Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Talking About Jesus, part 1: the powers and perils of naming

I've always been a Christian--that is, my relationship with God has been interpreted and enfleshed through Christian scripture, practice and community, with an emphasis on Jesus.  In the years when I worshipped with unprogrammed Friends my experience of God and the understandings and practices that engendered remained fairly constant, but we didn't use Jesus' name regularly and frequently as a group.  Now, while I still practice Quaker worship daily at home, my Sunday worship is with a little nondenominational church where we talk and sing a lot about Jesus.  I find a gift and a challenge in this naming.
Some of my Christian friends speak of the importance of naming the God we serve as Jesus, reminding ourselves and others of the particular challenge, peace and guidance found in Jesus' life and teaching.  Some parts of my relationship with God are most readily and precisely described through Jesus-language.  Some other Christian friends and some friends from other faith traditions speak of the dangers of using Jesus-language in a world where so much harm has been done by people who claimed to worship and follow Jesus.  I think all my friends are articulating important truths.  I am trying to find my way between them.

This post is about the challenges of talking about Jesus in groups that include non-Christians.  The next one will be about trying to talk about Jesus with fellow Christians without getting stuck in assumptions, and the one after that will be about my own relationship with/understanding of/attempt to follow Jesus thus far.
Years ago I brought a message about my experiences with Jesus-following, economic justice and integrity to a Quaker gathering.  I was told afterward that some people were upset with me.  I invited those people to meet with me.  Some did.  I expected them to have problems with my economic message.  Instead they felt hurt because I had reminded them of Christians they knew who spoke against or violently mistreated Jews or gays and lesbians.  They agreed that my message had not discussed Judaism, non-Christian religions, sexual ethics or sexual orientation, but I had used Jesus' name and had spoken in tones of exhortation and that had reminded of something that had hurt them.  Some of them had assumed that I was trying to convert them. 
My reaction was split.  There was frustration: I found myself thinking "Quakerism is originally a Christian movement, many of us still are Christians, you don't have to be what we are but you do need to let us freely describe what we have known of God."  There was also sympathy and concern: I understood that these people had experienced deep hurt in their own lives and had seen harm done to people they loved, and that I had reawakened the memory of that hurt. I regretted that. 
I listened to their hurt.  I acknowledged that great harm has been done in the name of my religion and expressed sorrow over some of that harm having been done to them and their loved ones.  I told them that I had been describing my own faith journey, which does centrally involve Jesus, but that I was asking other people to integrate their lives with their religious beliefs, not to modify their God-language to match mine.  I tried, also, to point out that the tendency to attack People Who Aren't Like Us is fairly widely distributed across humanity, and shows up in many religions, races, classes, orientations and ideologies...that Christians are neither immune to it nor unusually prone to it, though I thought if Christians followed Jesus more faithfully, and if people of other faiths deepened their communion with God, however they name God, we would all be healed of this tendency.  

I see two challenges here: a psychological one and a philosophical one.  The psychological one has to do with responding to genuine painful experience that has prompted a distorted overgeneralization.  This doesn't happen only around religion.  Once a friend voiced vehement disapproval of same-sex couples adopting children.  I spoke to X about some women I knew who were very capable, caring, generous and faithful, and also married to each other.  X responded with a very painful personal story of same-gender child sexual abuse.  I listened and sympathized with the great harm that had been done to X and others whom X loved.  I also tried to point out that child abuse is a terrible thing which is done by some people of all sexual orientations, and that self-restraint and faithful, healthy love between adults are also possibilities open to people of all sexual orientations.  Another friend who was present shared a very painful personal story of cross-gender child sexual abuse.
         I left that conversation and the conversation at the Quaker gathering in considerable doubt about my response.  I thought that trying to make a counter-point might have seemed dismissive of the hurt my interlocutors were carrying.  I thought it wrong to respond in a way that they might take to suggest that I agreed that Christians or gay and lesbian people really are abuse-prone and should be avoided.  I still don't know what the right response would have been.  

Then there's the philosophical problem.  We humans have misused and desecrated many--perhaps all--of our names for the holy and the good.  We have used them to justify unjustifiable actions.  This is true of many names of God, but avoiding religious language does not avoid the problem.  A guest once spoke about talking about Love instead of God because God-language has such a problematic history.  I told her I didn't find Love any less problematic.  I'd heard the word 'love' used in troubling ways in the fantasy play of kids who'd been sexually abused. I'd heard "If you really loved me, you would.." used to manipulate people destructively. "But that's not really love, that makes people behave like that," she said.  "No, and it's not really God who makes people abuse each other, either," I said.  It's not just God and love, either.  Most of us can probably think of atrocities and injustices which have been committed in the name of truth, justice, freedom, peace….
So when we use these good words they are subject to ambiguity, and they trigger pain and fear in some people.  But I think there are at least two good reasons for continuing to use them.
One is reclamation.  If we don't use these good words when we are trying to be sensitive to our neighbors, we abandon these words to thoughtless use, and the stigma and the hurt around them deepen.  If we use them carefully, lovingly, humbly, we may make it possible for some people to see the goodness in them.  (Pope Francis seems to have done this for some people's understanding of Catholic, or general Christian, language and practice.  I am very grateful.) Using them in this way we are reminded of the 'great cloud of witnesses', of all the people down through time who have invoked these good words as they healed sick people, taught children, reconciled enemies, forgave persecutors, cared for the earth, loved God and their neighbors.
The other is focus. If we don't use these good words an essential part of our lives and souls remains mute. If this muteness was part of a general context of silence it might have a different kind of strength.  In a very talkative society, we're apt to think largely about what we talk about, and if we refrain from talking about what is essential and keep talking about peripherals our focus is apt to be skewed.

I have also had good conversations with people of different faiths and with people outside any formal religious tradition, in which I was able to name my experience of God and Jesus and to hear the other person's names for the sacred without tension.  I have been helped by contemplation of the experiences and principles we hold in common.  Sometimes the other person's different language and images have helped me to get a fresh and vivid look at truths which had become so familiar to me in my own tradition that I almost stopped noticing them.  Often the other people in these conversations also say they have experienced them as blessings.
It's not a matter of being nice and non-challenging.  I want and need to be held accountable as well as supported in my attempts to follow Jesus.  I think God sometimes requires us to speak hard truths.  If we duck this in an effort to preserve group tranquility our lives become shallow. I'm still trying to figure out how to speak in a way that is both bold and humble.  I have figured out a few things to start with:
I need to remember that we are members one of another--all of us, all the living creatures that God made.  When I speak of what is right and good I need to remember that that goodness is available to everyone, not only My People.  When I speak of what is wrong and harmful I need to acknowledge the roots of evil in my own people and my own heart, rather than denouncing evil Out There as though it had no part in me and mine.  
I need to remember that God is greater than any of our words, names, concepts, images or practices.  We are creatures and we need all those things to help us ground our little lives in the Life, but we must not mistake them for the Life entire.  I think there is a way of using particular language that can actually foster this recognition.  If I try always to speak in a way that I think everyone can hear and agree with, a way that doesn't leave out anyone's experience of the sacred, I become vague and anxious and I still am bound by the limits of my assumptions.  If I speak of Jesus--who for me is, among other things, the bearer of the human face of God, God born in us, broken in us, working in us, suffering in us, dying in us, raising us to new life--and if I remember as I speak that what I meet in Jesus is met by other people under other names, I am more able to enter into communion.

