Monday, August 20, 2007

Just Do It

I am very task-oriented and I always thought that was just a personal tendency or preference. It is and it's not.

While I'm task-oriented, I hate doing tasks for very long. I think if I worked in a shirtwaist factory in 1910, I would not have been mentally stable. But I've been taught to do tasks as I'm told to do them, and to do them right. I've been taught that doing tasks is how I can contribute to and be valued by the world. So I do it because I don't know any other way.

A couple of weeks ago, when I found out that a dear F/friend's mother had died, I offered to organize a Nightingales-type sing for her(Nightingales is a Northern Yearly Meeting subgroup that meets to sing four to five times a year around the region). I, along with my partner Liz (who actually had the idea to do so), made sure the community knew about the sing, reserved a room in the Meeting House and made sure there was the right kind and quantity of food. We set up the room and arranged for folks to clean up. We turned off the lights at the end of the night. We just did it.

Today, I got a call from another F/friend who said that a beloved member of our community was in the hospital. She was asking me questions about whether a Nightingales-type sing could be arranged for this woman, one of the founders of Nightingales.

I was confused. I wondered why she didn't just do it. Or ask directly if I would be willing to organize such a thing.

"I wanted to make sure there were enough people interested in a sing."

By the time she could reach enough people to be sure there were enough interested, the woman would be out of the hospital, I ungenerously thought.

Quakers sometimes get caught up in talking about doing things (or worse yet, talking about talking about doing things), rather than doing them. This used to frustrate me to no end; and I used to think that my frustration made me a bad Quaker.

Before, I would have tried to stuff my frustration or offer to take on the task. This time I said, "When I organized [previous F/friend whose mother had died]'s sing, I just did it. Asked the email list people to send out an announcement, reserved the room. It didn't matter whether three or thirty people showed. [Woman in hospital] is a beloved member of this community. Enough people will come to sing with her."

She got defensive, but I assured her that I wasn't being critical, that I was just speaking plainly.

So I struggled with several things around class in this exchange.

1. Emotional honesty. One thing I learned in George's workshop is that working class folks are more emotionally honest and open, especially with anger. This is in stark contrast to middle/owning class folks who have been trained from childhood to keep emotions in check because emotions disrupt the work day (or assembly line or checkout line). I'm sure this F/friend heard frustration in my voice and that's why she got defensive. So how do I be who I am authentically and be effective at interacting with middle/owning class Friends?

2. Plain speaking/directness. Middle/owning class mores (and therefore also Quaker mores) say that truth shouldn't be spoken directly. Friends might have suggested that I couch my statements like this: "Maybe you could think about what things need to be done in order to organize such a sing. I could offer some suggestions based on my experience with the last sing if you would like." Ugh. Even as I write this, my "BS Meter" goes off and I feel tired. And I've tried doing things like this, and have been unsuccessful. Friends still see me, and how plainly I speak, as difficult.

3. My frustration with process. I used to be ashamed of this frustration in Quaker circles. But I'm starting to understand that I shouldn't be ashamed. I just don't know what to do with the frustration. I know sometimes process is important. Maybe she was thinking about getting "buy-in" from people so she would know that her work wasn't being done in vain. But why didn't I want to get "buy-in" from Friends when I organized the first sing? I don't think it was because I didn't care about whether my work was in vain. I think it was because I knew I was showing my love for this F/friend by organizing the sing and that if it were only me and that F/friend, it would be enough.

I don't know anymore if my frustration makes me a bad Quaker. Maybe it's the other way around: middle/owning class Quakerism makes me a frustrated Friend.

9 comments:

earthfreak (Pam) said...

Jeanne-

This strikes me as funny because I am frustrated with my own tendency to dither around and never get anything done. I tend to need approval and input from all sides, and tend to think this is my own insecurity, ADD (?) and lack of confidence, but maybe it's partly class too?

As for forthrightness, it's one of my biggest struggles. I am not good at hiding my feelings, and I am NOT good at "candy coating" anything, but yes, I was raised (in a mostly italian family, on the east coast) to avoid talking about anything "controversial" - so I end up just stifling a lot.

This is an area where I think the gifts of working class folks are most sorely needed. I feel that Friends do NOT tend to "speak plainly" these days - at least not in the cirlces I move in, at least not a lot of the time, and that I've run into, repeatedly, the idea that doing so would be almost violent(silly as that sounds) - It's something I'd really like to work on both in myself and the larger community.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeanne,

Can you tell me more about your strugges with process?

