Quaker wisdom for a shaken and stirred society

 Life’s tough.  We battle every day to make sense of a world which seems to be spinning increasingly out of control.  Sometimes, with all the cruelty, injustice and intolerance in society, it seems the only answer is to hide away and try to shut out the world.  But a way of dealing with the madness may come from an unlikely source. Quakerism with its unique silent worship began nearly 400 years ago but its teachings seem tailor-made for today’s world and its troubles.   Quakers base their lives around simplicity.  They value simple honest tenets such as truth, conscience, non-violence and service.  However they don’t turn away from the world but embrace it, finding a way of integrity through the moral maze of business, family and education.

Robert Lawrence Smith who comes from a long line of Quakers, has encapsulated the Quaker way of life in a small but soulful book,  The Quaker Book of Wisdom.  In it he explains the main Quaker philosophies – and how to apply them to daily life.  He doesn’t demand we all become Quakers – or even subscribe to a religious belief:  the book just gently nudges us to think of other, maybe better, ways of living.

“It is my ever-growing conviction that the compassionate Quaker message badly needs to be heard in today’s complex, materialistic, often unjust and discriminatory society,” says Smith, “The circumstances of modern life give far too little nourishment to our common humanity – to goodness, courage, common sense, reflection, wonder, patience, understanding.”
Many people, generally suspicious of orthodox religion, find comfort in the Quaker message. “Quaker precepts offer a lifeplan, a clear map which can provide us with all the advice we need to live contented, honest, serene lives,” explains Smith, “The simplicity of the Quaker message makes perfect sense to children often confused by a violent society.”  Above all, he insists, “Quakerism is a pragmatic faith – based on life and its experiences.  It looks to nature, to society, to family rather than to complex philosophies or esoteric teachings.”

I don’t think you need to be religious, to have ‘faith’, to see that Quaker beliefs have a lot going for them.  I love that they can all, very easily, be incorporated into everyday life.

SILENCE:  For Quakers, wisdom begins in silence.  Quakers believe that only when we have silenced our voices and our souls can we hear the “still small voice” that dwells within each of us.  Only by listening in stillness for that voice and letting it guide our actions can we truly let our lives speak.  Quakerism is a very practical pragmatic religion and silence is valued by Quakers because it is, quite simply, useful.  The practice of silence – and it does take practice – is rewarding because it clarifies our lives, while offering a bit of a time-out for our souls.  If we can locate, at the very centre of silence, our individual “still small voice” we will have found our greatest ally in life.  Because, if we listen to that voice with an open heart, it will guide us through the most challenging crossroads of our lives.
• Take time each day just to be silent.  You don’t have to go for deep meditation.  It need only be five minutes but just sit quietly with your thoughts.
• Don’t race to fill a gap in the conversation – learn to listen and only speak when you really have something to say.
• Enjoy silence when it comes.  Don’t automatically turn on the TV or radio.

TRUTH:  Sadly we live in a world where it is virtually taken for granted that many of the people we listen to are not telling the truth:  we distrust the words of politicians, the press, advertisers, salespeople.  But despite our society, we need truth.  Truth is the best that is in each of us – the part of us that is drawn naturally towards the good, towards God.  If we listen for the truth – for the best that is within us – then our lives will begin to “speak”.  As George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, said, “Truth comes from within.  It is the basis for daily life, like the food we eat.”  The search for truth is a lifelong pact with our inner lives that encompasses seeking the truth, recognising the truth, speaking the truth, and living the truth.
• Start by being honest with yourself:  ask yourself how you really feel; what you really want; learn to listen to your body and your mind.
• Be truthful in all your dealings – with children and adults; friends and colleagues, family and strangers.  Weed out white lies; don’t fob children off with half-truths; be honest with salespeople.
• Remember that lies and even small deceptions can undermine relationships.  But be careful not to be cruel in your truth-telling.  Sometimes silence is the best option!
• If you have any doubts, listen to your conscience, the still small voice.  What does it say – honestly?

