Letters from the Street

Philosophy, theology, and whatever else crosses my mind.

Category: Practice

How Communists Think

There’s a lot of confusion in social media about what socialists should or shouldn’t do in the upcoming election. There are many who say “Don’t vote for Hillary Clinton because _____” You can fill in the blank, with anything from She’s a Corporate Shill to She’s a Liar to She’s Not Going to Support Single Payer Healthcare to whatever the concern of the day might be.

When these discussions occur between communists and other progressives, the progressive usually says something along the lines of “how could a communist support someone who will _____.”

Let’s clear something up here. Those statements are ideologically driven. If we unpack them fully, they really mean something very much like this: “If you’re a communist, then you must believe X, but Hillary believes Y, therefore you shouldn’t support her.” In other words, it’s an ideological litmus test.

The flaw in that argument is that communism is not an ideology. Dictionary.com defines ideology as “the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.” Doctrines, myths, beliefs, etc. are all philosophical constructs. Notions.

The basis for communist thought is not ideology. Marxism is not a philosophical construct. Philosophy is a tool of communist thought, not the foundation of it. “The point is not merely to understand the world, but to change it.”

What, then, is the basis of communist thought, if not beliefs or doctrines? It is a method. Specifically, that method is dialectical materialism.

For Marx and Engels, materialism meant that the material world, perceptible to the senses, has objective reality independent of mind or spirit. They did not deny the reality of mental or spiritual processes but affirmed that ideas could arise, therefore, only as products and reflections of material conditions.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Materialism deals with objective reality, and proposes ideas which communicate that reality in a useful way. This is the opposite of ideology, which places “doctrines and beliefs” first and seeks to understand the world through the lens of those beliefs.

The reason why so much of the left is consumed by sectarian squabbling is because they are ideologues, not dialectical materialists. They have ideas which are dear to their hearts and which they believe explain the world around them. This is similar to the fundamentalist forms of religion, which proclaim that in order to be saved, you have to assent to the creed that they promote. It is fidelity to the creed that determines purity.

Marx described communism as scientific socialism. Scientific, because it is grounded in an empirical model, just as the scientific method is. We observe what is going on around us, then formulate hypotheses that help to explain or predict what happens. This guides the actions we take. We assess the outcome of those actions, and formulate new hypotheses based on what we’ve learned. Theories that are useful are retained and used, until subsequent experience suggests improved hypotheses. We are not bound to the hypotheses, we are proponents of a process.

Dialectical materialism is a particular form of scientific process.

In opposition to the ‘metaphysical’ mode of thought, which viewed things in abstraction, each by itself and as though endowed with fixed properties, Hegelian dialectics considers things in their movements and changes, interrelations and interactions. Everything is in continual process of becoming and ceasing to be, in which nothing is permanent but everything changes and is eventually superseded…Marx and Engels started from the materialist premise that all knowledge is derived from the senses. But against the mechanist view that derives knowledge exclusively from given sense impressions, they stressed the dialectical development of human knowledge, socially acquired in the course of practical activity. Individuals can gain knowledge of things only through their practical interaction with those things, framing their ideas corresponding to their practice; and social practice alone provides the test of the correspondence of idea with reality.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Let’s use a practical example to bring this down to earth. We see that there is a pattern of violence against blacks by police. This is the thesis. Racist violence is being expressed in this form at this time. Blacks are not being hung from trees by angry white mobs as they were in the early 1900s. This overt racism has taken a modified form.

A movement called Black Lives Matter springs up in opposition to this violence. This is the antithesis.

Prior experience from the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s tells us that if blacks persist in their demands for racial justice, and enough whites reject their racist attitudes, then improvement will occur. That is the synthesis.

In response to this, we take part in the movement, blacks and whites each doing their part. We see what happens. If we’re right, then progress takes place. If we’ve misinterpreted, then there is a different result, a new set of conditions, and we start the process again.

We see that this approach is scientific because, like the scientific method, it proceeds from practical interaction with the world around us. This is the experimental method.

Paolo Freire understood this very well, and taught a method in Brazil functionally identical to what we’re talking about here. As described in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the method of praxis consists of reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed. “It is not enough for people to come together in dialogue in order to gain knowledge of their social reality.  They must act together upon their environment in order critically to reflect upon their reality and so transform it through further action and critical reflection.

This Freire quote is more than a little reminiscent of the Marx quote above, that our goal is to change the world and not merely to understand it.

Often, people read communist texts and like the ideas they find there. They believe that those ideas are the essence of communism. They’ve missed the point. It’s easy to understand how this happens.

Much of our educational system is devoted to convincing people to accept the conclusions of others, rather than teaching them how to apply the method by which those ideas were formed. People who have been trained this way will habitually assume that if they have grasped an idea, they have understood the situation.

They should be attending to the process by which those ideas came to light instead, and applying that process to current conditions in their own lives. Marx himself, using the framework of dialectical materialism, might come to different determinations under the conditions of today, then what he concluded in the 1800s.

So when someone says “how can a communist support someone who believes X,” they are displaying a lack of understanding of the nature of communism.

If it’s idealistic rather than practical, it’s not communism.

Gringo Liberation Theology II: Doing Liberation Theology in North America

Quite a few people made comments on the last post (Why Do We Need a Gringo Liberation Theology? ). Some of those comments were here, some came to me via email, some were  posted elsewhere on the Web. There were some common themes. One of them was along the lines of “Consumerism isn’t much of a motivation to get people to change.” Others were along the lines of “Here’s what liberation theologians in South America are doing.”

I’m fine with both of those responses. I’m fine with most any response that shows that people are thinking. And they made me think, too.

So, while I’m working on the next post in the series, I want to address process rather than content.