If any of you have made it to the end of this long post, I would appreciate hearing about your experience with using your God-language and hearing other people's, and hearing how you decide which names to use, when to speak and when to keep silent.

Link to part 2

Sunday, December 8, 2013


It's Advent again, the time of preparing the way for God.  There's a certain amount of delighted anticipation in this as I look at the ways in which the Kingdom of God is already with us and the ways in which I believe it will come.  There's also a certain amount of heavy lifting as I look again at the obstacles my own life puts in the way of God's kingdom being embodied on earth.   Most of those obstacles are old familiars like anxiety, carelessness, and participation in the consumer economy.  This year I also realized that I have been enmeshed in envy for some time. I am still figuring out what the root of that envy is and how I need to deal with it. I'd be glad for insights/suggestions/reading recommendations from other people who have dealt with this problem.
I used to think I wasn't envious, mainly because I didn't envy the things people assumed I would.  Some people who have boyfriends/husbands,official jobs or college degrees have earnestly reassured me that my lack of these things doesn't indicate any serious intrinsic defect on my part, and that someday I can also have those things.  I try to explain as nicely as possible that I really am not coveting what they have, that I am actually content with my life as it is.  I have casually envied people who seemed to fit completely inside their bodies, who moved with the grace and deftness I never learned, or people who had the sense of timing required to pull out smoothly into traffic or to tell a joke so that it actually sounded funny….but I've always been able to laugh at myself, or to remember that some things that come easy to me are hard for some other folks, and then to sit back and enjoy the other person's talents without making comparisons.
I deeply envy people who have qualities of character that I admire, strive for and repeatedly fail to achieve.  The courage and poise to face down snarling dogs or belligerent people and back them off so that they do and suffer no harm.  The wisdom to be silent when silence is called for, and then to speak only the necessary, true and healing word.  The confidence to state a conviction, an opinion or a preference simply and clearly without looking around to see what other people think of it.  The maturity, or humility, or confidence--I don't even know what it is--to delight in other people's good qualities without making comparisons, without feeling inferior or resentful.  
I am grateful for the people who possess these qualities.  I am glad to be in a world and in a community that includes such people. I wish to support those people in whatever ways I can. In my considered opinion all these statements are true.  In graced times I feel them to be true. In other times I don't.
Sometimes I look at the goodness in them and perceive an indictment of my own lacks.  When they show their goodness, or when other people describe it, my stomach churns.  Sometimes I imagine people silently thinking about how much more cowardly, inattentive, insecure and competitive I am.  Sometimes I realize that they aren't thinking of it in those terms at all, that they're not competing, that they're not preoccupied with my strengths or defects. This ought to be a relief, but in graceless times it isn't; it just makes it feel that much worse.  I think You have this wonderful thing that I lack, that I would love to have, and you don't even see that you have it. You assume that everybody has it, or is supposed to have it.  If you knew I didn't have it, what would you think of me?...and I am afraid.  Or I think, You've beaten me by a mile and you weren't even trying, you didn't even notice me, that's how much better you are… and I am resentful. 
As with anxiety, the biggest hurdle in dealing with envy seems to be acknowledging that it's there and looking at it instead of hiding from it.  I've managed that part, with help from some books and some friends.  Now that I'm paying attention, I think that envy, like most of my unfortunate habits and character traits, is composed of a basically healthy longing combined with a lie / distortion that causes me to pursue what I long for in the wrong way.  I'm still working on bringing both into focus.  
One good root of moral envy is my wish to make the world better.  I am grateful for the goodness around and within us.  I am also aware of the gap between what is and what should be--in our dealings with each other, in our use of the living world, in our faithfulness to Spirit. I know that I am partly responsible for that gap, and I want to close it.  I expect myself to grow in integrity and love and faithfulness, and to do as little harm as possible.  That's good, as far as it goes. However, it's easily warped by egotism. I grew up singing "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me."  I'm not sure when there began to be a twist in my understanding of the words--when 'let it begin with me' came to mean not only 'let me be a peacemaker' but 'let me be the first, best peacemaker'. Not that I ever said that explicitly, because it would have sounded childish and ridiculous.  (At least, not on purpose.  Once while singing the Prayer of St. Francis, the part in the bridge that begins "O Master, grant that I may never seek so much to be consoled as to console…" I realized that I had substituted "control" for "console."  This gave me pause for thought.) 
Another good root is my awareness of what I've been given.  I grew up without physical fear or material want, with love and encouragement and good nourishment for mind, body and soul.  I have a healthy body and a capacious though capricious mind.  These things can make it easier for me to love and work effectively.  Remembering these things can make it harder for me to weasel out of doing what needs to be done. This remembrance can warp into an unhelpful sense of guilt and envy toward those who have had harder lives than mine and who show strengths of character which I lack.  I begin by berating myself for not living up to them and end up by resenting them.  
Some kind friends have tried to help me by pointing out my strengths.  That is sweet, but not necessarily helpful.  I know and enjoy many things I am good at, physically, mentally and morally.  But when I try to balance them as credits against the debits I see in my character the accounting becomes increasingly frantic and confused.
I think my way to healing is to live further into a truth that in some sense I have always known: that at the root we're all one.  That has been clear to me experientially as long as I can remember, and I'm reminded of it whenever I quiet my distractions and return to the awareness of God's presence. Sometimes that knowledge has been a simple delight. It has consoled me when I felt lonely or feared that I couldn't really be of help to others.  Sometimes that knowledge has been challenging.  When I have been angry with or disappointed in another group of people, when I would have liked to separate myself from them and think that I would never do what they did, I have been reminded that we are one in the root, that I also am capable of doing what they did--and, often, have done destructive things that looked less dramatic but arose from the same motivation that I suspect in them. 
I need to remember this same truth in the presence of people whom I admire and envy.  I need to remember that my goodness does not in any way compete with theirs. We are all in the same struggle.  We share the capacity for greed, fear and falsehood, and we can exacerbate these in one another.  We also share the capacity for love, courage and truth, and whenever we choose these we strengthen ourselves and one another. Whatever virtues come easily to anyone strengthen us all--and so do the virtues we come into only by hard striving, with much falling down and getting up again.
I know that on one level--it's quite obvious. If I were able to work that knowledge all the way into my breath and my bones, I think I wouldn't envy any more.  For now I'll try to use the gnawings of envy as signals to remind me of the truth. I suppose living as if the Truth was true is somewhat like the kingdom of God. It's here already, always; and it's not here yet. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Struggle We Share

