‘The world as it stands does not lead me always to a feeling of softness; I don’t always feel sweet’

Thought for the week: Harvey Gillman’s hard look

'How do we creatively process the forces of destructiveness that threaten to overwhelm us?' | Photo: by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash.

‘Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard… Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.’ Kurt Vonnegut

I am aware of the iniquities of Facebook. I do appreciate however the uplifting quotations posted by friends which remind me that the world is larger than the enclosed space of our lockdown. I immediately warmed to the above phrase. But then I found myself reflecting on whether I entirely agreed with it. I commented that it was a warning to me. The world as it stands does not lead me always to a feeling of softness; I do not always feel sweet. I have no doubt that the world is a beautiful place but I am often overwhelmed by its ugliness also. Perhaps I need eldering.

As a child I watched my father getting angry when certain politicians appeared on the television. I remember hoping that I would never become that angry. We were not a restrained, nice, middle-class English Quaker family. We were emotional descendants of persecuted immigrants. Working class, northerners. Yet I sometimes see myself becoming my father. When I first joined Friends over forty years ago, I was very aware of Quaker culture and how different it was from what I was used to. I was also attracted by various schools of Buddhism, but there was always something within me which psychologically got in the way. Perhaps it was that I simply ‘felt’ too much, that I was aware also of the ugliness and cruelty in the world, that I simply could not ‘detach’. Sometimes I was afraid that a lot of spirituality was about escapism or denial. Now when I write of such things, nice, good, kind Friends tell me that it is OK to be angry, and that things grow in darkness, and I find myself agreeing with everyone, the seekers of detachment, the eschewers of anger, the indignant activists. You name them, I sympathise with them, however much they contradict!

On my journey through life, I carry the backpack of my Jewish inheritance, its prophetic anger at injustice, its rebellion against cruelty. I carry also the knapsack of the Buddhist insight at the oneness of things, the need for compassion and transcendence of the self. There is also the staff of my Quaker involvement, which demands that, as I swear at the sight of certain politicians, I (may the Spirit assist me) look for that of God within them – and cherish it within myself. Each tradition elders against the temptations of the others. Anger against injustice so often leads to confrontation and even hatred. The frustration of one’s dreams for a better society often leads to bitterness.

I have ceased asking myself whether I am a good Quaker. ‘Am I an authentic human being?’ is a more challenging question. How do we creatively process the forces of destructiveness that threaten to overwhelm us?

Then another message landed in my inbox. It was about lockdown and cancelled lives. It ended: ‘Imagination is not cancelled. Kindness in not cancelled. Conversation is not cancelled. Hope is not cancelled.’ Amen!

You need to login to read subscriber-only content and/or comment on articles.