First, this is a series. Each of these posts should stand alone in some sense, carrying at least one morsel worth chewing over. Yet none of them is sufficient. If there’s something that you think hasn’t been covered but ought to be, you have a couple of options. One is to wait and see if it is dealt with later in the series. There’s a lot to say and it can’t be said all at once. The other is to say what you think is missing, as I may have missed it. Or else you think about it differently than I do, and that will somehow inform and modify what I intended to say.

The second thing, as alluded to in the title of this post, Liberation Theology is what you do as much as what you say. Our Latin American brothers and sisters talk about praxis, that intersection between thinking and doing, a sort of OODA LOOP of applied spirituality. I realize that I’m trying to express something in words, just as Gutierrez and Bonino and others have done in Latin America, or James Cone and Cornel West have done among Afro-Americans in the USA, or as Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Ruether have done among feminists. Trying to communicate sensibly in words is worthwhile, though difficult. However, Liberation Theology is a way of acting or being in the world. I’ve tried to convey some sense of what I’ve done in the context of my community in various places throughout this blog. Those clues which point to what I’ve done are a necessary part of understanding what I’m trying to say. Some who have asked questions may find answers in other posts which don’t have a Liberation Theology label on them.

Third, Gringo Liberation Theology isn’t going to look like Latin American Liberation Theology, or Black Liberation Theology, or Feminist Liberation Theology. Those of us for whom these posts are intended will have to work out for ourselves what community in the context of the liberating Gospel means for us, to give one instance. Blindly imitating other forms is inauthentic. I don’t mind stumbling around in the dark, while we try to find our way. It’s instructive and worthwhile to look at our sisters’ and brothers’ successes and mistakes. We will still have to make our own mistakes and celebrate our own successes.

Pacifism II – Call and Response

[I received a number of responses to the post on pacifism. This one came via email from a friend and fellow Quaker. It is so thoughtful and raised so many important issues, issues that I wanted to address, that I asked its author if I could post it and respond to it on my blog. He agreed, while asking to remain nameless at this time. His remarks are in regular type, and indented. My responses are in bold type.]

This is a well-written, accessible piece about real-life pacifism, and I appreciate thy adding this to the blogosphere.  All too often spokespeople on either side are too entrenched in their own extreme position to do much more than lob stones at those who disagree.

I’m not a life-long pacifist, having had my conversion experience as a 2nd LT in the US Air Force, also during the war in Vietnam.  A quirk in the law at that time meant I was eligible for the draft even after the USAF had decided I was a legitimate CO.  My lottery number was 1, so there was no avoiding it.  I’m one of the few folks who is an official CO in the eyes of both the military system and the Selective Service system.

Thanks for sharing your bona fides.

It seems to me that thy analysis of the situation in Dayton, leading to thy purchase of a handgun, does not include two important costs of the decision to defend thyself violently:  the cost to thee spiritually/psychologically, and the cost to the intruder(s) should thee happen to shoot straight.  Perhaps thee considered these things but just did not include them in the blog, or perhaps they were not part of thy thinking then but (one hopes) would be important considerations now.  Either way, it feels that the posting would have been stronger if thee had mentioned them.

I agree that these are two important considerations. I didn’t include them because they were peripheral to the point I was making, and because I try to keep my posts concise. There is a great deal more that could have been said about what I did say, not to mention what I left out.

For instance, much more could have been said on the dawning realization that I myself was worth saving. Someone else has said it much better than I’m likely to, so I’m just going to put up a link to Jeffrey Snyder’s “A Nation of Cowards.” I don’t endorse everything that Mr. Snyder says nor the way he says it. For our present purpose, the section early on entitled “The Gift of Life” is what is pertinent. He quotes a 1747 sermon which equates failure to defend oneself with suicide.

Sweeping generalities being what they are, there are exceptions to this. Failure to give it full consideration, though, is as big a mistake as failure to consider the two points you make (What about the cost to me of taking a life? What about the cost to the dead and his loved ones?) In fact, all of these questions are inextricably linked. They are two sides of the same coin. If I could protect myself and don’t, what about the cost to my loved ones? If I let someone else take my life when I could have prevented it, what about the cost to them?

I may, at some future time, go into more detail on those questions. While I found them to be secondary to the point I made in the original post, they are not secondary to the question of violence, whether you or I or anyone else would ever act violently and under what circumstances.

Definitions are always tricky, which leads me to a second concern, which is that a commitment to nonviolence in some situations but not in others seems vulnerable to being labeled as not pacifism at all but personal utilitarianism of the sort that every person follows to a certain extent.  In other words, thy definition is too broad – almost everyone qualifies as a pacifist.  Even the most hawkish, war-like of persons does not advocate the use of lethal violence to solve every disagreement:  some things we talk out to resolve, some things we resort to lawyers to resolve, and some things we resort to war to resolve.  It is the personal equivalent to just-war theory on a larger scale.  We should use non-violent means unless the conditions of just-war theory are met, in which case lethal violence is justified.  The problem with this approach is that, to the best of my knowledge, no just-war advocate with decision making power has ever decided that in his particular case, war is not justified.

Thank you for providing me this opening. If pacifism is an intellectually-based ethical decision, then I think what you are saying is absolutely true. Left to my own devices, I could well end up with something that looks like the just war doctrine, with all its frailties that you point out. Seeing that no one is ever 100% consistent — even Gandhi and King had their moments of aggression — then we end up concluding that all pacifists are either covert “just war” apologists at heart, or hypocrites.

The pacifism I follow, like that of Gandhi and King, is not an ethical stance but a spiritual discipline. As with any discipline, I acknowledge that failures will occur. I recognize that there is room for improvement. “Progress, not perfection” as our 12 Step fellowships would put it. My motivation, first and foremost, is not to find a way to negotiate the many opportunities for aggression within an a priori philosophical framework, but to be true and obedient to “that of God within.” How well do I hear and follow the voice of the Spirit as it is given to me and as it is tried within the communities of which I am a part?