I cherish Christian friends and friends who practice other religions. With both groups I share the struggle to love God wholeheartedly, love my neighbors, and hear and obey the Spirit's promptings.  In both groups I encounter some distrust of the other group. Some of my conservative Christian friends say Christians are being persecuted by non-Christians in the USA today.  Some of my non-Christian friends say American Christians are privileged and are persecuting non-Christians.  Both groups get outraged.  
I don't see American Christians being persecuted. I see that American Muslims (and, to some extent, Sikhs ) often suffer heightened surveillance, police/judicial harassment, and violence at the hands of angry and ignorant people.  American Christians--and, I think, members of most other religions in this country--can claim our faith publicly without risking surveillance, violence or imprisonment.  Given this, I think that when we claim persecution people are apt to see us as whiny, blind or unreasonable. 
In some ways I understand American Christians to be privileged.  We are a majority.  Our religion is and has often been invoked by public figures wrestling with weighty issues.  When we speak in our religious language it is likely that some of our listeners will recognize our words, and we can hope some of them will share our understanding of what those words mean.
But when people say that US Christians don't understand how hard it is for US non-Christians who face ridicule, stereotyping, hostility and shunning for their beliefs, I beg to differ.  Christians do face those things too.  I know that according to the standard Privilege Checklist I am privileged as a white heterosexual Christian and underprivileged as a woman without formal education.  However, in practice I've been given a harder time for being Christian than for being female.  Many people have told me angrily that Christians are inherently ignorant, irrational, neurotic, joyless, homophobic, misogynist and anti-Semitic, and that when I use Christian language I make it clear that I share in these pernicious attitudes.  Some generally scrupulous and sensitive folks who would confront the tellers of racist or sexist jokes have told me jokes based on the foregoing assumptions about Christians and been put out when I didn't laugh.  Some people who I liked and respected have pulled away from friendship with me because I was Christian (and no, I was not trying to convert them...I don't do that.) 
I know, to my sorrow, that members of my Christian community sometimes ridicule, stereotype and shun people from other traditions.  I am convinced that this behavior is not consistent with our shared faith. When I hear it going on I generally confront it with all the gentleness, firmness and clarity I can muster.  
We are all most apt to hear the stories about how Our People, however we define them, are being hurt.  And in this culture there's plenty of hurting to go around.  Responding appropriately requires some care. Legal and public discrimination can and must be addressed by law and public statements.  The other wounds are more complicated. When someone loses a friend over religion, or is hurt by having their group denounced by a public figure they had respected, that hurts, and we need to listen to that hurt.  When someone's place of worship is burned down or someone's religious emblems are taken from their home or yard and vandalized that's frightening, and we need to hear that fear. When someone is beaten up or killed and their faith appears to be part of the motivation that is tragic and we need to grieve.  But as we sympathize and grieve we need to watch the stories we tell ourselves.  Instead of keeping count of the times when Their People have hurt Our People, we need to work toward a culture that does not hurt people because of what they hold sacred-- if possible, one that does not hurt people at all.  
I don't think the basic problem with our culture is either that it is Christian and therefore hostile to people of other faiths or that it's deeply hostile to Christianity.  I think the problem goes beyond our different names for the holy.  We live in a consumer culture which is fundamentally opposed to all attempts to live in faithful community. 
By 'faithful' I don't mean 'believing correctly" but 'keeping faith with God and one another."  Faithful community begins with the understanding that we are members of one another and of God, and that the world is made up of sacred living beings who were not created primarily for our use or enjoyment.  We articulate this understanding differently in different faiths (I know "God" isn't the word some would use--it's my word, and I hope people with other sacred languages will be able to translate), but I think those varied understandings lead to a similar set of shared responses. These include gratitude for and wonder at the beauty of the world we did not make and do not own, which leads naturally to humility.  They also include responsibility to and for God and one another, and compassion and the attempt to do justice for other living beings with whom we are, at root, one; these require self-discipline.  I hear and see people of many faiths claiming these values and striving to embody them.  I also see people who claim no faith striving to live in this way.  I don't fully understand their worldview, but I am grateful for their lives.
The consumer culture, on the other hand, reduces other people and the living world to objects of our use or pleasure.  We have let this culture take over our economic system, and from there it inevitably spreads to affect all aspects of our lives.  The growth economy is based on a constant rise in spending and debt.  This rise is driven by advertising, which admits to being based on 'need creation"--the stimulation of discontentment and self-centered desire.  Need creation is fundamentally opposed to gratitude, humility and mutual responsibility.  It works best on people who are cut off from the Spirit, from their neighbors and from the places in which they live, and it exacerbates this disconnection.  
Once we accept this disconnected, distorted view of the world we act in very strange ways.  We degrade our water supply and our climate in order to get more cheap energy now.  We commodify sex in order to sell products. We move the care of children, elders and invalids from the family and community into for-profit institutions.  We divide physical work up in such a way that some people work to the point of exhaustion and injury while others do only physically inactive jobs and have to take their bodies out for exercise, like pets.  We require other people to work in conditions we wouldn't tolerate ourselves.  We deny our membership in one another. 
This denial makes us become increasingly frightened, lonely, and suspicious of people who are Not Like Us, whether they're members of another party, another nation, or another religious group.  We think that their interests and ours are mutually exclusive.  We think we can't understand them.  We project our own feared qualities onto them.  We disrespect them, and when they respond in kind we take it as a further sign that they hate us, that they are different from us, that we are enemies.  Sometimes this enemy-making is explicitly stated.  That is disturbing, but at least it's clear and can be straightforwardly addressed.  Sometimes it happens more subtly, through the things we say as though they were jokes, through the stories we choose to hear and the stories we choose not to hear.  
I don't think the consumer mentality is automatically opposed to the profession of Christianity or any other religious tradition.  I do think it is fundamentally opposed to many of the core practices of faithful community, practices central to many religions.  These practices include honesty, voluntary poverty, nonviolence, chastity/fidelity, care for the earth, care for people in need, and the attempt to create a just society which treats all people as children of God.  In the consumer mentality honesty is seen as a failure to promote oneself and get ahead, voluntary poverty is failure pure and simple, chastity/fidelity is attributed to unattractiveness/neurosis/frigidity, nonviolence is seen as unrealistic in the face of an alienated world, and ecological damage, human need and social injustice are tolerated as part of the cost of doing business.  
The divisions between Our People and Their People distract us from the struggle between faithful community and consumer culture which cuts through each of our lives and souls.  In this struggle we are all united by our shared confession of fear, selfishness, falsehood and greed, by the love that heals and frees us, and by our repeated attempts to turn again and live in faithfulness.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Mental illness, healing, and the life of the Spirit, part 2: discernment and accompaniment

