Personal pride does not end with noble blood. It leads people to a fond value of their persons, especially if they have any pretence to shape or beauty. Some are so taken with themselves it would seem that nothing else deserved their attention. Their folly would diminish if they could spare but half the time to think of God, that they spend in washing, perfuming, painting and dressing their bodies. In these things they are precise and very artificial and spare no cost. But what aggravates the evil is that the pride of one might comfortably supply the needs of ten. Gross impiety it is that a nation's pride should be maintained in the face of its poor.Those words are from No Cross, No Crown by the notable early Quaker William Penn. Yes, that William Penn.
One of the key values among the Society of Friends (Quaker) of which I am a member by "convincement" in that I became a Friend by choice is that of Simplicity.
The idea is to let go of things that might distract from paying attention to what is important.
For Friends Simplicity has over the years taken many forms
- in speech
- in dress
- in business practice
- in one's dealing with the legal system
My Monthly Meeting will this Fall be doing an event where we focus and explore one key Quaker value or Testimony, and our Committee on Ministry and Worship, on which I currently serve as a member. chose Simplicity. There will be two people who will give brief (no more than 5 minutes each) expositions of Simplicity in their lives. We have not decided who those people will be, but the other members of the Committee have asked that I consider whether I might have a leading to do so. Thus I have been exploring again the meaning of Simplicity, to Friends in particular, and how it has played out in my life.
The idea of a "testimony" is not only that we speak - testify - as to it, but demonstrate it in how we live.
Quakers became known for plain dress, in part because dress in 17th Century England, where the Friends arose, was well known for dress as a demarcation of social class - not that American society of our own times is that different with the obsession of many for the right designer or latest style, as well as the additional ornamentation we may add.
In speech, one reason Quakers used the 2nd person familiar was to erase the divide of relationship. After all, Thee and Thy and Thou were used only for one's intimates, and for God, with whom one should have the most intimate of relationships.
In business, it was one reason Friends moved to fixed pricing of their merchandise - the process of negotiation could potentially lead one to dishonesty for financial gain, to putting material advantage over the respect for the other person with whom one was dealing, and for one's own spiritual situation.
Refusing to take oaths was to follow the example of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and to assert that true simplicity meant to be honest in all of one's dealings, including those with the legal system: were that the case, no oath or even affirmation should be necessary.
Many of these values are found in other religious traditions. The idea that our spiritual responsiveness depends on being as free as possible from dependence on material possessions is not dissimilar from the Buddhist notion of detachment.
But I think there is more, and as I reflect on this topic, I think not merely about my own life, but also of our nation.
I have often been drawn to the idea of simplicity, even if I have also struggled with my possessiveness towards certain things.
I have been drawn to monastic environments, in both the Eastern and Western churches, where often the monastic has few if any possession in order to free himself up for the life of prayer, even if the form of that prayer may be in service to others in ministry, in teaching. . . .
Buddhist monks often go begging for a meal every day, in part to remind themselves of their interconnectedness with others, that being a monastic does not make them superior to the ordinary folk upon whose generosity they must depend for their very sustenance.
And yet, the fact that one has possessions does not necessarily mean one lacks simplicity, nor does the lack thereof guarantee that one understands it. It is far beyond the idea that some rich men are generous or that some of modest means or less are so focused on getting more that their lives are shaped by that lust for acquisition and possession.
I think I have on a personal level only begun to understand simplicity in the light of the illness of Leaves on the Current. For a while everything in my life stopped, so that I could focus on doing whatever was necessary to assist her.
Please understand - she has never been a complete invalid in this process, and as time has gone and she has regained some strength and flexibility she has become more able to do things on her own.
At the beginning there was so much that I had to do. I was living a life that had many dimensions, and yet the central focus was what Leaves needed. As time has gone on, there is still a focus - where possible, what would Leaves like, to ease her discomfort, or give her pleasure. In its simplest form it is - what would you like to eat/drink today, because when one is on chemo one's taste can be so fickle that it can be difficult to maintain the necessary nutrition.