SIMPLICITY:  For many Friends, simplicity is the cornerstone of their lives.   However it is frequently misunderstood.  The simplicity of lifestyle the Friends extol is not based on forsaking worldly goods and pursing some vision of a less complex bygone era. Nor is it about finding a quiet corner where you can contemplate your life and feel good about yourself.  In a nutshell Quaker simplicity is not about how much you own but how much you let your possessions own you.  “What do I need?” is simplicity’s fundamental question – a question which stands in strict contrast to our favourite national pastime of shopping!  We gain a false and fleeting sense of self-esteem from our ability to purchase things for ourselves and our children.  Yet we often finish our shopping trips feeling unsatisfied and depressed.
• If you engage the whole family in fun activities – hiking, camping, picnics, shared activities – children won’t feel the need for so many toys to keep them amused.
• Don’t waste your time or your money.  Keep good track of your accounts but don’t let money rule your life.
• Find time for simple wholesome rituals – sitting down for family dinner; spending time in nature; baking bread or a cake together.

SERVICE.  For Quakers there is a direct link between worship and service.  The search for truth, which begins in silent contemplation, finds its expression in action.  Friends believe that the reason we were put on earth is to help each other, to make this a better world.  They ask themselves: What can we do to make the world healthier, happier, less violent?  The first generations of Quakers in the US took up the challenge by working for the abolition of slavery, fair treatment of Indians, and humane conditions for prisoners and patients in mental hospitals.  True service, they believe, responds to need wherever it exists in the human family – not simply to the problems of our direct kin, close friends and political allies.
• Try not to turn your back on society’s problems.  Start to look at problems like homelessness in the eye, rather than trying to avoid them.
• Look for small ways to be of service to others.  If you see someone struggling with a heavy bag up a flight of stairs, could you offer to help?  Might you guide a blind person across a busy road?  If you have a quiet moment at work, could you help someone who’s overloaded?
• By all means give to charity but could you spare time to be of more direct help?  Think about volunteering your time, not just your money.

TEN LIFE LESSONS
Robert Lawrence Smith also offers ten nuggets of advice – Quaker life lessons to help live the simple life.

1. Seize the present.  Make the most of your time every day of your life.  We usually let time slip away from us by continuously thinking ahead to the next activity, the next day, the next weekend, the future.  We live on constant fast-forward.  Instead try to take advantage of today.  We may be impermanent, but we are surely not insignificant.  Everything we do matters.

2. Love yourself, whatever faults you have, and love the world, however bad it is.  It’s often hard to love ourselves and even harder to love the world around us with all its faults.  But look for your good points, rather than focusing on the bad.  And start to look for good in the world too.

3. Stop talking and listen to what you really know.  You know a lot in your heart and through your common sense.  Learning to trust your own mind, with its wonderful richness and versatility is how you find out who you really are.  Hold high expectations for yourself and for others.  People rise to expectations.  Listen to your gut; trust your instincts and your common sense.

4. Play a team sport.  Playing with a team teaches you to be ready for anything and that there is only so much you can control.  You experience the happiness that comes from doing your best and from performing well.  You learn to keep going despite overwhelming odds and learn how to win and lose – hopefully both gracefully.  Playing team sports is a powerful antidote to self-centredness.

5. Accept the fact that your life is only partly in your own hands.  Often we don’t have the luxury of making choices.  Our lives are lived as if we were riding a canoe down a strongly flowing river, just trying to stay upright and get to the end.  Character is measured by how we deal with the reality.

6. Believe in the perfectibility of yourself and society. It’s easy to be cynical but try to resist it.  Instead dare to be an optimist:  optimism builds and creates.  Develop an attitude of expectancy, an inner bounce that is based on faith in the bounty of the next day.  Believe always in the goodness of people and the fact that things can be made better.

7. Make your love visible in the world through your work. You’re likely to funnel most of your waking time and energy into work.  Make it count.  Take it seriously.  In work you can express your own moral voice.  Find a sense of self-worth in your work by making yourself an instrument for healing, for service.

8. Seek justice in the world, but not in your own life. Life is unfair.  There is no shortage of injustice in the world, but equally no end to the ways you can work to correct it.  However don’t get hung up on the unfairness you may perceive in your own life.  There will always be others with more talents, more resources, and more advantages.  Work with what you have and never look back.

9. Look for the light of spirit/God/good in every person.  It’s easy to see people’s dark side – their petty greeds and prejudices, their selfishness and fear. The challenge is seeing the divine in other people.  In the only sense that really matters, we are all equal:  there is something of God (whatever you conceive that to be) in every person.

10. Let your life speak.  Have the patience to be silent and listen for truth.  Then have the courage to let the best that is in you direct your actions.  Recognise that your true identity is nothing more or less than the way in which you conduct your public and private affairs – the way in which for good or for ill, you let your life speak.

A Quaker Book of Wisdom by Robert Lawrence Smith (Gollancz).