Our mental health discussion at  Quaker Spring often returned to how we discern the nature of experiences which don't fit into our culture's norms.  Some Friends spoke with gratitude of faith communities which acknowledged that seeing visions of Jesus or hearing God's voice could be a gift, an experience of spiritual communion rather than alienation, a quickened perception of truth rather than a delusion.  Others spoke of the difficulty of discernment: How can we distinguish depression from the dark night of the soul or from the 'gift of tears' that springs from compassion? How can we tell the difference between the painful but salutary promptings of a tendered conscience and the crippling guilt that can accompany OCD? Others spoke of experiences of sickness and despair which they found dispiriting and barren, which they perceived as wounds and not as gifts.  At different times in my life I have experienced my mental differences in all these ways.  I still struggle with discernment, but in all cases I have been grateful for the accompaniment of people willing to sit with me as I went through the discomfort that can equally accompany spiritual experience, rightly guided concern and mental illness--people who helped me to deal with the pain of the wound and to recognize the gift.
When I was a child some people told my mother that I seemed to be disturbed and should get psychiatric help.  I had conversations with trees and with a young friend who had died.  I often had a strong sense of the presence of God, sometimes also of the presence of evil. My mother listened to me, checked that my talks with my friend weren't making me careless or suicidal, gave me helpful suggestions for dealing with the fear of evil, and consulted a wise (non-Quaker) friend.  The friend said that she thought I could cope so long as my mother could cope with listening to me.  She did that.  I'm grateful.  Looking back, I don't think those experiences were false or destructive; I think they were glimpses of truth filtered through a child's limited understanding and active imagination.  On the whole they tended to deepen my sense of connection, courage, joy and meaning rather than weakening it.
Even such benign experiences need to be appropriately contained. Later, in my early teens, I encountered some people who considered such experiences 'special' and an indication of potentially useful psychic power.  In my immature eagerness to be special I spoke pridefully and loosely of experiences that should be put into words with caution and humility or not at all. I encountered personality conflicts and misunderstandings and spent a while being confused and ashamed. I was and am grateful to my mother and others who continued to speak of the experience of Spirit as neither sick nor special but simply part of being human, who saw it as a gift to be received attentively and gratefully when it came rather than a delusion to be denied or a power to be sought and used. 
Also as a child I tended to react strongly to the hurt I saw in the people around me and in the wider world.  I was eight or nine during Operation Desert Storm; I felt implicated in what my country was doing, so I tried to watch the news, but I ended up in tears and with psychosomatic pains.  When my very part-time school schedule had me in the cafeteria for lunch I often couldn't eat because I felt overwhelmed by the noise and the upsets around me. This tendency to empathize sometimes made me kinder and more forbearing with the people around me; it shaped my commitment to pacifism; it helped me to listen better, and to write better stories. But I needed help learning to deal with it constructively; otherwise I ended up needy, out of balance and completely unhelpful.  At first my mother helped me to find a balance (write to the President if you want to; pray for the people who are being hurt; follow the news in the paper if you can do that and cope; don't try to watch the video footage since it seems to make you sick…) Eventually I learned to do that for myself.  
As I grew up my sense of ethics sometimes didn't fit well with the surrounding culture.  I experienced this disjuncture as both wound and gift. I've written elsewhere about the time in my teens when I learned about how the workers who grew my food and made my clothes were treated, and realized that this didn't square well with the commandment to love my neighbor as myself (or even the more limited commandment in Leviticus 19:16b, "Do not profit by the blood of your fellow").  I was quite sure that I was called by God--and also required by decency and common sense--to do something about this gap: to change my life so that it did less harm, to work toward creating a system that was fairer. I didn't know how. My mother listened and asked clarifying questions.  Other adults at my church told me it was abnormal and developmentally inappropriate to worry about such things at my age and urged me to shop, date, drink and stop worrying.  I stopped churchgoing and began a lonely and sometimes scary time of worshiping alone, confronting my own personal and economic shadow side, and wondering if there was a community somewhere that would find my questions sane and worth asking.  I found the Quakers, and they did, and my distress settled down into something clearer and more detached and finally manifested as a clear leading.  
In my early 20s I attended a large Quaker gathering where few youth and young adults participated in wider activities; several older adults told me that the young folks mostly kept to themselves and experimented with sex, drugs and alcohol.  I found this troubling. The older adults said that experimentation was developmentally appropriate; one identified himself as a psychologist and told me that the failure to engage in such experimentation was generally an indication of neurosis.  I thought that wasn't my case.  I wasn't ashamed of my body or my desires (though sometimes embarrassed by the latter), and I'd spent a fair bit of time reading books on sexual ethics from widely different perspectives and working out my own, and I'd decided that the consumer model of sex felt unwhole to me and that I was looking for something more covenantal. As for drugs, I found reality quite fascinating and frightening enough without artificial enhancement.  I told him this, and believed it, and still believe it, but his remark stuck in my mind and resurfaced when I found myself caught in what I recognized as actual neurosis. 
In my mid-twenties my mother began telling me that I was becoming difficult to communicate with, that I got upset very easily, seemed frequently agitated and exhausted, and didn't seem to be making sense.  I argued, but at some level I knew that I felt anxious, guilty and desperate much of the time, not always for adequate reasons.  I tried ignoring those feelings and trying to project--and, when possible, feel--more positive emotions.  That didn't work.  Finally my anxiety crystallized into clear symptoms.  I worried constantly about whether I had washed my hands adequately or whether I was passing on deadly germs as I picked and processed food to share.  I got out of bed over and over to make sure I had shut doors and turned off burners. I got to the end of a street, realized I'd been driving on autopilot, and retraced my route in case I had hit someone and driven away without noticing. 
I'd known other people with OCD.  I knew what I had.  I hated to admit it.  A lot of that was garden-variety vanity.  But I also feared that if I admitted that I was stuck in obsessive-compulsive thoughts that would show that I was neurotic, which in turn would show that my choices about sex and economics and pacifism and my experiences of God were really just signs of neurosis, which would mean that I had wasted my life.  Once I had stopped pretending to be fine and had more energy free for dealing with the truth I realized that fear was based on a false assumption.  I knew plenty of other people who had mental health struggles and also had valid insights and deep spiritual lives.  When I dealt with them I realized that it wasn't an all-or-nothing matter.  I began to see that for myself as well, and I started to work on discerning what was sickness and what was rightly led concern.
I started dealing with the sickness as a straightforward neurological problem.  I read Jeffery Schwartz's fine book Brain Lock, got a handle on the mental feedback loops that kept my anxiety going and learned to recognize and interrupt them. (Any sequence ending with "And they'll die, and it will be my fault" is probably OC thinking...I am not having a problem with dirty hands right now, I am having a problem with fear...Here's what I can do about that...Here's a more realistic thought...) Then, with my mother's encouragement and listening, I began to look at larger patterns. I began to see even my symptoms as a kind of gift, because they revealed a deep-seated falsehood by which I had been living. My obviously neurotic thought patterns and some more subtle ones that I'd carried for a long time had a common underlying story: If I don't do things just right, people I care about will be harmed.  This story has an implied converse: If I do things just right, people I care about will not be harmed.  Or, more crudely, I have the power to wreck people's lives or to protect them; I am God. This story has some obvious tempting features.  But it isn't true, and in the end it produces unreason and despair.  It is true that I am part of God, and that I have some responsibility for what happens to my neighbors.  But when I put myself in the center of the story the story becomes false.  
This should have been painfully obvious. I grew up steeped in a religion that taught grace, humility, and the fact that I am not the center of the universe.  But I seem to need friends to remind me of the truths I already think I know until I actually let those truths shape my life. I need this in times of prophetic witness and in times of mental or spiritual sickness.  I seek people who will not automatically dismiss me whenever I see a truth that looks different from theirs or that would require something of them. I seek people who will not automatically reassure me that whatever I do or think must be just fine.  I seek people who are actively listening to God and who are also sometimes willing to really listen to me.  I strive to listen in this way, to offer this kind of support and accountability to other people.   I've heard this process of accompaniment described in part in Sandra Cronk's Dark Night Journey and Jennifer Elam's Dancing WIth God Through The Storm, both of which stress the importance of a community which can help people to contain and process spiritual experience, spiritual struggles and psychological pain.  I am still learning to actually practice it. I'd be glad to hear about any resources or practices that have helped any of you who have made it to the end of this very long post.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Mental illness, healing, and the life of the Spirit: part 1

