by 7% in 2020, followed by a rise of 18% during the first half of 2021. Drivers are increasingly likely to speed, drive under the influence, and/or leave their seat belts unbuckled. These findings have “lined up with other pandemic-era trends: Alcohol sales have soared, drug overdoses have set new records, and homicides have seen their biggest increase on record.” (Baumgaertner and Mitchell, LA Times, 12/8/2021)
Some risks are fair to judge as fundamentally reckless, but most are ambiguous. Likewise, the line between selfless and selfish tends to be blurry. Whether one is actually helping to improve a situation or just meddling is virtually impossible to figure out. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Our Quaker faith reassures us that such “figuring out” is not our job. Our Quaker practice is to wait and listen in stillness, wait in worshipful expectancy, wait in simple trust that Clarity will enter eventually. As Thomas Kelly explained, “[C]onfidence in our shrewdness, in our education, in our talents, in some aspect or other of our self-assured self, is our own undoing. . . [Instead,] our chief task is to open the door and be entered by the Divine Life. . . [This] individual experience leads to social passion. . . Love of God and love of neighbor are not two commandments, but one.” (The Eternal Promise, 1966)
Kelly expressed self-consciousness over his lack of authority to speak of his neighbors’ sufferings, especially his neighbors in Nazi Germany. “To you I speak with much hesitation about suffering. For I am only in middle years, and for me life has not been hard.”
Friends in the U.S. today would do well to take Kelly’s hesitation to heart, as we are disproportionately situated in the top 9.9% of the nation’s economy, right below the top 0.1%. Not only are the 9.9% protected from the sufferings dealt to the 90%, but the 9.9% tend to work very hard to keep their protections and feel like they’ve earned them through special talents and effort. Hence, their perceptions of the abilities and motivations of the 90% are distorted. As political philosopher Matthew Stewart has pointed out, “there are differences among people, and those have to be recognized. But it’s completely false to think that those differences are great enough to explain the kind of variation that we see in the economy. . .” (Vox, 10/12/2021).
As we wait in worshipful silence for the Seed of Truth to express itself, we listen with everything we are, with the ears that are our whole lives – knowledge and ignorance, selflessness and selfishness, courage and carefulness. “We simple, humble [people] can bear the seed of hope . . . We have this treasure of the seed in the earthen vessels – very earthen vessels.” (Kelly, 1966) Then as the decades roll by, we learn more about the nature of these vessels that are our selves. We begin to understand some of the ways that our hearing of the Word has been distorted – and still is. We begin to understand that each of us must learn to listen with bigger ears, with an ear to the ground, with an ear to the storm.
“Social concern is the dynamic Life of God at work in the world, made special and emphatic and unique, particularized in each individual or group . . . A concern is . . . often surprising . . . the Life of God is breaking through into the world.” (Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, 1941)
Whenever anyone thinks about taking a risk, they balance what they have to lose against what they have to gain. Almost never can anyone make such a judgement for anyone else. As communities and as societies, however, we must make such judgements for our collective well-being, and we do. As Friends today, our challenge is learning how to resonate with the collective well-being of all life on Earth. Our challenge is to trust that when we open the door, Life will enter. ~~~