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?