I am reading your words very carefully, and I am praying for you many times each day. And I am fitting you are saying into the memories I have of working with you. And some things fit in my head more than other things.

This is ironic, but I have all these memories of you getting upset when you don't feel like we're not following quite elaborate and articulate process.

Like you're wanting to run the idea of a book group through group process even when almost everyone in the group has informally said it's well led. Or being really carefully articulate about how we're bringing God into things when we make decisions. Or taking things very slowly so Spirit has room to move. Or running committee meetings to meet what I think are pretty high standards that you hold -- even though many of us don't have a lot of models of people living up to those ideals.

When I've felt impatient about process, I've thought, "Oh, but Jeanne would be so upset if we tried to do this differently!"

Elizabeth

Jeanne said...

This is all new stuff for me. If I am acting differently now, it's because everything has changed for me around my perceptions of and interactions with Quakers. I am literally ripped in half. Inside, I feel like a Quaker but when I'm among Friends, I feel like a giant green alien.

So there isn't going to be congruency between what I say and do now and what I said and did three months ago. Because I'm reevaluating and changing everything.

I can say this: I approached Quakerism the way I was taught to approach everything I did. To do what I was told, and to do it right. I learned that this was the only way to be valued in the world.

And Friends taught me the "right" way to do Quakerism.

I don't know what's 'right' anymore, except maybe that waiting on God in a group of Friends is the right way for me to worship.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the Quaker world!
Is everyone getting a different messsage from the same G-d or do we now have different G-ds?

I thought that my feelings of unease among Quakers was because of my military background, but now thinking about it, class may also be in the picture. "Draftee" and "low class" are the same thing in some minds.

Having said that, I think that we have to be careful if we start looking to class differences and see that as the problem. I feel that there is a wide span of affluence in meeting and members come from all classes. America is a very fluid society and the middle class is where everyone meets going up or comming down.

I'm not sure that one class can claim any of the points you make:

1. Emotional honesty: I grew up in a family of six, both parents working low wage jobs, I was broght up with the principle-"don't get mad-get even". Anger was best held in check and only shown when usefull.

2. plain speaking like anything can be abused, what is plain and what is hard or confrontational?
Only the partys involved can tell

3.I'm not sure what to say about this. If you have a true leading "buy in" may not be the most important thing. I feel that your faith is great and you seem secure in the knowlage that doing the task that you are assigned is what is important, then stand back and let G-d do what is needed, so often our ego gets involved and there has to be so many of the right people for the event to be "good" thanks for not falling into that trap.

Frustration makes you human, being human allows you to be a Quaker, as I said in my opening statement WELCOME

Peace & Love

GMC

MartinK said...

Hi again Jeanne: I'm not convinced that what you say are Quaker values are really Quaker values rather than values many Quakers now hold. For example: it seems like forthrightness and honesty should be values Friends hold in high regard. But somehow we've developed this culture where we sublimate all anger and conflict in these all-too-carefully couched roundabouts. Tenderness and charity are wonderful values but not to the point of passive aggressive Quakerese. Direct honesty has its place too. For whatever it's worth this is one of the cultural issues that have driven out a lot of people out of the religious society (including my wife Julie). I wonder if we've lost a lot of the "just do it" energy and "lets talk about the elephant in the middle of the room" honesty simply because we have this overly-developed anger-adverse culture.

It perhaps doesn't always work to ascribe certain values to certain social classes since there are always exceptions, but I definitely think you're onto something with all this. Ultimately the question is what values help us love our neighbors and bring us closer to a love of God.

Anonymous said...

Until the last couple of years when I've been dealing with a disability, I was proud that I was the kind of girl who just does what needs to be done -- no matter what the job is. Like you, Jeanne. I thought that was everyone's goal. What other kinds of goals are you aware of?

I'm also really interested in the way regional cultural differences are playing out here. I can not tell you how many people from the East Coast have told me that they are frustrated by how "indirect" or "passive aggressive" or "emotionally stifled" Minnesotans are. Their descriptions sound very similar to the frustration I'm hearing described here.