I should probably expand on the last phrase of that sentence. “Tried within the communities of which I am a part.” I do not see this as a discipline which I practice in solitude and to which none other may contribute. For instance, when I cite Gandhi and King, it is not to refer to them as authorities (my anarchist side shudders at the very thought), but because they are part of a larger community of which I am also a part and to which I am responsible. And they to me, brother, and they to me. It works both ways.

Individualism is part of our modern sickness. Communalism is not the answer to that sickness either. There is a balance in which I am an individual, who is a part of a system of inter-locking communities. Some of them are local, some are global, some span centuries. As a Quaker, I am part of a local Meeting, a Yearly Meeting, a global movement, and an historical movement. When I say “try my pacifism within the communities of which I am a part”, that means that I share openly and honestly my response to aggression within them, and am affected and changed when others in those communities share their responses with me. Because I am a pacifist, I don’t expect my experiences to be a rule which is forced on others to follow, nor do I take their experiences as such. The question is, have I followed the Light? Have you? Can we be more faithful? How?

Perhaps a pacifist is a person committed to nonviolence in all situations, who hopes (but can never be certain in advance) that his/her behavior will always be consistent with that commitment.  We are all sinners, and all fall short of the glory of God.  Thee may well say my definition is too narrow – I would certainly agree that it is very much narrower than thine.  Our reach should exceed our grasp.

This follows very well with what I’ve said in preceding paragraphs. I do find that I fall short, and I am sure you do too. Imitating one another would not lead us out of this mess. There is no way out of this mess. Human beings by nature are imperfect. What we can do is to encourage each other, as much by example as by exhortation, and what really encourages me is when I see you live up to the Light as it is shown to you, no matter what particular form that may take in this particular moment.

Of course thee is a pacifist because it is right – we make our ethical choices based on what we see/feel/believe is right.  There are various ways of understanding what is right, however.  A commitment to nonviolence is not necessarily right consequentially, because the immediate consequences are not predictable and therefore can’t be a reliable basis for that ethical commitment.  (I do believe the long-term consequences are predictable and desirable but that’s a different matter.)  In similar manner, a commitment to nonviolence is not necessarily right deontologically, because on the one hand we may disagree on what the relevant rules are or even on what the rules actually mean; and on the other hand, a deontological commitment to pacifism may border on coercion, which is antithetical to pacifism itself.

Exactly so. We don’t get to coerce one another into a particular stance. “This way, and no other, is the right way to be a pacifist.” Faith, humility, loving-kindness — these are the means by which you have the most influence on me. And by “you” I mean “everyone.”

My sense is that a commitment to pacifism makes most sense in the context of virtue ethics, which may be what thee is getting at by saying thee is a pacifist because the Spirit in thy heart leads thee to that commitment.  Pacifism is a character trait, so to speak, that God wants us to develop in ourselves – a virtue.  In that context, the Spirit teaches thee that pacifism is right for thee.


My main purpose in writing the other post was not philosophical. Musing on the  nature of pacifism may be a pleasant pasttime, but it was not my object. I hope to open the door to those who might be pacifists, but who don’t know that it might include them even though they do swat mosquitos and would protect their children from an assault. It’s a bigger tent than it appears, if only the most strident voices are heard. The fact that one of the more heartfelt comments I received was from a retired Marine tells me that there is a place for this and that I succeeded in some measure. Perhaps some will read it, choose not to describe themselves as pacifists, but have a greater understanding and respect for what we are about, if their only previous exposure was to media coverage of the groups that show up in the streets during demonstrations and polarize these complex issues in very simplistic ways.

As it happens, I have just finished a book by Nancy Murphy and George Ellis entitled “On the Moral Nature of the Universe” (1996, Fortress Press) which argues for the kenotic nature of both God and Creation, making a strong case (imo) for a personal commitment to self-sacrificing nonviolence and accounting for nature’s apparently violent “red in tooth and claw” character on those grounds.  It is a closely argued unification of theology, cosmology, ethics and the natural sciences and rather heavy lifting in several places, but might be of interest to thee.  I know I’m planning to dive into it again right away.

I will add it to my list. You know that list? I bet you have one too.

Anyway, thanks for thy posting such a provocative blog entry.  I hope that it sparks as much reflection in other folks as it has in me.

Amen, brother. Amen.

A Lifelong Pacifist Speaks on Pacifism

I’ve started this post at least twice before. One, I lost in some cyber netherworld. The other is still there, about half-done. I don’t really think either one was going to get finished. Not the way they were.

Thing is, in both of them I got bogged down. I was trying to establish my bona fides as a pacificist, before saying what it was I have really been given to say.

There is something to that. But I can do it with a few quick stories, rather than the lengthy biographical detour that they had both become.

I registered with the draft on my 18th birthday as a conscientious objector. There were a lot of important people in my life who did not understand or like it. My draft board was unlikely to grant the status, and so I knew I was faced with jail if I was actually called up. Due to the dwindling demand for US soldiers in Vietnam and the vagaries of the lottery system, I was never faced with a draft notice.

I’ve been arrested twice in protests against US militaristic ventures. Once was in 1982, at the Pentagon, as a witness against the obscene sums of money being spent on nuclear devices. That is where I met Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAllister. Had things turned out a little differently, we could have become friends. Our paths diverged, however, and this didn’t come to be. They left an indelible imprint on me, entirely for the better.

The second arrest was at the CIA HQ in Langley, VA. This was in protest of the mining of the harbor of Managua. Say what you will about the Sandinistas, mining a civilian harbor, especially of a country against which we are not at war, is a violation of international law and the laws of humanity.