In a sense I have a small sense of the words of Gale Sayers when he was dealing with his close friend Brian Piccolo, a fellow member of the Chicago Bears, who was dying of cancer. Sayers had a credo, “The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third.” Brian was his friend. Brian's needs came before his.
The best of leaders think of others before they attend to their own desires.
All true lovers want to please the beloved before themselves.
There are many ways of phrasing this.
What is really important?
What can I do without?
Yet these words are more complicated than the reality of simplicity.
It is not that one cannot delight it one's own pleasures, whether provided for oneself or as a gift from others.
It is in my mind, as limited as it is, not to pick and choose whom to love, but try to attempt to love all.
That is pretty simple.
It is also damn hard to do, at least for me.
It is the desire of wanting to pay back what I was given. That is why I became a teacher, because I had been a troubled adolescent with a difficult (albeit loving) set of parents for whom the adults who made a difference for me were teachers.
It has other dimensions. It is why I can at times simply let go and allow the four cats to have their way with me.
Or I may simply listen to the sounds of world around me, whatever they may be.
Or listen to or play a piece of music.
Or reflect on some poetry, or some philosophy, or the insights of others.
When I was young I wondered what it would be like to have all that I owned physically able to be put into a duffle bag so that I was unbound by possessions.
That is not my goal nowadays. Far too many things, and as I age I sometimes go through and reflect on what they mean, and perhaps dispose of some, either because they have lost meaning or purpose for me, or because they could be better used by others.
I am unavoidably a political person. As I reflect up the passage from Penn with which i began, the final line jumps out at me: Gross impiety it is that a nation's pride should be maintained in the face of its poor.
Certainly I could apply those words to much of what has happened with our tax and economic policies in recent years.
But insofar as I justify my pleasure at the expense of the diminution of another, Penn's words are addressed to me.
I am not so unconventional as to only wear plain dress. I have a tuxedo which on occasion I do done - it has seen inaugural balls, formal parties, and the like. I look good in it. It is an occasion when my wife and I do dress up and go out, a special treat, not a regular occurrence.
I appreciate good cooking, and take delight when I have occasion to cook, to prepare a good presentation of food. It can give pleasure to others. It is a simple thing.
Perhaps what I am slowly coming to understand as I reflect on my life and on the topic of simplicity is that attempting to describe it is more complicated than to live it.
It is not that everything I say or do or eat has to be justified. If I simply attempt to be conscious of what I am doing and of its impact upon others, it is not so complicate to be kind, to be gentle (but able to be firm when necessary, as any teacher or parent knows)
It is not that I have to ask of all I do how it makes the world a better place. It is sufficient, at least for now, that I be comfortable that I am not deliberately or obliviously causing harm and hurt to others.
That may get down to one of the many forms of the Golden Rule, or the idea of a categorical imperative. So be it, if that is a helpful framing.
There are times when I want simply to enjoy - it can be a meal, a piece of music, the closeness of the cats, the love on all levels of my wife. I do not see that as selfish, but as part of a life that if it is complete weaves that together with the joy of being of help/service to others.
I'm not quite sure how that plays out in politics, but politics is only one dimension of how we interact with one another.
I am not so naive as to believe that others will, in political or other areas of life, act towards me in the same way. But as a Quaker, as one who takes seriously the words of George Fox to walk gladly across the earth answering that of God in each person I encounter I believe that simplicity requires me to have that as my starting frame, how I first interact with others, no matter how hostile or distant they may at first seem.
What is most important.
How things flow from having a center, a core within oneself that is cherished and nourished.
One need not invoke the divine.
One does need to recognize the reality of others.
That is as true of a nation and a society as it is of an individual, at least as I see things.
Just a few thoughts, not as yet complete, because my life is not complete.
Make of them what you will.