Just one example: A former college professor from the Northeast -- who was also raised middle class --recently told me that this difference of regional culture was a huge challenge for her, decades after she moved here, and that she wanted her East-coast raised and college-educated daughter to live in another part of the country because she believed that her daughter's directness and willingness to engage in conflict would make people treat her poorly here. The former college professor plans to retire elsewhere for the same reason.

I agree that there is a tendency to be a more forthright in working class culture -- here in Minnesota, too. But I've experienced really significant cultural diversity within the working class. People that I'd identify as rural Minnesotan working class in my family and in my circle of oldest, best friends have a much lower tolerance for perceived rudeness, and much more indirect way of expressing anger and requests for help than my middle-class Irish urban family. The cultural differences are huge, and, in my unique experience, they dwarf class differences when it comes to directness and tolerence for others' anger.

I think I'm oversensitized because I've heard so many people from the East complaining about this and acting as though we need to get over our "passive agressiveness" and be like them. While for me, some of this indirectness is a connection to my heritage and to a rural working-class culture that I love and long for but am not really a part of.

I'd be interested to know how people peel apart some of these threads of culture and class. I know that Pam, for example, comes from the East and identifies as middle class.

And because we might keep talking about these things, I want Jeanne to know that I understand that the things she is saying about what it means to belong in different classes matches her experience and the experience of many many people. And that some of it matches my experience, but some of it contradicts my experience.

Elizabeth

Jeanne said...

Martin,

Thanks so much for your comment. And you're right about how I'm talking about Quakerism and how I'm ascribing qualities to groups of people. It's clearly pushing people's buttons.

I think I am interchanging "Quakerism" with "Middle/Owning Class" in part because I think we as Friends (myself included) mistake middle/owning class values for Quaker values (as evidenced by Alan Paxton's comment on tentative Quaker's blog).

In fact I started a draft post about his comment where I was trying to parse out Quaker values and middle/owning class values. But I'm going to delete it and return to the intent of this blog: to talk specifically about my own personal experience as I discover class and figure out how it's working in my Quaker life. It's soooooo easy to be distracted by all the interesting threads that come from making my experience public...

Elizabeth,

You ask interesting questions. It's true that class is a complex quilt, and yet still has some universal patches. I've been blind to the diversity before me and right now am just looking for the universal patches. This is similar to my experience when I first discovered feminism. I first need to get grounded and find some form in all this new chaos.

Did you know that Pam started a google group that hopes to be a place for Friends to talk about class and its complexities in Quakerism? You can find it here.

Blessings,

Jeanne

Friendly Mama said...

I guess I've been really lucky. The two women who have had the greatest impact on my development as a Quaker are both dynamic, loving and very direct.
Marion I think of as my Quaker spiritual grandmother. I'd been attending Meeting for a year or two when, at a silent peace march, she kindly but firmly eldered me about my rather frivolous demeanor. I was taken aback but the longer I sat with her words, the more I understood them to be true. I appreciate her bluntness and honesty.
Penelope is my Quaker mama. She speaks directly and with compassionate honesty.
I live in the South: The land of passive-aggression. I often feel as if I speak a totally different emotional language than many of the people in my world. I'm grateful that I've had these two women in my life so I was never made to feel that my direct speech and blunt way of communicating are "wrong".

I've always felt supported and encouraged by my Meeting for being an agent of positive action.

On the other hand, I, too, have felt frustration with process. I'm slowly learning to let go of my own ego, which sees what needs to be done and wants to rush in to do it, and to listen for God's will. Sometimes, I'm beginning to understand, people are not slowing process just because they don't like change. Sometimes, they're acting on God's leading. Sometimes, God is telling us to take it slow because there are things that have to be learned in the process. The more I let go of myself, the more I can slow down and listen and learn.

Jeanne said...

Friendly Mama,

Thank you for sharing your stories! I have a Quaker grandmother who is forthright as well. I love her directness. I got to know her when I was very ill and she volunteered for my support committee. Unfortunately, I think all the other voices have outweighed hers, at least in my spirit.

I also have gone the route of 'letting go of my ego' and when I wasn't able to fully do that much of the time, I felt like I was a bad Quaker. When I expressed my frustration with process with Friends, they would tell me to let go of my ego. They would tell me that I was too attached.

I think knowing that some of this has to do with class is helping me be compassionate toward my tendencies. I just haven't yet figured out how I fit into modern Quakerism with those tendencies.

:-) Jeanne