I have put my own body on the line to prevent domestic violence between neighbors more than once. This is a very dangerous — some would say stupid — thing to do. Didn’t matter.

Finally, I have spent my entire career as a social worker treating the victims of violence. My particular specialty for most of that time has been treating the survivors of sexual assault. I’ve seen more of what violence can do, both in the short and the long run, than most people.

There — that’s enough — and took far less than the several pages I had filled up before. I feel clear that I can continue with the real message now.

Another story, but this is not about bona fides. This is about how my views of pacifism, once pretty absolute, became more finely textured.

I was in a duplex apartment in Dayton, Ohio. The neighborhood, once genteel, was becoming seedier. The plague of crack had already arrived in Dayton, and we were sandwiched between two neighborhoods where it had taken over, and it was only a matter of time before our neighborhood was taken over by the plague as well.

In this building, there was one apartment downstairs, mine on the top two floors. There was one stairway to the bedroom on the top floor where I slept. No other way up or down. I found myself waking up scared in the night. I thought I was having nightmares because there was nothing to be afraid of. I couldn’t remember any nightmares, but what else could it be? I even talked to a psychiatrist with whom I’d worked to try to figure it out.

And then one night I woke up, afraid, and there were voices down in the alley. No one has any business in that alley at that time of night, which means that their business was criminal. I also realized that this was what had interrupted my sleep all the times before; I just hadn’t heard the voices. I also realized that the fear was the subconscious realization that, should someone decide to break in, I was a sitting duck. One way out, the way they would be coming up.

I made a decision that they could have all the TVs and VCRs and stereos and computers they wanted. These were all on the 2nd floor. There was nothing worth stealing on the third floor. Nothing at all except me. And I realized that, pacifist views to the contrary, I considered myself valuable enough to protect.

I bought a handgun, a Browning Hi-Power 9 mm that was made by the Canadians during World War II. A fine piece of manufacturing, sturdy, dependable, reliable, accurate. I learned how to shoot. I learned that, as hobbies go, I enjoyed it, and that while guns are weapons, target shooting can be an enjoyable past time in its own right.

And the waking up scared came to an end. I was no longer a sitting duck. My fate was not entirely in the hands of someone whose judgment had already been proven faulty — a burglar. I had, as they say, a fighting chance.

And my views of pacifism changed. They had to.

Pacifism, I have found, is a continuum. Absolute pacifism, in which one would not use violence for any reason, is only one part of the spectrum. It is on the extreme end at that, and has all the problems that extreme views always entail. No wonder my girl friend’s parents asked my “Wouldn’t you fight someone if they tried to rape L….?” At the time, I said No. I plead youth and inexperience. I didn’t know then that my own moral purity would not be worth the more drastic sacrifice of the harm that would come to a loved one if I did nothing.

There is a place for absolute pacifism, though. I can still respect it. I hope that those who hold this belief will never be challenged in such a direct and dramatic way.

If you accept that you  might use force in some conditions, then you have to find another place on the spectrum. I find that there is another end to the spectrum, and I think it goes like this: Pacifism might be the recognition that we should seek non-violent solutions to all conflicts, from the personal to the geopolitical, while acknowledging that in an imperfect world, we might end up making a choice for the use of force. I think that’s about as far as you can go and still call yourself a pacifist.If you see non-violent solutions as one choice among many, but not to be preferred until all else fails, then I don’t think you can call yourself a pacifist. Anything between those two extremes, the absolute pacifist and the violence-as-a-last-resort pacifist, qualifies.

I don’t think pacifism is a suitable foundation for foreign policy for any government. I think it is a personal, spiritual decision. I am not a pacifist because it is right; I am a pacifist because the Spirit that moves in my heart wants me to be one. It wants me to “try what Love can do”, and keep trying, and keep trying. Governments don’t love. People love. People can work with, or within, or against governments on the basis of this personal spiritual choice, trying to eliminate or at least decrease the use of violence.

To have become a healer has been an important expression of how that Spirit moves within me, but there is no reason a pacifist couldn’t be any other profession or occupation, including a member of the armed forces. Some of the people who want peace the most have been those who have seen war the closest.

On the flip side of that one, some of the best warriors I’ve ever known have been pacifists who would not pick up a weapon.

As a Quaker, I’ve learned over time that Friends are pretty evenly spread out over the whole spectrum.This is as it should be. Pacifism does not lend itself well to dogma. Dogma insists. This is the opposite of pacifism. Pacifism doesn’t insist, it loves, it encourages, it reflects. These are not passive qualities. The phonic similarity between pacifism and passive is not descriptive of what pacifism is like. Two of my heroes, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., were far from passive. They were dynamic, active men who threw themselves into life with passion. Pacifism is not for the faint of heart, for those with lily-white hands who would never soil them by being involved in the grit and the grind of conflict.

Speaking of not soiling one’s lily-white hands, all pacifists are not vegetarians. And if you are not a vegetarian, you are complicit in the death of animals. Me, I hunt. Since I’m not a vegetarian, I find it incumbent on me to soil my lily-white hands with the blood of the animals I eat, at least every so often. For me, to do less is hypocrisy. This may not be true for everyone. I don’t want to start any new dogmas. This is my witness, not yours. Unless it is yours. In that case, welcome. It’s all a matter of how the Spirit moves in your heart, and mine. If it moves me away from hunting, then I won’t hunt.

In Meeting for Worship, when I am moved to vocal ministry and come to the end of what I’ve been given, I just sit down. It’s not an oration, which needs to be properly wrapped up with closing remarks and flourishes. Since I can’t visibly just sit down, then I guess I stop writing, because that seems to be all I need to say.

