Quaker Plain V: Plain Speech

by Dr. Bruce Arnold

[In this series, I find I have things I want to say at the beginning of each post, about what’s been said before.. It seems that, as each post ripens, there is a natural reflection on, and learning from, what has preceded it. Not just the posts themselves, but more particularly the dialog that emerges in the comments.

I do moderate comments. In part, this is to eliminate spam. Mainly, it is to help that dialog emerge most strongly. Sometimes, there is private discussion before a comment is approved; I have a sense of what the poster means, but feel it could be made more clear, for instance, or that they have not been true to their own voice — something that did not quite ring true. I don’t intend to stifle disagreement. I value it. There is no real dialog without it. So far, I have prevented two comments from appearing. In each, they had already said the same thing, quite well. Repetition does not make the position stronger or more clear. Haven’t had to ban anyone yet, thank the Lord.

When I write my posts, I do so in the same prayerful state in which I might be moved to speak in Meeting for Worship. I’m not the only Quaker blogger to do this. 🙂  what has surprised me is that, as the comments roll in, the whole thing feels more and more like Meeting. Who would have predicted? Then again, why not? God has always used His people in new and creative ways, and their technology, too. Look at the impact the Gutenberg Bible has had. I’m not sure the Internet has yet surpassed the  influence of that technical revolution.]

This is the fifth in a series of posts on plain Quakerism. In writing this series, it is my hope that I’m contributing to two things. First is a sense that, by being led to discuss plainness, many of us will be better equipped to practice this spiritual discipline in a modern context. This is not only valuable for the individual Friend who finds her spiritual life deepened and enriched. Whenever any one of us becomes better grounded in our faith, it also makes the life of her Meeting that much more profound, and her Yearly Meeting and the World at large, by extension.

In this essay we will address plain speech.

I’ve struggled with the writing of this post. I have a sense of where the leading is going, but it is simply a more subtle topic than those addressed before. Finding the right words has not been easy.

If only it were as simple as saying, “Use Thee and Thy and don’t swear oaths. Oh, and don’t tell lies.” Great. Done!

It’s not that simple. It’s not about rules. It is about the everyday application of spiritual principles, and the ways in which we are led to be faithful, in speaking as in other parts of our lives. If we consider the spiritual foundation first, then we will understand the application better.

As before, for me, humility and integrity are at the heart of the matter.

Humility, because if I sound grandiose, I will most likely be grandiose. If I sound aggressive, I will become aggressive. And so on. If, on the other hand, I restrain my speech within the bounds of what I know to be true, and (in keeping with humility) which is not self-serving, then I have gone a long way towards keeping my speech plain.

Integrity, because plain speech is more than just sticking to the plain facts. What I say must be an expression of my deepest understanding of who I am in this world. Anything else, and something has been added, something which is not needed and which takes away from the frank articulation of this precious relationship between me, my Creator, and the rest of Creation.

Let’s talk about integrity. I am going to quote at length from an essay I wrote several years ago, and incorporated into my doctoral dissertation, on which I’ve not yet been able to improve:

“What is integrity? It is not just honesty, although honesty must be part of integrity. Integrity goes farther than honesty alone, however. It may be useful to consider the relationship between the words integrity and integer. An integer is a whole number: there are no fractions or decimals. One is just one, and two is just two. If I have two teacups, and smash one, I have one whole teacup, and one whole mess.

“So integrity has something to do with wholeness. It is a state in which you are who you are, no more and no less. There is no self-deception. Part of integrity means acknowledging your flaws as well as your strengths. It means knowing when you’ve done wrong, as well as when you’ve done right. It means taking responsibility for the results of your own actions, whether beneficial or harmful. It means being comfortable within your own skin.

“It is what was meant, in the age of nobility, by honor – but you don’t have to be an aristocrat to have integrity. You do have to have courage. Integrity cannot be achieved without action. It means standing up for what you believe, acting on your values. That means risk. There is always a potential for conflict. If your convictions are at odds with someone’s self-interest, they will not like it or you. But you have to live with you, and so you find the courage.

