What Comes Next? The Same as Before.
by Jeffrey Aaron, New Brunswick Meeting
Shortly after the presidential inauguration, I read an intriguing passage from a book entitled Switched On, A Memoir of Brain Changes and Emotional Awakening (2016) by John Elder Robison, a successful author on the autistic spectrum who underwent transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) which opened pathways to emotional awareness in his brain.
“…autism [had] shielded me from the worst of my [rough] upbringing by making me oblivious to what was happening around me… Before TMS enlightened me, I thought the reason I often felt somewhat down was that I could not receive positive emotions from other people. Now I knew the truth: most of the emotions floating around in space are not positive. When you look into a crowd with real emotional insight you’ll see … greed, rage, anxiety, and what for a lack of a better word I call ‘tension’—with only the occasional flash of love or happiness….[N]ow that I could read others more clearly, my plight was not necessarily improved, because one of the strongest emotions I sensed in others was their own anxiety.” pp.205-206
As a Friend, this observation initially seemed cynical and depressing, but I soon realized that it is most likely accurate as a generalization about random groups of people. My next thought was that I hope it is not accurate among groups of Friends, where we can find the warm company of Spirit led people who share basic Quaker values, who seek that of God in others. Being among Friends and seeking that of God in ourselves and each other can be very uplifting. It next occurred to me, however, that what Robison refers to as “tension” or “anxiety” is in reality quite common among Friends, who, as social and religious activists, are deeply aware of what George Fox referred to as the “ocean of darkness”. It is sometimes hard to remember the spiritual uplift available on accessing “that of God”, when we are confronting an ocean of darkness, even when we are laboring among like minded Friends to make the world a better place. Facing that swelling ocean in our current sociopolitical climate can elicit feelings of impotence and hopelessness, so I looked for answers. Two came to mind surprisingly quickly.
I was born in 1944, in the midst of World War II, when the outcome of the war was not at all certain; the hostile war machine of the Nazis seemed overpowering. What, I thought, were Friends doing in that era, when the ocean of darkness seemed to be overwhelming the entire world? The answer was obvious: they were doing the same things we are doing now and were doing a year ago, ten, fifty years ago. They were laboring at “Bringing the Peaceable Kingdom to a Turbulent World.” They were bound to the work rather than to the outcome, by their values and their beliefs, and therein lies the answer to troubled spirits. How easily we can forget; how obvious is the answer! While it is true that a gathering of Friends may include tension and anxiety, it certainly does not normally include the greed and rage that Robison saw as normal in the world at large, and even the tension and anxiety among Friends is more often directed at concern about the outcome of our efforts at good works than it is at each other. Yes, we may fail at times, being human, but it is not our norm. Our norm is to uplift each other as we labor to make the world a better place.
My second answer came as a recollection of the times I have attended services at The First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, the “black” church in NJ at which Spring Sessions 2016 was held. I attended once not long after the infamous murder of members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston SC by a white racist during a Bible study session. I attended the Baptist Church in solidarity; I have friends and neighbors there. The pastor acknowledged the event and spoke about the need to be alert and careful for their community in a dangerous world, but other than that, the experience was as it always is in that church, and in many other “black” churches across America: welcoming, sharing, uplifting, deeply spiritual, filled with the joyful noise of smiling and swaying multiple choirs. The warmth and sense of open-armed welcome both for members and for visitors is always palpable from the moment of arrival until the moment of departure. I attend now and then for a rip roaring spiritual uplift and a reminder of the goodness in forms other than ours, the joy of experiencing our world’s blessed diversity. The experience reflects the original purpose of the founding of the black American church during the time of legal slavery, the one place that slaves could experience saving grace and joyful, spiritual, communal togetherness under the Divine Spirit. It remains the same, a unique experience even today, when race slavery is thought of as a thing of the past although racism itself remains integral to our society. That this community has such strength of character built into its religious institution that it can rise joyfully above the ocean of darkness that still casts its dark shadow, is an amazing testament to the depth of spirit of people of good will. As a Friend who struggles at times to rise above despair in order to witness to the world what we Friends have and can do, it is a humbling reminder of what is right in the world and in our own community. It is a reminder to hold firm to what we witness to by our good works, perhaps to double down. It is we who are responsible to lift our own spirits and it is up to us to cherish and to work to preserve our own beloved community and the goodness it represents.
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