Something About Love

[It’s lovely to have friends on the Internet who I’ve never met and perhaps never will. Kindred souls. I remember stories of young men and women, back in the days when people Wrote Letters and Mailed Them To Each Other, who had penpals in far-off countries that became deep and enduring friendships, all through correspondence. There are people like that in my life, but the medium is not through pen and ink and snail mail, but through email, blogs, and so forth. One who I’ve only recently encountered, but who might perhaps have staying power as a friend, is Ember. We have a lot in common, in some important ways, and I appreciate her quiet humor and quiet strength. Who knows, she might be a holy terror in person, but that’s not the Ember I know. She recently wrote a post on Love which I found thought-provoking. Now, there has been so much written, sung, and otherwise portrayed about love that one thing emerges clearly: it is a huge topic, and no one has the complete story. There’s a lot I don’t know about love, for sure. But there is some that I do know, and of a particular sort, I have a great deal of experience. Here is an excerpt from a book I wrote entitled Concordia: Psychotherapy, Healing, and the Vital Force. Ember’s blog just put me in mind of this, and while I hadn’t intended to post it, suddenly it seemed like a good idea.]

In the old science of alchemy, there were considered to be four elements of which all the universe was formed: earth, water, fire and air. Then, in the alchemical operation which was to produce “gold” from “lead”, a fifth essence – the quintessence – was introduced. Since Jung, the world has known what only initiates knew before: alchemy does not describe a chemical reaction in which one metal transforms into another, but a spiritual process in which our flaws are transformed into strengths. The philosopher’s stone, that which the alchemist strove to create, is not a physical object, but the psyche of the alchemist himself, transformed into what has been called cosmic consciousness or enlightenment.

And what is this quintessence? What is it which is essential to the process of spiritual transformation? Simply put, it is love.

Love, in all its forms. Love, unreservedly. Love, without fear of destruction or hope of gain.

Love, without which I am but a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal.

Love, which is the most inward nature of the prana or vital force of which we are formed. Love, which seeks to be healed and which is the healer.

Love, which is the dance of Krishna.

Love, which is Christ on the Cross, and Him risen on Easter Sunday.

Love, which is the Buddha returning from the bliss of nirvana to teach all sentient beings the Noble Four-fold Truths.

Love, which is in the symphony, the folk tune, the mockingbird’s song. Love, in the sunset, the painting, the new mother’s first glance at her baby.

Love, which is the Void and the One and the Manifest.

Love, as the crucible in which you and I meet for healing, and which brooks no deception or fear, but which unites and makes us whole.

Let me be more specific. The motive force in the healing relationship, that which energizes the activity of the vital principle in the interaction between healer and patient, and which most influences a positive outcome, is love.

To love our patients takes courage of the highest order. Some of my patients have required me to dig way down deep into myself, to face whatever may be there, in order to verify for them that they  could take the risk to open themselves to me. They would not have risked that kind of vulnerability if I were not willing to do the same. They understood the general rules of the game, that I would not share my life story with them to the degree that they would share theirs with me. But had I not been willing to undergo the same personal exploration I asked of them, they would have walked out. Rightly so. Only cowardice or hypocrisy could have explained any unwillingness to do so.

Bruno Bettelheim once remarked that we can approach the care of our patients in two ways. We can look at them, down in the pit of whatever their trouble may be, lower a ladder down to them, and instruct and encourage them as they learn to climb it. Or, we can go down the ladder, join them in the pit, and ascend the ladder together. The first is treatment; the second is healing.

I recall a patient I worked with many years ago, a young lady who had been through immense mistreatment as a child and in marriage. I knew that if I was ever the least bit inauthentic with her, I would lose all the ground we had gained; even the least betrayal, even the “little white lies” that are so common in everyday communication would have shown her that I could not be trusted. Her experiences had made her a superb judge of character and had given her exquisite sensitivity to what was going on around her. I was not going to fool her. Had I been unwilling or unable to dig as deeply into my own self as I was asking her to do, our sessions would have come to an end. While it was not always necessary for me to reveal what my own inner explorations discovered – I could say that I would rather not share and she would accept that, when it was clear that I was not just dodging – many times it was of the greatest value to her when I did share, so she could measure her own experience against that of someone she had learned to trust. Certainly this took dedication and the highest degree of professional discipline of which I am capable; more than that, though, it took a huge measure of that love which places someone else’s welfare as highly as my own.

At one time, after having made a great deal of progress and during a time of relative calm in her life, she thought about skipping a session. I knew, however, that although she was handling some recent disappointments quite well, it was not necessary for her to have to handle them alone. What I said on the telephone was, “You may not need to process these feelings. But you need at least to come be in the love.”

May I note at this moment that I do not see this kind of love as a personal choice or ability. I suppose, in one sense, I could just have accurately said “you need to come be in the prana.” For at times the flow of prana between us was palpable. In my experience, such love is not possible without that pranic flow. It is a love of which the healer is a conduit, not the origin. The healer must not confuse this with the kind of love which wishes to incorporate the other into his own life. Rather, the two of them, patient and healer both, are incorporated into a life greater than either of them, that One Life which is the source of all the cosmos, which is not so distant as to be unable to enfold two small people on one small planet within its embrace.

For this reason, the healer must also adopt the lifestyle which cultivates concord. She must also be well-balanced, reasonably healthy, have a daily practice of some sort which puts her into regular contact with the vital force, and all that was indicated above. (By “reasonably healthy”, I do not mean to overlook the fact that Milton Erickson did some of his best work from a wheelchair, later in life, orthat Sigmund Freud continued to perform admirably with cancer of the mouth. They were still in concord, even in the midst of these challenges.)

Such a lifestyle would promote all of these virtues in the life of the healer: integrity, flexibility, harmony, curiosity, kindness, determination, congruency, balance, duration. It would acknowledge that he has flaws, as we all have flaws. It would allow him to make the most of his assets, while minimizing his flaws.