One evening at Quaker Spring I invited Friends to join me for supper if they wanted to discuss mental illness, healing and the spiritual journey.  I was nervous about offering the invitation; I caught myself thinking (repeatedly) "Probably there aren't many other people here who have mental health problems, and the ones who do probably don't want to sit and talk about it, and if there are some here who are in distress and do want to talk you don't have any brilliant way to help them, and if nobody comes and people see you sitting alone at dinner they'll think they have to come over and try to fix you when they really want to catch up with their old friends who are coping."   
I still felt a need to offer a space for the discussion of mental illness and Spirit, partly because it's a struggle I have in my own life.  We were talking about being broken open by God and called further into faithfulness. For me part of the breaking open has come through my struggles with obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors.  We were talking about making Spirit-centered community more true and deep.  For me part of the true-community thing is owning the parts of myself that shame me. 
I also wanted to have that conversation because I live in a community where we often host and try to be present to people dealing with mental illness.  I'm still learning to do that in a way that is centered and appropriate.  I think that both Catholic Worker communities and Friends Meetings attract many people who don't quite fit into the wider culture, and that both open up a space in which people are fairly likely to speak openly about their wounds.  I see these things as gifts and strengths, but they require us to have some idea of how to deal rightly with others' mental, emotional and spiritual struggles.
Plenty of Friends came for the dinner discussion, more than filling the small space I'd chosen.  Many of us had mental illnesses; some of us were responsible for loved ones with such illnesses; some were therapists. We talked intensely until it was time for the evening plenary to begin.  Some of us--and some who hadn't attended the first session--met again the next afternoon and  talked until another group needed the space.  I found the conversation challenging, healing and opening.  My sense was that some other Friends shared this experience, that this is a conversation that we need to have.  I don't have permission to tell the stories of other Friends or to present any authoritative conclusions that our group reached, but I wanted to raise some themes and questions that have stayed fresh in my mind since our conversation, and to invite you to share any questions or insights that you've had in this area.  
The recurring themes I remember seem to come in paradoxes.  I'm dealing with one of them here, and others in later posts.
The need to be honest and open, and to be seen, accepted, and confronted
Many of us felt it important to be able to own our mental struggles in our faith communities.  When I first admitted to myself that I was not just fine, that I had a problem and that I knew its name, I stopped being so afraid and my energy was freed up to research coping strategies instead of denying facts.  When I told the people I loved what I was dealing with and found that they were willing to remain in relationship with me I stopped being so ashamed, and my attention was freed up to really hear and connect with them instead of trying to maintain an image.  Henri Nouwen has written about prayer as the opposite of illusion.  This makes sense to me, and I think it underscores the need for openness and honesty among people who come together to pray and to open themselves before God.
It's easier to be open in this way if we believe we won't be condemned, dismissed or simplistically 'fixed' once people know what we're dealing with.  Several group participants named this. One described the QS gathering as "a place where I felt I could be my broken, imperfect self and that people would love me for that -- not try to reassure me or help me."  I think this is very important.  Perhaps especially so in this society where mental illness is so often feared and stigmatized, and where the willingness to sit attentively with hard things before trying to fix them seems increasingly rare.
I also think that sometimes acceptance is not enough.  We didn't talk as much about this.  I don't know if or when I would have admitted and dealt with my mental illness if the folks who loved me hadn't told me repeatedly, caringly, firmly, sometimes gently and sometimes in exasperation, that they could tell something was wrong and that I really needed to figure out what it was.  I am grateful for this now.  I wasn't grateful then.  I was angry, resentful, apologetic, desperate; I didn't want to know and I didn't think I could deal with knowing; I hissed, cried, sulked.  Finally I listened.  After I'd recognized what was going on and started taking steps--research, judicious resting, self-directed CBT, reexamining foundational beliefs--I still had to be confronted sometimes. "You seemed to be doing better for a while, but you're really weepy again; do you know what's wrong? What do you need to do about it?"  
It's hard to do this loving confronting appropriately.  Sometimes when guests seem to be struggling with some kind of irrational thinking or upsets but don't speak of having any mental difficulty I talk to them about my own experience; some seem to find this helpful, others get hostile or pull away.  Sometimes I try asking what is wrong.  If they insist that nothing is, but their behavior suggests otherwise, I don't know where to go next. 
I know that confrontation had better come from love and from a Spirit-centered place that allows me to care for the other person and at the same time to be a bit detached from their response.  If I am annoyed with them for complicating my life, if I am trying to prove how different I am from them, or if I am desperate for them to like me, need me or be helped by me, I am more likely to do harm than good.
I would rather have people confront me and remain in relationship than withdraw discreetly.  I have been helped and healed by the simple fact that people were willing to keep working and worshiping with me even though I was struggling to think clearly and not emote inappropriately.  I've sometimes been able to help welcome people with similar struggles into my community.  But sometimes we have had to set a boundary and acknowledge that there are problems we can't deal with.  We've learned through difficult experience that it doesn't work to have people with serious mental illness staying with us if there is not some professional backup and/or some safe place where they go if they find themselves unable to cope.  It's hard for me to say No to people in this situation, knowing my own fear of being rejected because of mental illness.  I also believe that it can be harmful for the prospective guests as well as for us if they come without a safety system and then find they can't cope. I try, when we have to say No, to offer what I can--distance listening, suggestions for possible reading or local support groups, prayers. 
I have written of mental illness so far as though it were clearly identifiable.  Sometimes I think it is.  Sometimes I find it confusingly entangled with mystical experience or with spiritual blockage.  More about that in part 2, which will appear sometime in the next week when work allows.  

