Saturday, September 25, 2010

Quakers and modesty: Hustle, hustle? Horrors!

For years, I had trouble saying my own name.  If anyone asked me, I hid behind my untrimmed teenage  hair as if I'd forgotten it.  They had to tease "Helen" out of me, or, sometimes, new acquaintances just gave up.

I'm not saying that being raised Quaker caused me to stumble over what felt like announcing myself in flashing neon lights.  But the Quaker emphasis on modesty, while praiseworthy in itself--who likes arrogantly religious people?--bears looking into.

Having lived in Philadelphia all my life, I'm no longer surprised by how little even Philadelphia natives know about Quakerism.  "Do the women wear those little net caps?" No.  "Aren't they terribly conservative?" Well, yes and no.  Not politically, anyway. Not in Philadelphia.

Why is it that in the American Vatican City of Quakerism, so few people know about us?  My subjective feeling is that it's due to Quaker modesty: Quakers are very uncomfortable with anything that smacks of 'self-promotion,' and they keep an incredibly low profile.  They founded the first humane mental hospitals and prisons, they pioneered progressive education.  But beware advertising that fact.

--No wonder there are so few Quakers, my cynical side carps.

Or maybe my snarky attitude is merely a reflection of my Quaker family of origin.  We were so proud of our modesty: I remember a close family member huffing about the "hubris" that my father-in-law exhibited by putting a so-called 'vanity' plate on his car that showed the name of the company where he happened to be president.  Who was more prideful, really?

The truth is, you can't escape hubris.  At least one well-regarded Quaker school refuses to put 'honorifics' in its family address book: No "Dr." or "Rev.", etc. Just first and last names of the parents. But--in the faculty section, you can read where everyone went to college and where who got their PhD. In the very competitive realm of college-prep-school-admissions, prospective parents who get hold of the address book will surely check out which teachers went to Harvard.

Eileen Flanagan is the Quaker author of a wonderful book about the Serenity Prayer called The Wisdom to Know the Difference.  I have read the book twice.  I don't generally like self-help books, but this one has sparked some significant and wonderful changes in my life. I highly recommend it.

In her blog, Eileen talks about the tension between the need to promote the book and the Quaker value of modesty: I've been giving many talks lately, and I can't help but notice that most Quaker meetings haven't bothered to post my coming event on their websites. I haven't complained about this because I don't want to seem overly interested in self-promotion, though I see promoting my talk as an opportunity to tell people in the community that there is a Quaker meeting doing something that at least some people will find interesting. Almost every community has at least one website or Twitter group that announces local events, but Quakers rarely seem to make use of these, let alone submit information about themselves to the newspaper, which is usually quite easy.

In my view, this is a little sad.  People could be helped by this book. Potentially, lives could change.  And we're hiding the information?


Catherine Stine said...

Yes, perhaps the uneasy Quaker relationship to modesty is similar to the Catholic's kinship with feeling sinful, or the Jewish relationship to guilt. Or even the Christians' albatross of martyrdom. Something to wrestle with, to try and shake off, yet consider its hidden messages.

Rich Sidney said...

Are there really that few Quakers? There have certainly been some famous (and infamous ones like Pres. Nixon).

I feel like I've been aware of the Quakers all my life, and not through knowing you and your family -- I never thought about your religion until my late teens, but I was aware of the Society of Friends from my experiences with the LRY (Liberal Religious Youth -- the youth group for the Unitarians).

Large numbers or not, they have an impressive impact on our society, from the expulsion of Roger Williams from the Mass. Bay Colony to found RI; to the existence of the Conscientious Objector exception to the Draft.

I would further say that all of this happened "in spite of" Quaker Modesty.

It's taken me a long time to realize that the best way to lead is to do quietly, but not say. I am more successful as a result of this practice, and I'm not even that good at it. Seems like that's what "Quaker Modesty" really leads to: Leadership.

Thanks again for writing.

HelenQP said...

...actually, Roger Williams was a Baptist, but the Puritans liked him as little as they liked the Quakers...
There really are amazingly few Quakers. Yahoo Answers says that Wikipedia reports around 600,000. Which is really small. Perhaps this argues against my point, since so many people are in fact aware of the Q's place in history. Oh, well. Quiet leadership is a good thing, but I still think that failing to publicize events that can contribute to peoples' spiritual growth isn't leadership.