Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Reply to a Reader

Today I'm going to do something very different. I should begin by stating that I'm a sensitive person, easily hurt by angry remarks from mostly anonymous readers. Rarely do I ever read anyone's critique of my writing, but I found a compelling comment that has inspired me to write a rebuttal. Below are extended remarks from Monday's post. I'll register my thoughts and perspective a paragraph at a time.

I have pondered for some time that one of my main criticisms of religion is the focusing on improving other people. It is so much easier to seek to improve other people. For instance, if one needs to improve the health of one's own lifestyle, one might need to make what feels like personal sacrifice. One might have to exercise, when they wish to rest, eat vegetables when they wish to eat fried snacks. But, when one seeks to improve the lifestyle of another, they can do it with very little personal effort or sacrifice, just lecturing or advising someone, or sharing some information. It is like a drug, the feeling that you are making such great improvements, when there is no effort expended.

Many people balk at the idea of being instructed by someone else to make changes in their lives, for any reason. And, indeed, as it is written, it is easier to remove the speck from someone else's eye than to remove the plank from our own eye. Along those same lines, I'm sure we've all noted that it's far easier to give advice than to take advice. I think religions and faith groups have a duty to keep people grounded and pointed in the right direction, but over time, many have opted for restrictive dogma, rather than instructive wisdom. Effective religious instruction, in my mind, is a two-way exchange. It's not a one-way commandment that makes demands and does not respect individual freedom. 

Your story tells of the costs of improving others, the conflict. You said that they "misunderstood", but what if they didn't? What if they did understand your intentions, but it was not your intentions, but your actions that they objected to?
I have faced this issue, receiving "helpful" advice, when I had not asked for advice. I have concluded that sometimes, the only solution is to simply remove overly "helpful" people from my life. It seems that one of the members of your group felt the same way, so I can sympathize with that person. I feel that the appropriate time to offer advice to people is when they ask for it.

Here, I need to provide more context. Five years ago, I entered a house of worship that was very stuck in its ways. For years, it had maintained a dubious history of frequent strife and routine schism. Worship often resembled a social club for devout liberals and activists and a way-station for refugees from repressive religions. That is not the form Worship is to take. Getting the attention of the entire Meeting was needed, but because of the scope of the task, many people had avoided really probing and seeking to find the heart of the matter.

Ideally, it is our duty (and by that I mean everyone) to keep each other faithful. Quakers have many virtues, but one of our weaknesses is a fear of confrontation. It is true that confrontation can be punitive, but Friends try hard not to seek to emulate that example. But, to put it another way, not all confrontation is toxic, and it is entirely necessary when it comes down to Meeting discipline. With no accountability, problems never are resolved and unhelpful behavior is not corrected. In fact, they get far worse with no checks in place to make sure people are reminded to look for God first, not for themselves. 

Unrequested charity, including liberally handouts of "free" advice, is the flip side of respect. When you assume that someone needs your instruction, your advice, you communicate a message that you are superior to them, that they are in need, and you are so much not in need that you have excess capability to heap on them.

While I see where the speaker is coming from, I wouldn't go that far. It is our duty to call out others with love, when their leadings cease to be Spirit-led and end up becoming self-led. I will say that some vocal ministry, unfortunately, does come across as lecturing and scolding. This is not appropriate conduct during Worship, but in a desire to steer others towards God, sometime people overreach. Quakers look within themselves before imparting wisdom. One of the more redeeming qualities of the faith is that we are supposed to speak to our condition, and if it makes an impact on someone else's Divine leadings, than all the better. We're not an Evangelical faith that provides charity only if someone first jumps through our hoops.   

When you respect someone, you assume their ideas are equal in value to yours, that their way of dealing with things is just as good as yours, that they need no advice from you on how to live their lives, that they are the experts in how to lead their lives. And, this is the simple truth. No matter how much you think you know about another person's life, each person is truly the expert on their own life.

This, too, is true, on its face. That being said, respect is not uniformly applied. It comes with a desire to listen intently for what Quakers call the still small voice. Vocal ministry that is little more than a political soapbox statement or a synopsis of an interesting story on NPR is not the form spoken messages are supposed to take. It was for this reason, in part, that I raised my voice consistently during Worship.  
There will always be more that you do not know about. There is always the possibility that your advice, while it may work well for you, might not be the best choice for another person, because every person, and every person's circumstance, is different.
When you "give" unsolicited advice, you "take" respect from someone. Often, what people want most is your respect, so they can react very strongly when you take that away from them.

In the context of religious Worship, respect takes many forms. Ideally, we try seek value in everyone's contribution to Worship. A message that does not speak to me may speak powerfully to someone else. When I was a member of a different faith which had a called minister and a lengthy sermon every week, some of them spoke to my condition and some did not. Without meaning to, my earlier attempts to challenge the Meeting resembled the conduct of our founder, George Fox. Fox interrupted many an Anglican sermon by loudly registering his complaints. Naturally, he found himself in trouble quite frequently, often jailed for being a general nuisance.

I'm glad someone took the time to respond to me in such detail. Hopefully, I can be better able to explain the differences between the Quaker approach and the attitudes of other Christian groups. The comment above actually reminds me quite a lot of a friend of mine who was raised Southern Baptist. She calls herself Quaker-ish, not quite ready to call herself a full Quaker, or to formally join the Meeting. My hope, of course, is that she finally crosses that threshold, though I certainly would not pressure her to make the leap of faith before she is ready. 

I know that past religious experiences hold a power over many and can be very hurtful. I've seen more problems from religion done wrongly than from individual people who betrayed another person's trust and left behind a wound that has yet to close. This shows plainly how much emphasis and meaning we assign to religion, even thought we may deny it.  

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