Link to part 2

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Privilege, part 5: Do Justice

I've written about how we talk and think about each other across privilege lines.  But even if we got rid of all our personal prejudices, overcame all our fears and learned to treat each other with perfect love face-to-face we'd be a long way from loving our neighbors as ourselves, living as members of one another and of the Kingdom of God.  
At Quaker Spring one Friend was moved to read aloud from James 2:14-17:
"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."
I think that what James says about faith and deeds could also be said about love and justice.  I often hear Friends wrestling with the personal-love end.  I wish I more often heard us wrestling with economic justice in our own lives.
 I sometimes hear Friends speaking with outrage about the unjust overconsumption of the super-rich, and about how much good their surplus wealth could do if it were distributed among those who are in need.  I sometimes think similarly about Friends who seem accustomed to extensive travel, expensive retreats or fancy food.  But I also am rich.  I know this statistically: according to globalrichlist.com (where I figured my income at $7,000, factoring in a share of the money that supports the nonprofit that gives me room, board and transport) I am in the top 18% globally; the $70 a year I spend on snack food would provide more than a month of meals for a child in a refugee camp if I donated it to the World Food Project….I know it personally, too.  I've shared meals with people--adults and children, immigrant and native-born--who have routinely gone hungry.  I've never had to face that.  I've helped people who were being evicted from housing that was somewhere between run-down and unsafe move into other housing that was just as bad.  I've never lived in housing that sickened or endangered me. I'm rich. 
In this world of finite resources and rising populations, I can't help realizing that my wealth is connected to the poverty of other people, including the people I mean to love and help.  At the same time that I make things to give to newly-arrived refugee families I keep on buying gasoline, which contributes to the political and ecological crises that create more refugees.  At the same time that I was helping to welcome and care for injured migrant workers I was going to the store and buying vegetables from the farms where some of them had worked--from the place where one man collapsed from working sixteen-hour days behind the onion harvester, inhaling and swallowing dirt, and also getting dehydrated because the water wasn't safe to drink until it had been boiled; from the place where another man was ordered to clean a jammed fan while the machine was running with the result that he lost several fingers.  I keep growing more and buying less, but I am still part of this system. 
I support and participate in efforts to change this system through legislation--to raise the minimum wage, strengthen environmental and labor regulations and so on. But I don't think that's adequate.  I think that so long as some of us consume far more than we need other people are going to end up with less than they need. So long as some of us do little or none of the physical work required for our sustenance other people are going to work themselves to exhaustion to meet our needs and theirs.  So long as we keep demanding a large supply of cheap energy the polluting extraction techniques that we deplore will continue to be used.  If we want a just and livable world I believe that we actually have to use less, to do more of our own grunt work, to live poorer. 
 I am not suggesting an anxious and joyless refusal of anything not required for survival. I think there is a place for indulgence, for taking something extra to celebrate.  I also think--and my observations of our neighbors from different backgrounds seems to bear this out--that is is easier to have a satisfying celebration when we're not used to having just what we want all the time.  How much is enough? Where is the balance between self-care and self-indulgence? I wish I was part of a larger faith community that wrestled collectively with these questions.
In my twelve years on the Catholic Worker farm I've found that starting to climb down the ladder brings its own satisfactions.  Manual labor, done capably and communally and in moderate amounts, is strengthening and satisfying to the body and the mind.  It also makes the consequences of my faithfulness or unfaithfulness, attention or carelessness, immediately visible; this is salutary if not always comfortable.  Limiting purchased entertainment opens up time for walking, writing, praying.  Being somewhat outside the usual class system makes it easier to see and relate to people from a wide variety of backgrounds, if not to fit easily with any group. 
I don't think that all Friends need to take the particular way down that I am taking.  I do think that we all need to revisit John Woolman's query about whether the seeds of war--and oppression, and estrangement, and the destruction of the world we all depend on--have nourishment in our possessions.  We need to reexamine what it means that we are members one of another: that we are bound together invisibly in God, so that our faithfulness helps and our unfaithfulness hinders others in ways that are hidden from us; that we are also bound together invisibly in an economic system that provides our comforts at the cost of people we usually do not see and often fail to imagine. We need to offer each other spiritual challenge and encouragement and practical help as we try to match faith with deeds and love with justice.
" Wealth is attended with power, by which bargains and proceedings, contrary to universal righteousness, are supported; and hence oppression, carried on with worldly policy and order, clothes itself with the name of justice and becomes like a seed of discord in the soul. And as this spirit which wanders from the pure habitation prevails, so the seeds of war swell and sprout, and grow, and become strong, until much fruit is ripened. Then cometh the harvest spoken of by the prophet, which "is a heap, in the day of grief and desperate sorrows." 
     Oh! that we who declare against wars, and acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may walk in the light, and therein examine our foundation and motives in holding great estates! May we look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and the garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions, or not. "    --John Woolman, A Plea for the Poor

Monday, July 15, 2013

Privilege, part 4: What Makes Us One?