I gave a draft copy of Concordia to a friend to review. She is not a medical or mental health professional, but is an intelligent and well-educated woman. I didn’t want her to offer copy editing or technical commentary; I wanted to know if I had communicated well to  the audience which she represents so well. She made a number of helpful comments. One of them was, “The word which keeps coming up for me is ‘grace.’ ”

I couldn’t agree more. The same word keeps coming up for me. I could not see a way to work it into the text as it stands, but it seems to fit here, in the conclusion, quite well. Because I want to say that there is no way to think our way out of fear. There is no way to act our way out of fear. There is no way to feel our way out of fear. The answer to living in a state of fear is to live in a state of grace.

The word grace has many theological connotations, especially among Christians, for whom it is a central issue. I do not use the word here in any way that contradicts those connotations. I do wish to say that it is not only Christians, not only those who believe in the God of the Christians and Jews, but anyone at all who can live in a state of grace. For a Christian, the state of grace is owing to faith in Jesus Christ. That’s OK. But anyone who has an understanding of a Higher Power, whether of God or of a deep comprehension that we are all, no matter how small we may be, an integral part of the cosmos, and we are all doing what our part of the cosmos does, can live in this state of grace.

One does not live in a state of grace by thought alone. Anyone who follows some of the suggestions of this present work, whether they be a healer or not, will be able to live that way. I refer especially to the suggestions regarding the regular experience of prana or vital force. Whether by movement such as yoga, by meditation, by music, art, or poetry, anything that puts you “in the groove” with the vital force will, if allowed to do what it does, enable you to live in grace.

At this point, some might ask “but what is this state of grace?” I will not try to define it or even describe it. Neither of these would be helpful. For one thing, to do so renders the unconscious suggestion that this is an intellectual exercise. This would be less than helpful. My suggestion is, rather, to experience it for yourself. You can easily do this; you probably already have, without knowing it.

If you have ever been enraptured, then you already know what grace is like. If you have been enchanted by a piece of music, taken “outside of yourself” by a beautiful piece of scenery, lost yourself in your lover’s eyes, or been completely smitten by holding a newborn child in your arms, you know all you need to know about grace. Now, the only thing is to get on with it. Make it a regular part of your life. Do it so often that it becomes your natural state. It has been done, and so you can do it too.

[Copyright © 2012 by Bruce R. Arnold, just so we keep that straight. And yes, I’m looking for a publisher. No luck so far. Still trying.]

Lord, I Was Born a Ramblin’ Man

[I have several topics in the churn: Friends and homosexuality; immigration; and, recently, “what about Young Friends and their place in our Society?” All of those take thought, effort, meditation and prayer and will come in the fullness of time. Until then, some brief notes. Just ramblin’ a little.]


That one may make an idol of plain clothes, or of plainness itself, I have no doubt. It is suggestive to me that, of all the essays I’ve posted hereon, the one on plain clothing has attracted twice the readership of any.

It is neither plain clothing nor plainness, as such, which demand my attention. It is how we may enact, to the best of our comprehension, the leading of the Spirit within the most mundane details of our lives that I find compelling.

Those who are plain, for whom I have the utmost respect, are those whose lives embody the same concern.

Sacrifice and Submission

I recently heard a sermon by a preacher who suggested that sacrifice and submission were things to be avoided.

There are so many ways in which submission is not a bad thing. Anyone who has ever had a profound sexual encounter knows that it can’t be forced. You have to let go and submit to the experience. Falling in love, for that matter, is cut from the same cloth. It is only the voice of egocentricity which says “I must be in control at all times” that does not recognize the real significance of submission. Yes, there is an unhealthy sort of dominance/submission dance that people do play out. It is remarkably myopic to see that as the only context in which submission can be found.

As to sacrifice, any sober alcoholic or recovering addict knows that, while it may have seemed like a sacrifice at first, the life of joy and freedom which is made possible by recovery is no sacrifice at all. Yes, we sacrificed the use of mind and mood altering substances; so what? Might as well say that when we got clean we sacrificed a life of degradation, of obsession about using, of constant fear, of damage to those around us — if you call losing those things a “sacrifice.” Most of us prefer to call it “surrender” rather than sacrifice, but it amounts to the same thing: sometimes you have to lose in order to win. “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”

Traveling in the Ministry

Bonnie and I have been making use of occasional Sundays, when we have no other obligation, to travel. We have attended all but one of the Meetings within reasonable distance, and have plans to get to that one next month. It has been wonderful to meet new people, experience the different personalities of the Meetings as a whole, and to enjoy the time together.

A couple of weeks ago, we went to a church here in New Bern which I would call a part of the emergent church movement. I have known the pastor, David McCants, for some time, and have real affection and respect for him. We have talked together, worked together, and prayed together.

This was the first time I went to his church. It was quite different, not just from an unprogrammed Quaker meeting, but from any mainstream Protestant church I’ve ever attended. For one thing (perhaps superficial, perhaps not) there was coffee and juice and water and snacks available, not in the fellowship hall for after the service, but in the sanctuary, for whenever. The rock and roll band playing the music is more and more common in a lot of churches, but it’s still not what I’m used to. No “Rock of Ages” and “Abide With Me” here. There was a great deal of informality; very few people dressed up. For most, it was like “casual Friday” at the office, a nice shirt and slacks. But there were some in shorts, and more than one t-shirt. Even one suit.

I love what this church does, and not just in the worship service. They do so much in the community as well. They really try to live the Gospel of service to “the least of these, my children.” Nothing is dearer to my heart, and this is one of the reasons I am so fond of David.

All in all, I liked it a lot, and so did Bonnie. It was a pleasant change of pace for both of us. In speaking with David afterwards, I said, “I really loved being here this morning. And it reminds me how glad I am to be a Quaker.” He got it. 🙂

Quaker Plain V: Plain Speech

[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.

