Herding Cats: Are We in Conflict or Not?

by Jeffrey Aaron
New Brunswick Meeting


In politics, social values, even religious values, traditional, widely accepted ideas seem on the right when parroted rather than considered in depth, while new thinking, progressive and less traditional, less widely accepted ideas seem on the left. Whether that analysis is accurate or not may not matter, but what seems to be constant across the world is that people with stated traditional values are often in power, even if they are a minority and their actual behavior is at odds with their words.


While these statements can be challenged, the fact is that those in power get there in part by minimizing their internal conflicts. Greater unity through broadly conventional statements regardless of actual behavior leads to greater group power. People who are more informed, thoughtful and nuanced often challenge each other over smaller concerns and are unable to present a unified body.


Statistics show that there are far more Democratic voters across the USA, but more unified Republicans have remained largely in power. In many countries across the world, the populace wants freedom, but many governments are run by abusive leaders who claim to be protectors and saviors of the people, and many people buy the words.


How does this apply to New York Yearly Meeting? You have heard the expression “herding cats”? We are a voluntary body of shared values, seeking to make the world a better place for everyone. So why do we experience what sometimes feels like hostility or anger or divisiveness when we are trying to discern a way forward as a body? We are a body of “cats”: independent minded, thoughtful, idealistic. Those are good qualities, aren’t they? Of course! But we often forget other qualities that make the Quaker way of discernment invaluable in an oppressive world: good listening, hearing behind the words, sensing the Spark in the speaker and in ourselves, letting the spoken words settle in Spirit-led silence before we respond emotionally.


There is a place for anger and disagreement when there are hurtful words or behavior, even unintended. But the expression that arises from these feelings needs to be tempered by understanding and by careful examination of our own gut responses before we speak. Even more important is the consideration of how our words may help or further hurt the group’s unity.


Too many valued Friends have withdrawn from our midst because they disagree with how we are proceeding or with what someone has said. We can all relate to that experience. Who among us has not at times felt annoyed by what someone has said or about a decision of gathered Friends? And that annoyance and our personal reactions to it are often expressed by the way we are socialized in the wider society where most of us spend most of our time. We can disagree yet remain in unity.


We need to remember when we are in conflict that we all share the same basic values, that we are all “on the same side” even when we disagree. Is it ever worth reducing the power of our unity, when “the other side”—the world at large—is acting destructively? When we disagree, the most important part of our response is its Quakerly components. Think “Friendly persuasion.”


The dehumanization of the Other that happens in war, racism, and genocide is no different from any reduction of the sacred to the profane.

The way we see and treat someone is a powerful invitation for them to be as we see them.

It starts with the question that defines compassion: What is it like to be you?

…we are all in the same boat; we are all facing situations that invite us to choose love over fear, to listen to the heart when it feels unsafe to do so. We need to help each other obey that call. In that, we are allies. We can be allies in calling each other to our highest potential.

—Charles Eisenstein, “Standing Rock; A Change of Heart,” an essay on charleseisenstein.org.