We who are trying to follow God may believe that we are all members of one body, but we don't seem to know how to talk to one another very well.  At Quaker Spring I heard a Friend say he didn't know how to talk with uneducated people.  I've heard some Friends (and one thoughtful commenter on this blog) express fear of worshipping with non-Quaker Christians. I've heard some non-Quaker Christian friends speak of the near impossibility of sharing fellowship with Catholics, or Protestants, or non-Christians. I've heard friends whose faith informed their politics say that they don't know how to pray for or what to say to Republicans (or, about as often, Democrats).  
I find this puzzling. I grew up talking and working and worshiping with a widely assorted group of friends and relatives--people who worked on assembly lines and in offices, people who paid others to clean their homes and people who were paid to do cleaning, people who felt God in silence and in ritual and in loud emotional music, people who felt sure that God was calling them to protect the unborn by restricting abortion and people who felt sure that God was calling them to protect the rights of women by de-restricting abortion... I grew up meeting with a conservative Christian homeschooling group and a progressive unschooling group (also containing many Christians). I never fit neatly in a group of People Like Me, but I learned to connect with some variety of people.  
I still do encounter some obstacles to relationship. One Friend at Quaker Spring spoke of the fear that people from other groups will be angry because of what they've suffered.  I could relate. Some of our immigrant guests, upon coming to my country, have been exploited by employers and harassed by neighbors who looked like me and spoke my language. Some friends who are outside the church have felt attacked or dismissed by my fellow Christians. To be in relationship with them I have to be willing to hear some hard things.  Sometimes the only right response I can see is to listen, acknowledge the hurt and pray for hurting person.  Sometimes apologies or reframing questions seem to be in order.  This isn't easy but I don't see it as a relationship-breaker.
I wonder what to say to people who seem to be making destructive choices. If they're choices I have sometimes made--to hide in daydreams, to tell lies in order to impress, to worry more about pleasing people than about helping them, to focus narrowly on the self in pride or shame, to ignore and thus continue neurotic behavior--I can speak of my own experience in a way that sometimes seems to open the conversation to a deeper level.  Choices that don't even tempt me--drug use, alcohol abuse, persisting in destructive romantic relationships--feel harder to address. But this difficulty doesn't pertain to any specific class or race or ideology.  
I can find it daunting when people speak with absolute certainty that all decent people must agree with them about something.  If I disagree I have learned how to ask questions about what shaped that conviction in them and tell them stories about what has shaped my own conviction.  If I agree, but respect and love faithful people who don't, the conversation can be more difficult.  But the difficulty isn't such that I would willingly give up relationship in order to avoid it.
I think I'm hearing some more basic fear of Others in addition to these specific concerns. I can picture a couple of basic steps toward dealing with this disunity. One is to make ourselves available for relationship to Others.  That means living, working or worshiping at least part of the time in places that are not restricted to People Like Us.  I would guess that most Friends don't live in obvious gated communities.  Money can function as an invisible gate.  If we live in expensive neighborhoods and go for spiritual renewal to expensive retreats, our chances of getting to know people outside our comfort zone are reduced.  Our stated assumptions can also serve as gates.  Even at QS I noticed my own discomfort with a query about how we treat people who are poor or otherwise different from us, which seemed to assume that none of us are or have been poor.  I spoke from my downwardly mobile position, and some other Friends spoke who had grown up with a kind of poverty I have not experienced myself, lacking safe transportation or adequate food.  But I think sometimes people keep quiet in the face of our assumptions. 
Most essentially, I think we need to look carefully at what binds us together.  If we can't talk to Others, it may be a sign that we are talking about the wrong things.
I heard many Friends at Quaker Spring express appreciation for our open conversations about our experiences of God, the guidance we have received in the course of our experiences, our attempts to be faithful to that guidance, and the things that block us from listening and obeying.  I also heard some people saying that they didn't have these conversations in their home Meetings or their local communities.  
If we truly believe that God is real, that we are part of God, that we are one in God, these are precisely the conversations that we need to have. We need have them in order to deepen our understanding and obedience by confessing our failings and our faith to one another. We need to have them so that our attempts to do justice in the world remain rooted in faithfulness to God, not in our own notions and resentments.  And we need to have them in order to rediscover our membership in one another.  For it is only in God that we are all one.
I know that "God" is not the word seems right to some people as they describe the Spirit that they serve.  But it's the word I have, so I am using it here.  When I talk about my experience of God's presence and God's guidance and my response and listen to the experience of others who are trying to remember to orient themselves to the Center rather than treating their separate selves as centers, I often find that we understand each other across barriers of theological language, ideology, class and culture.  When we come back to the center we can hardly help understanding one another.
This centering cuts through most of the barriers that often divide us.  In that sense it is very open.  But it isn't undemanding; it isn't the same as tolerance or niceness or trying to make everyone feel comfortable.  What we find at the center is the life and light and joy in which we are eternally renewed and made one.  It is also the refiner's fire that burns away those things in us which hold us back from union.  It demands everything.  If we are united in this we won't dismiss each other because of surface divisions, and we won't try to soothe, cheer and please each other.  We will hold each other accountable; we will bring each other farther into God.
This connection, both to each other and to God, is, I believe, what matters most.  It's hard to find adequate words for it; it goes beyond anything we can catch in words or actions.  But I do believe that it bears fruit in this world that is visible and nameable, and that this fruit includes the doing of justice.  Which is what I plan to write about next time.

Link to part 5 (the last in this series)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Doing Good Badly*

I think sometimes our efforts to correct or reach across the privilege gap end up being counterproductive.  Maybe this is because we've grown up with such different assumptions that we fail to understand each other.  Maybe it's because our motives are mixed.  Or maybe it's because we don't take enough time to get to the root of the problem. 
The next post will be about what I see as a root issue.  For now, here are a few kinds of backfiring outreach that I have observed, among Friends and elsewhere:
1. Offering help and refusing to accept it 
When my family was new at the Catholic Worker some people advised us that when rich youth came to the farm we should get them to work hard and think about social justice, and when poor youth came to the farm we should hold parties for them and give them things.  My mother, who grew up far from wealthy though adequately fed, didn't like the sound of that division.  What many of the 'poor' kids wanted was to help, to have something to offer, to be competent and generous.  My brother helped some kids from the subsidized housing complex fix their bikes.  They asked if, now they'd learned the basics, they could help him fix bikes for someone else to use.
I've heard some people speak of feeling dismissed in this way by Friends who apparently saw them as disadvantaged, offered them help of various sorts and refused their offers of help with practical work and with discernment.  Perhaps this is meant to convey  "I've had life too easy and you've had it too hard; let's even that out."  But it can come across as "I don't need/want anything you can offer; you're not good enough."  And it can hinder God's work among us.
2. Praising someone for being Diverse rather than attending to what they actually do and say
As a teenager I was active in various religious and political groups. Often I'd jump into a discussion among full adults with what I thought was a different and valid perspective.  They'd say "Oh, isn't it wonderful to have young people involved!" and then go on without addressing the substance of what I'd said.  This might have been because I was missing the point; if so I wished they would tell me directly.  
3. Making assumptions about what is liberating for the other person, without listening to them to check this
I've repeatedly been present at this conversation between Friends or other somewhat liberal folks: A man is explaining that monogamy/fidelity is a patriarchal/capitalist concept which treats women as the property of men, and that free love or some variant thereof is a much more equitable arrangement, and that he is glad to be part of a time in which sexual arrangements are more favorable to women.  A woman, often looking harassed, is expressing discomfort with or disapproval of how uncommitted sex often works out and a sense that commitment or restraint is helpful.  The man pauses politely to let her have her say and keeps on with what he was saying…. I'm not saying that this debate always breaks down by gender, only that I observe a recurring pattern. I notice this one as a woman and a pro-commitment type.  I likely don't notice when I am doing something similar to other people.
4.  Being nervously guilty rather than present and responsible
Randy described this general pattern much more eloquently than I can in his comment to part 1. 
I know I've done this. I've let my worry about whether I could be unconsciously exuding racism get in the way of being really present to guests from other races and cultures.  I've been distracted by bursts of guilt from being present and listening to the kid from the ratty apartments in town who asks whether we also run out of food until somebody's stamps come in.  I've wasted energy in fretting about the nuances of my attitudes when I should have been looking more carefully at the ways in which people were harmed by by the food I ate and the gas I used.  I've let the white noise of anxiety fill the space in me which needs to be left open for the voice that calls me on into right relationship.
It's that voice, and the things which block us from hearing it, that I want to get back to in my next post. 
*I stole this post title from a chapter heading in Wayne Muller's excellent book Sabbath; basically, he describes doing good badly as the result of acting headily, desperately  and in haste rather than stilling ourselves and listening to each other and to God.

