Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Report from Recent Travels

My second trip went pretty well, I think. Both of my recent weekend trips were Quaker-related, and closely tied in to the leading I've been processing in the past few months. Both of these trips have required travel all day Friday, intense meetings on Saturday and part of Sunday, and long travel back to my busy life here. So I haven't had a real restorative kind of break in a long time. Yet, having these trips behind me is itself kind of restorative. I learned important things. I need time to process what I've learned and factor it into my continued discernment of this leading.

One of the general issues that emerges for me from these meetings is related to issues for me back at home as well: everyone is so busy. Part of what I've been trying to do in many dimensions of my life is to see if Concerned Academics and Concerned Quakers (two distinct groups but with some overlap) can work effectively together in mutually supportive and mutually inspiring ways to really try to address the world's problems. I am surrounded by friends and Friends who keep saying they want to do something, but when it comes right down to it, no one really has time to follow through with anything concrete.

So, how does everyone spend their time? Is their work already constructive and important? Are their days already spent in the work that quietly knits our broken world back together? To some extent, yes. I really want to trust the Concerned people I know to be doing their best. I want to trust that their normal lives are already doing much good in the world. It seems to be the case.

And yet, and yet ... they are stressed; they feel overworked and exhausted; they feel ineffective; they feel restless with the thought that they should be doing something that more directly addresses whatever it is about the world's problems that most distresses them. They long for community, support, and inspiration themselves.

I appear in their midst and try to facilitate the kinds of discussions that can help people connect and inspire, and give people hope. But despite my best efforts, the gravity of the problems depresses everyone and they start quibbling with each other, and vying with me, because I'm discussion facilitator. I become a kind of lightning rod for projection. Anxieties get draped over me and then vied with. I try to stay strong. I sort of succeed. Something shifts. A not unhealthy resignation settles. Everyone seems humbled. A sense of new and deeper faith starts to crystallize.

On my long journeys home, I cry, feeling spent. It has been hard work. Spiritual struggling. I sense that something important is happening. I think that this is a real leading, because it won't let me go, even though I keep trying to let it go.

I cannot tell what exactly is happening, or where it will go. I cannot tell if other people have been as profoundly affected as I have been, or if this is just part of my own story: a story of how a shaking soul finds strength.

I feel kind of good about all that has happened, but troubled too. It is not a troubledness of doubting that I have been as faithful as I am capable of being -- I think it is the troubledness of realizing that intending to make a positive difference in a broken world is a very serious matter, full of risk and danger. But I don't feel afraid. I feel grimly aware. I feel open-eyed.

I feel held in a prayer that is not of my making.


  1. CS,

    There is no doubt that modern life is making people feel stressed. People feel that they have too little time. One response is to say that's just wrong. People have always had 24 hours in the day and nothing has changed except that people are more apt to whine about it. But I think that people in America and other industrialized nations are actually experiencing more demands on their time than people in the past did. It is not an illusion. Also many people are feeling that their work is not only more hectic but also is not really contributing much to making the world a better place. They have the feeling of being overloaded with demands on their time that are objectively meaningless. Something is askew in modern life as we are living it. We aren't just a bunch of whiners.

    The Quaker testimony of simplicity can help. We can make choices to simplify our lives by refusing to do certain things that the world pushes us to do. If we do what the Spirit actually leads us to do AND NOTHING ELSE we will not feel overwhelmed. Sometimes this comes with a cost. A supervisor will be angry and not give you that raise or promotion; a colleague will look at you with disappointment because you refuse to serve on the committee. We have to learn to cultivate a certain amount of indifference to the rewards and punishments the world dishes out to induce us to participate in it. I'm not saying that following genuine leadings is easy. It's not. But in following the genuine leadings you feel properly busy and not overstressed. I recall the Yearly Meeting sessions this year and being called upon to do a lot. It was a lot and I worried that it would be too much. As it turned out it pushed me right to the limit of what I had the energy to do but did not cross the line. I had taken on exactly the right amount of responsibility and I was tired but not overtired at the end.

  2. It's nice that we can call other Friends to this kind of accountability, and I personally do find a lot of strength in this way of approaching my own decision making. Even if the people around me get disappointed when I say "no" to something, I can rest content in what I imagine to be (and hope really is) God's gratitude that I'm thereby focusing my efforts toward what I do feel called to do.

    What gets tricky is that so many of my friends and colleagues are not Friends. Without this shared frame of reference, it becomes difficult to break free from their use of the evasive language of busyness and stress, or to interpret that language.

    Are the speakers of that language saying that they really do feel bullied by the pressures of society into commitments they don't really believe in? Or do they use that language as a quasi-polite way to try to slip out from taking any real responsibility (either the responsibility of saying a clear no, or the responsibility of saying yes and really following through)?

    Even Friends often resort to this way of thinking/speaking.

    And, yes, I have to confess that I lapse into this language myself, at times. But I'm working on being more aware, and I'm working on being more clear about saying yes and no, and more prompt and thorough in following through with what I say yes to.

    What's hard is that almost everything mushrooms into taking more time and emotional energy than we at first think.

  3. Friends tradition of plain speaking leads us to be clear to one another. We often find ourselves waffling and making excuses instead of simply saying "No, I think it's a fine project and I wish you well but I don't think I should commit myself to working on it with you." People look at you funny when you say things like this but they get used to it after a while.

    And I look forward to your postings about philosophy of science and will commit myself to working with you on it.

  4. Dear Friend, once again your words speak directly to my condition!

    I have just finished an incredibly busy and full eight weeks at work, with increased responsibilities as a volunteer at the same time. And having two children and a wife I want to spend time with as well.

    Yet it's been a good season. I'm spent -- in a good way.

    As for your leading: It is hard work. And good work, very good work.

    I'm co-leading a workshop at the SF Friends School looking at the Quaker testimonies on simplicity and stewardship, and exploring the links between them. May I bring copies of this post to hand out? I haven't done the planning yet. I sense it would be helpful.

    -- Chris M.

  5. Chris M.,

    I am glad to know that my words have resonated with your experience as well. Yes, feel free to take along copies to hand out. I feel honored. I wish you well in your work, and with your workshop!