Quaker Plain II: Plain Dress

When I wrote “Quaker Plain I,” I had no idea it would be the most-read essay yet on “Letters From The Street.” Nor the most-commented. Yet so it was.

Now, I hope it was clear in context that plainness encompasses a wider scope than clothing. So I was a bit surprised that dress took up so much of the reaction. Probably shouldn’t have been. Reading around on various blogs concerned with plainness, it’s a frequent topic.

I didn’t plan to address the concern this soon, but I’m going to. If it is that present in so many minds, then it deserves consideration. While my main concern is to learn what plainness means in our contemporary context, looking at specific examples may well help to draw that out.

OK. I hope we all know there’s no standard for plain dress among 21st century Friends. We are, to a great extent, on our own. We can’t tell each other what to do, but we can learn from each other.

So, in the absence of clear direction, I want to talk about some guidelines that have been helpful for me.

First, dressing plain is a spiritual discipline. Like any important feature of our lives, it has overtones in other areas, such as the political, economic, or cultural realms. I’m not saying we shouldn’t address those; we just might. But primarily, we do it because it depends upon and enriches our relationship with God.

How does this happen? As Quakers, we try to follow the Spirit in all of our lives, and to make each moment sacramental. There are many ways to do this; one of them is by being conscious of our clothing choices and allow God to guide us, even in this mundane way.

A commenter on the last essay said, “God doesn’t care how we dress.” Yes, and No. I don’t think it is terribly important to God whether I wear khakis or Quaker grey. I doubt if He cares whether I wear a broadbrim or a ball cap. I’m sure He couldn’t care less about the number of pleats in a woman’s bonnet, or whether she prefers a bonnet to a scarf. In that sense, our friend is quite right. Our Lord has bigger fish to fry.

And, Yes He does. He cares about the most mundane items of our lives, down to the number of hairs on our heads. How can both of these statements be true? Because He doesn’t care about khakis as khakis; He won’t strike me down or lift me up for wearing one thing or another. He cares about how the choices I make reflect our relationship. Every last choice, not just clothes or whether I tithe or whether our babies have water sprinkled on their foreheads or whether we eat fish on Friday. When I let Him into every aspect of my life, I have to be prepared to be led in ways that may seem peculiar, especially in our materialistic, indulgent, and individualistic society (which, for brevity’s sake, I am going to call “the world” from now on.) And if that means that I feel led to dress a certain way in order to hold faith with God, so be it. Your opinion of that is none of my business.

In former times, Friends used to talk a great deal about “the hedge.” This was a reference to how our distinctive testimonies and practices separated us from “the world”. I’m going to digress for a bit here, and then get back to the point.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, the newcomer often feels grateful for the anonymity part of the program. He thinks it protects him from having other people know that he is coming to meetings, that he is an alcoholic, that his social status will not be sullied.

Ha. Little does he know, although he usually finds out when he gets to the “making amends” phase of the program (Steps 8 and 9), that most people already have no doubt whatsoever about his drinking. Whatever damage may have been caused to his social status has already been caused by his own behavior. Joining Alcoholics Anonymous and working the Steps, far from besmirching his image, inclines most people he knows to think better of him. But if thinking that anonymity protects him from the scorn of others helps to soothe those anxious, timid newcomer feelings, so be it. Whatever it takes to get someone in the door and get them active, right?

What he finds out as he progresses is that anonymity is not meant as a protection for him. It is an expression of a spiritual principle that lies at the heart of the program: humility. Humility, as practiced in AA, has to do with unpretentiousness. The alcoholic has already suffered from an ego that has made him feel both better than and worse than he really is. Humility makes him “right-sized.” Neither better nor worse, just him as he really is, a garden-variety drunk trudging the road to happy destiny. He is anonymous because he doesn’t go around making a big deal of his involvement with AA, not because he is afraid for people to know. His ego, always a problem while drinking, is both in check and at peace.

And, given the nature of drunks in general, anonymity also protects the Fellowship of AA. It ensures that one person, or group of people, will not try to hog the spotlight and give an impression of AA that is inadequate, limited, or just plain wrong. It ensures that, if some highly visible person such as an actor or sports figure should join AA and then get drunk again, the lapse will not be laid at AA’s feet.

Now, let’s think about the hedge. For some, the hedge may have been a guarantor of their sanctity. If they talked, dressed, and acted as Quakers were supposed to, then they would not be as likely to fall away from the faith they had found. Less likely to sin, less likely to offend. Yes, the hedge functioned that way, to protect the individual from himself. But that was not the most important function of the hedge.

As Lloyd Lee Wilson explains in his book of essays on Gospel Order, becoming a Quaker meant assimilating a point of view in which God’s creation is known as perfect, and in which one thinks and feels and behaves in such a way as to live within that perfection. The hedge was not there so much to protect us from “the world”, as to remind us that we are not part of it, that we are part of the order of creation as God intended. It reminds us to live, not “as though” the Sermon on the Mount is our present reality, but because the Sermon on the Mount is our present reality. In most churches, the Kingdom is something in the future, or perhaps after death. Not so for Friends. The Kingdom is now.

The hedge could be abused, and was abused, as an instrument of control by the Quaker establishment. It gradually ceased to perform the function that it was intended to serve. And so, during a period of time around a century ago, the various bits and pieces of the hedge were relinquished. In some ways this is good. Peculiarity for the sake of peculiarity is sterile. As a good physician may sometimes discontinue all medications in order to start fresh with a clear picture of what is needed, perhaps the Society of Friends needed to clear its own decks of the accretions of centuries and look at itself anew.

The problem with that is that the true purpose for the hedge, that of facilitating our assimilation into the Present Kingdom, was allowed to vaporize as well. Friends became more and more assimilated to “the world.” Materialism and individualism have made gross inroads into our thoughts, our feelings, our mores, our activities. In the immortal words of the cartoon figure Cartman, from the TV show “South Park”, “Whatevah … I do what I want.”