Link to part 4

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Privilege, part 2: Prejudice

This is where I've heard most Quaker conversations about privilege begin: with the assumptions that we carry inside us about what Those People must be like.  I know that I struggle both with what I assume about other people and with what they seem to be assuming about me.
I struggle with other people's assumptions most in the matter of class.  I've known a few people who assumed that as a woman I was weak or foolish, or that I ought to be submissive to or afraid of them, but these people were unusual in my world, and I generally didn't especially like or respect them.  I found it fairly easy to confront them if that seemed useful, or to ignore them.  I come into contact with many more people who make assumptions about those of us who work with our hands, or didn't go to college, or take some form of government assistance.  I really like and respect some of those people.  I also seem to have a lot of sore spots around this issue.  I am still trying to learn how to respond constructively. 
 We've had (non-Quaker) guests tell us that people who receive 'welfare' of any sort are lazy and live high off the hog. Upon further conversation it often turns out that they don't know any of us 'freeloaders' personally, and also don't know that the majority of working-age food stamps recipients actually have jobs that don't pay enough to feed their families, or… I try to tell them a bit about my life and the lives of the people I know, and to ask them what experiences have shaped their opinions.  I don't always do this gracefully, because I struggle with my own uncertainty about taking Medicaid as well as my indignation at the thought of other people I know who struggle to make a decent life for their families while dealing with the challenges of poor health, lack of transportation, and lack of decent local employment opportunities.  I am learning to acknowledge my defensiveness; this seems to have a disarming effect in person.  (Not online. Does anything help online?)
Even among Friends I hear some statements that trouble me: "He doesn't talk as though he's had much education, and he works at Price Chopper, and I think he's pro-Bush; what does he think he's doing at Meeting?", "I'd love to deepen my antiracist work by forming relationships with local people of color, but I can't--the only people of color in my area are menial workers."   Those shocked me when I heard them, but they were explicit enough to be easily addressed.  "She didn't go to college, but she's really rather bright…." is so mild that it seems oversensitive to say anything about it; but I think some Friends who might say this might object to the statement "He's gay, but he's really rather strong/decent…"  "Eighty thousand is a minimal salary if you want someone really responsible and spiritually mature…"  isn't directly negative abut anyone, but it seems to suggest a valuation of those of us who work for less, or for nothing.  I'm still trying to discern when it is helpful to speak up about these little things and when it's better not to. 
Then there are my own harmful assumptions. In  the aftermath of confusing conversations on race, mentioned in the previous post, I have tried to watch my mind. I haven't seen much there by way of race prejudice.  But I do see myself making other false and destructive snap judgments based on superficial characteristics.  Overweight… self-indulgent, undisciplined.  Lots of makeup… shallow, looks-oriented.  Lots of jewelry, or clothes with prominent brand names… consumer showing off; not someone I want to talk with.  Large sharp-looking piercings or prominent tattoos… this one's trying to scare people; steer clear.  I know these assumptions are wrong in both senses--incorrect and morally inappropriate. I know plenty of people who are obvious counterexamples. I know plenty of alternative explanations for all the characteristics I tend to judge about. But the assumptions are still in there.  I try to make myself fully and quickly aware of them and remind myself that they're not true.  And I think I keep them to myself...but perhaps they are more obvious than I like to think.  When they are obvious I hope people will have the courage to tell me, and I hope I'll have the grace to listen well.
I think this thought-correcting process is straightforward, if not easy, for characteristics that aren't under the other person's control: race, gender and orientation all the time, weight and poverty most of the time.  I think it's more complicated when it comes to the things that are at least partly matters of choice: religion, voluntary poverty, wealth, manner of dressing (again, unless dictated by low income), language and behavior, etc.
I do sometimes look at other people and feel concerned about the choices they're making.  Either concerned for my own safety and equilibrium around them (I have selfish but, I think, legitimate reasons for avoiding people who are using foul language or using drugs or drinking a lot), or for the well-being of the other person.  I think it can be a disservice to stay quiet about those things in the attempt to avoid giving offense. I've been helped sometimes by people speaking directly to me about their concerns about rude or shortsighted things that I was doing.  I'm aware that some people are also concerned choices I have made deliberately, including being Christian, being celibate and eschewing formal education and employment.  Sometimes I am able to hear these concerns and respond in a way that seems to deepen the relationship or at least to do no harm.  Sometimes not.  I've tried to get a handle on what makes the difference as I try to figure out how to talk to other people about choices that concern me.
It helps if the concerned person has taken time to get to know me as a person rather than simply identifying me as a member of a group.  It helps if they ask what led to my choice rather than assuming that they know.  It helps if they tell me what in their own lives has caused them to be concerned about the choice I'm making.  Those are simple things to remember, and I'm getting better about sticking with them.  There's also something else that's harder to pin down.  I keep looking at my motivation for talking to the other person.  I try to keep my mouth shut if I find that I mostly want to tell them off, or to disassociate myself from them, or to make them stop making me uncomfortable about my own choices.  I try not to speak unless I can remember all the way down to my bones that, however different we may seem, we're one in God.
I'd be interested to hear how you deal with your own assumptions and other people's, and how you decide when to speak and when to remain silent. 

Link to part 3, Doing Good Badly (it's shorter, I promise!)