One thing I do notice when with Quakers, is how much my comfort level varies depending on the occasion. In other groups and settings, even on occasions the family, I always feel like a fish out of water, and I feel much the same with Quakers in “unstructured” situations, for example chatting during refreshments after worship. But in more structured situations such as meeting for worship itself, “Afterwords” (a time for reflexions or thoughts that arose during, or outside of, meeting but one felt wasn’t suitable for ministry) or business meetings or discussion groups, I feel “at home”.
What sets “structured” conversation apart is the mode of communication that follows implicit but undefined guidelines. These include moments of silence between each speaker, and one doesn’t respond directly to another speaker but simply speaks their own mind or thoughts. “Let your truth speak” (an old Quaker saying). The idea here is that one should speak to their own truths, not oppose or argue against those of another person or group. It allows individual Quakers to hold a wide variety of perspectives, without being judged right or wrong, and perhaps more importantly, encourages one not to pass judgements on others based on one’s own biases and prejudices. We all have them.
For me this mode of conversation provides me the opportunity to truly communicate. It allows me the time to digest what has been spoken and time for me to convert my own thoughts into reasonably structured sentences. I really struggle forming sentences “on the fly”. Not only do I have to find the right words and put them in the correct order, I then have to manipulate the jaw, lips and tongue “in real time” to convert those words into sounds that will be intelligible to the listener.
This is a tall order for me, even in company that I’m comfortable and familiar with, but in other situations the fear of misunderstanding, or worse, being misunderstood generates stress that has a negative impact on how I perform. Perhaps I’ve mastered the art of conversation to a limited degree, but in my youth I was extremely clumsy. Let me assure you that fear caused through being subjected to violence, both verbal and physical due to communication failures has left an indelible mark on my confidence in social situations.
Simply knowing I don’t need to respond directly to anything anyone else has said is comforting and allows me to feel an equal among equals. Simply knowing I’m not going to be judged by what I might say alleviates that subconscious fear of violence that always lurks when when in company of others. Simply knowing I will be given the space to allow my thoughts to grow into words that can be shared gives me a freedom of expression I seldom experience elsewhere. I feel valued.
Over the years, a number of atheist fellow bloggers have recommended I would be better off joining a sports club than “wasting my time with religion”, but I beg to differ. At least their suggestions have been with the best of intentions, which is more than I can say of some other sections of society. For me religion isn’t about theories, theology, dogma or creeds (absent within quakerism) nor about deities or about believing what others claim is The Truth. For me religion is experiential and how one responds to that experience.
I don’t believe in the supernatural, but often my response to the good within humanity, the beauty found in nature, the awesomeness of the universe, and even simply knowing I’m uniquely me, is so intense that it feels like there is “something” that others might explain as being supernatural or divine. Please note the emphasis on how the experience feels, not that there actually is a supernatural dimension. This is most fully experienced in the company of others with a similar perspective. For me that’s among Quakers.
What gave rise to this post was that I was strongly reminded of how awkward, uncomfortable, and dare I say fearful I feel in unfamiliar situations. In the early hours of yesterday morning (about 12:20 am from recollection) I Zoomed into an online Quaker meeting for worship at Woodbrooke in the UK. As always with silent worship, I felt right at home, and I remained that way until the end of the meeting. Then as conversation started, I felt the panic set in.
There was only one person at the meeting that I knew. I have known her through the medium of blogging for seven or so years, and while I am very comfortable about sharing my thoughts with her through the medium of WordPress, in the “real time” environment of Zoom, I struggled to make any form of “normal” conversation, what is often referred to a “small talk”. I should have reminded myself that she too is a Quaker and that we both could have slipped into the Quakerly “structured” mode where moments of silence aren’t considered awkward and where conversation doesn’t need to imitate small talk. I’ll try to remind myself of that next time.
One final observation. It occurs to me how much the Quakerly form of communication suits the autistic experience. Generally Autistics are not interested in games of one upmanship, debating or winning arguments. In spite of our social awkwardness, we’re more amenable to sharing and cooperation, and due to our minority status in a neuro-normative world, are more appreciative of differences being … well, just different. It’s not a case of being better or worse, right or wrong. When austics get together their form of communication is often along the lines I’ve described here, with perhaps shorter silent periods between speakers. Our normal mode of conversation parallels the Quakerly “structured” mode to a remarkable degree.