“Integrity takes more than courage. It also takes discernment. Before you can act courageously on your deepest values and in accord with your true identity, you have to know what they are. This is an intensely practical affair. It is not a matter of gazing at your belly button. You have lived a life of a certain number of years. In that life, there are things that have happened to you, and there are the consequences of choices you made. These form a pattern, and the pattern can be read. Things that happened to you have affected your feelings and your expectations. Choices you have made reflect your true inner character. Looking over all of it, the good with the bad, you neither gloss over some parts nor emphasize others. This gives you a true picture of who you are and what you care about. If you are not satisfied with what you find, you can work to change it. But you also will see the things that you cannot compromise without doing an injustice to yourself.

“There are people who are willing to make this choice: to violate their own true self. Some do it for money. Some do it for power. Some do it to please others. They may be able to justify it to themselves. But it hurts them deeply, whether they acknowledge it or not. At the end of life, if not before, when the money has been spent, the power lost, and the people we tried to please would never stay pleased, what is left? Only the sense of whether I was true or false to myself.

“Integrity also requires humility. I must know my true size. I am often neither as bad or as good as I think I am. Both false pride and false modesty lead away from integrity.

“Integrity requires commitment to yourself or others. When steel is being made into a tool, it must be heated so that it can be shaped. Next, it has to be plunged into a liquid such as water or oil, to be tempered. Without tempering it has no strength. Commitment is what tempers integrity. All the good intentions and wonderful potentials in the world mean nothing until they have been put to the test. It is the time of testing that reveals the impurities that may exist in your character, and which gives you the opportunity to remove, modify, or overcome those flaws.”

All of that applies to every aspect of living plain. It may be most difficult to apply integrity and humility to speech. We only have to decide every so often what to wear, if we dress plain: at the store, when we are buying clothes, and in the morning, when we get dressed. The rest of the time, we just live the choices we’ve made. With speech, we decide every time we open our mouth whether we are going to speak the unadorned truth or not.

Plain speech has something to do with what we do not say as well. Of course there are those old chestnuts most of us learned at our mother’s knee: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Pretty good advice. But it’s more than that. It is also giving up control and manipulation of others. These are forms of aggression, and if plain speech is not conjoined with our other testimonies such as peacefulness, then is it plain at all?

And sometimes we just ought to be quiet. Plainness may mean keeping our mouths shut. When I was a freshman in college, I spent an entire quarter not speaking at all. For those ten weeks, I wrote what I needed to say. My professors were tolerant, and allowed others to read any questions I had jotted down and handed over. Once, when there was danger of a fire from an oil lamp, I spoke. “Throw the rug over it.” After the commotion died down, one of my friends said “Hey, you spoke!” Yes. It seemed like a good time. The rest of that quarter, I learned a lot about how much I said that didn’t need saying. When you have to write it all down, you can get pretty choosy. And concise. It was kind of like having to communicate everything through Twitter. Just as fasting is a useful spiritual practice (that I haven’t done for a while), keeping silence every so often is also a useful discipline. Maybe not for ten weeks, but even for a day or two, every so often. I think it would be good for me to try it again.

Clarity is of the greatest usefulness in plain speech. Clarity allows us to say in a few words what would take many more if we had to explain, and then explain the explanation, because it was not clear the first time. To this end, a large vocabulary is a great help, for knowing the precisely right word to use aids in clarity and in plainness. Ostentation about one’s sizable vocabulary, of course, is verboten.

I have so often heard people say that they didn’t want to pray in public (such as blessing the food at a community meal) because they didn’t know the “right words” to say. So here’s another principle that guides plainness of speech: when you speak from the heart, your authenticity says volumes that words alone could not render. I have sat in many a 12 Step meeting and heard someone falter and stammer and bring tears to my eyes because what they said was so profoundly heartfelt.

Gossip is out. Thought I’d mention that.

Oaths: don’t swear ’em. Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No. Some of the old Quaker testimonies have passed down through the centuries with no wear and tear at all.

And if you feel led to say Thee and Thy, by all means follow your leading.

I am looking forward very much to comments on this one. It seems like there is more to be said, but I have come to the end of my leading and others must take over from here. I am eager to learn from others’ experience with plain speech.

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