Back to AA for a moment. The AA member who makes the most of the program soon learns that it is wonderful not to be on his own any more. Not only does he have a Higher Power to rely upon for guidance, he has a sponsor and the rest of the fellowship. A word that is often heard in the rooms of AA is “transparent.” The committed member tries to live a life that is transparent to other members. He doesn’t hide from them. His life is an open book. He seeks feedback on choices he has to make. He welcomes — perhaps after some struggle, for the ego is tamed but not absent — warnings from others when he is unaware of making bad choices. He knows that there are some things he cannot do on his own, and many that it is better not to do on his own even if he could.

Nearly the sole remnant of this kind of thinking in the Society of Friends is the Clearness Committee, and this is a rarity. Eldering and oversight have very limited scope. Despite the lessons learned early and harshly by such as James Naylor, who found in the most painful of ways that anointing his own leadings above all others could lead to perverse consequences, we have to a large extent returned to that same state. How many people seek to test their leadings by laying them before the Meeting? How many humbly submit to its collective leading in response?

We much prefer to follow the example of John Woolman, who maintained his testimonies even in the face of opposition. Or so we think. If we read Woolman’s Journal carefully, we find that he had a more submissive attitude than many modern Friends think. For instance, when he went to England at the end of his life to carry his message about slavery, and was told by London Yearly Meeting that they considered his mission complete before he even started, he shed tears of sadness that he could not share the message as he had thought he would. He did not go ahead and preach anti-slavery sermons in defiance of their stricture. He wept, and he submitted. Seen much of that lately?

And so, plainness is a part of the hedge, and I believe that we need to re-create this hedge in a way that is meaningful for us, now. Clothing certainly is a part of this, because it is something we do every day. We need to think about what we wear, just as we think about what we eat. I remember the boycotts of iceberg lettuce in the early 70s, in support of the United Farmworkers’ campaign to humanize the treatment of agricultural laborers. It didn’t take much to give up iceberg lettuce, but it got many of us thinking about how such seemingly small choices can have such over-arching meanings.

As one who at one time wore broadcloth pants and a broadbrim hat, I honor those whose leading takes them in this direction. It is not relevant to ask whether they are “right” or “wrong”, as some seem to approach the subject. The question is, are they truly led, and have they measured their leading against those who are most suited to serve as guides in these matters? I hope that they seek out the community of others who are re-discovering plainness, because (as in AA) there are some things which are truly best done among others. For one thing, it is so easy for ego to masquerade as the inmost self, and confuse the issue of what one’s true leading is. For another, when setting out on a course which is so foreign to the direction we receive every day from “the world,” there is comfort as well as guidance in the community of others of like mind. Thank God for this Internet which can bring us together from all geographical quarters, who might otherwise never have met.

For the rest of us, who wish to be plain but who do not adopt the older style of dress, what do we do? There were some wonderful comments on the last post which addressed this issue. I think it is likely that most of us would agree, for instance, that displaying brand names prominently is not plain (although at this very moment I have on a t-shirt that says “Campmor” on it.) Putting “Hollister” or “Aeropostale” on the chest or sleeve of my garment does not make it warmer, last longer, shed dirt better, or any such function. It is strictly and solely to appeal to the status-seeking impulse which is so much at the heart of “the world.”

Next, we might think about price. This is a little trickier. It is not always true that the less expensive an item is, the more plain it is. This is often not the case. Many years ago, when I had very little money, I used an amount that was kind of painful to buy a Woolrich woolen shirt. That shirt became a cool-weather jacket and a light-rain jacket as well as a warm shirt for cold weather. It wore like iron. I got many, many years of use out of it. A less expensive shirt would not have served all of those functions, nor lasted as long. A friend of mine calls the kind of “economy” which buys the cheap item in disregard of suitability as “jumping over dollars to pick up pennies.” Well said.

That being said, it is still a valid principle to spend less rather than more, if plain is what you are after. Won’t a Chevy get you around as well as a Benz? Will a good used car do just as well as a new one? In some cases, the answer might be “No.” This is where discernment is necessary, and having others to help make the decision will lead to a better outcome.

Solids rather than patterns? Muted rather than bright, conspicuous colors? Probably, most of the time. Let’s not divest ourselves of all beauty, though.

Manufacture: like my woolen shirt, clothes that are durable are more suitable than those that have to be replaced every time you turn around. In the long run, they use less of the world’s resources.

Style: clothes with classic lines, that will not look silly as soon as the fad passes, are pretty much de rigueur for plain folks. Trying to follow fashion is very much a “worldly” preoccupation. I don’t see any wiggle room on this one. A much older friend, who had attended Olney Friends School in the 1940s, told me once of a Quaker woman who was elderly at that time. She had continued to wear the old-style Quaker plain dress which she had grown up with. She said to him “I’ve been at the height of fashion three times in my life.” This story always brings a smile to my face. That’s a gal I want to emulate.

I haven’t said anything yet about origins: place of manufacture, sweat shops, child labor, etc. I know those things are important. I also know they are more complex than they appear on the surface. For instance, of course I am against the exploitation of children for economic gain. And yet, in that country and under those circumstances, that child’s labor may be what is keeping her younger siblings from literally starving to death. And so, a boycott of such goods would be a selfish exercise of my own ideological purity at the expense of a gruesome tragedy from which I am insulated. I’m open to suggestions on this one. I don’t see any way to go besides a case-by-case decision. Who said living plain was going to be easy?

And that feels like it is as far as I can go with the issue of plain clothing. There were some fine comments last time, and I hope that this essay will spark even more. If it doesn’t help you, I know it will help me.

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