My guess is that, on average, across every dozen large Quaker gatherings, at least one person will share the insight that “We are human beings, not human doings.” (I’ve heard this said in non-Quaker circles as well.)
Our Quaker tradition calls us to be simple, not simplistic. Among Friends, “simple” has traditionally meant “true.” Something “simple” would be as God has made it, not as humans would wish it to be. On the one hand, “simple” language avoids the falsehoods that lurk in overelaboration. As Orwell put it, “A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details.” On the other hand, “simple” language avoids the easy appeal of snappy little sound bites and jingles, into which millions of dollars are poured each year because they work very well for the powers-that-be.
E=mc2 is about as simple a statement as humans have managed to make so far. It is not “simple” because it is easy to understand; it is simple because it expresses a unified human experience of reality – expresses one, full, complicated experience only, no more, no less.
To imply that we are able to choose between “being” and “doing” (as if we can choose our mass instead of our energy) – and to imply further that “being” is somehow more sacred than “doing” – are dangerous implications. Dangerous because they offer an easy way out of our duty to wait continuously for guidance as to what we are to do in this present moment.
As Friends, we have inherited a wealth of insights about faith and practice that carry Life, insights collected through nearly four centuries of real experiences by real people. Our duty is to reinterpret the meanings of our faith and practice in light of the needs of our world today. We can’t do that work well if we take refuge in comforting maxims. Orwell again: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient . . .
[To turn to it is] a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow.”
Of course, we resort to aspirin when we are in pain. And of course, in the spring of 2020, we are in pain. Over 50,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. during just the past few weeks, a galloping death rate that could have been slowed if our democratic institutions – meaning, we the people – had managed to exercise proper control over our elected officials. The ways we might do that are not obvious. But surely the answer isn’t “not doing.”
This is where Quaker mystics could really pitch in. Traditional Quaker practice isn’t merely to “be” (that’s the Buddhists); traditional Quaker practice is to “wait.” We wait like faithful servants. We wait like expectant children. We wait for holy instructions on how we are to live our lives today. There are some senses in which “not doing” is required in this waiting – we are to refrain from trying to figure out how to be heroes and fixers and saints, refrain from obsessive planning, from rumination. But we aren’t to merely “be” like lumps of meat. We are to “do” wakefulness and attentiveness and responsiveness.
Any human organization is known by the meaning it carries into the world. For nearly four hundred years, Friends’ very lives have served as testimonies to the value of our faith in the powers of truth and love. Fox barged into congregations where he was never invited and out-shouted the hireling ministers there. Evangelical Friends carried their gospel and literacy and medicines into the global south. Friendly pacifists helped shape mass movements for peace and justice in the twentieth century.
We stand at a crossroads of history. The captains of industry and finance are busily “doing.” In just the past few weeks, they have rolled back environmental protections, sopped up hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency funding and bail-outs, and profiteered from trumped-up bidding wars over life-saving medical supplies.
This moment is an authoritarian’s dream – most people are feeling generally overwhelmed and desperate for relief. Although courageous voices of reason and justice are sounding from the public stage, the odds are stacked in favor of the strongmen getting in the final word, and getting out with the dough.
This moment is also rich with potential for growing egalitarian organizations. Friends don’t need to be in charge of any of them. But when Friends participate in them (bringing the best of our habits of seeking “the sense of the meeting”), we can help strengthen patterns of mutual respect that will be crucial in building successful movements to oppose resurgent fascism.
Some “doing” is actually involved in “being” patterns and examples. ~~~