I’ve been a fan of Philip Gulley’s writing for over a decade, both fiction and non-fiction. So I was delighted to interview him about his latest book, Living the Quaker Way: Timeless Wisdom for a Better Life Today. It’s about slowing down, finding simplicity . . . all the things I need to do.
But when I talked to Phil this week while he and his wife were driving to Oklahoma to visit their son, I hadn’t even had a chance to read the book yet. (It should be a sign to me that if I don’t have time to read a book about simplicity, I am exactly the reader who most needs a book about simplicity!) So I asked him to talk about the five core values that he explores in the book – values drawn from, but in no way limited to, his own Quaker tradition. Here are some snippets from his remarks.
My diagnosis would be that we are in many ways very stressed out and I imagine that a key reason for that is because we live in a culture of acquisition. And that is a hunger that’s never really filled, so that we’re always hungry and searching. We’re perceiving that we need more. Instead of being able to distinguish between wants and needs, everything becomes a need. So there’s this accompanying fear and stress, that we won’t have enough. And that adds to our financial and emotional stress.
I think the antidote to that is awareness that manifests itself in intentional simplicity. But this is very difficult to do, because when we finally decide to do it, rather than do it gradually in a way that can be implemented slowly and developed, we jump fully into it. That chapter is really an encouragement about not only the need for simplicity, but our gradual movement toward that, which is rooted in awareness.
I have found in conversation that one place to start a life of simplicity is in meal sharing. That is where we tend to feel the pinch of hectic lives, is in our time. Intentional preparation of meals that are family and friend-centered, where we sit down and converse and have meaningful and fun conversations around a dinner table help us not only slow down inwardly, but refresh our spirits and in general just help us to step off of the track for a moment. When I talk to people who seem to do well at this, they have simplicity in their lives. Of course I started noticing this after I wrote the book. There are a lot of Amish in Indiana where I live, and I’ve noticed whenever I’m around them how central family meals are. I don’t know if that’s a cause of their simplicity or an outgrowth of it, but I think it is perhaps both.
There are very few places you can go now to enjoy silence and avoid human noise. Because that’s increasingly rare, our need for silence has grown exponentially. This need to go inward to find this silence is just imperative for people.
This is probably too dramatic and most people probably won’t do it, but I think people need to get rid of television. Everything is an urgent alert or a breaking announcement. The commercials blare at a higher level of volume. Everything is an emergency. It leads to an inner turmoil that is inescapable. If people are serious about peace, they’re going to have to address sooner rather than later their addiction to television.
It’s probably one of those things where ripping the Band-Aid off all at once is best. I know when I was addicted to it, my response was to get rid of it immediately. You go into shock for about a week, and then you remember that there are books, and conversations, and walks, and visiting your neighbors. There are all kinds of things you can do. My wife and I were talking about this, and it’s hard for us to understand how people can watch television for seven hours a day.
And now it’s the Internet that is consuming so much of our time. My wife has had to talk to me about that. At first I thought it didn’t have the same addictive quality that television does, but it’s really possible for me to spend three hours in front of my computer and not even be aware of it. But I think it has the same kind of jangling effect as television. The stream is constantly changing and it doesn’t encourage reflection, so the end result is the same.
When we think about integrity, people tend to think of synonyms like honesty. And I certainly don’t want to discourage that, but the main point of that chapter is recalling the root of the word integrity. It shares the root of the word integer, and it means wholeness. Wholeness means all of our life has a consistency about it — that the things we value are reflected in our work, in how we spend our money, in how we treat other people, in every facet of our life.
I think this quality of integrity, while it’s been historically important to Friends, is not unique to Friends. There are many religious traditions that cause us to examine our lives and bring our lives into wholeness. This is not a Quaker secret. I would say that historically, if there is something distinctive about Quakerism and integrity, it is our silent worship and how it encourages an introspective approach to life. One of the things we’re thinking about is how we spend our time and money.
It’s interesting. I think the way we are interacting with people has shifted as a result of social media. On the one hand, that is wonderful. I have 4,000 Facebook friends, who are people I would probably not have met without social media. But the down side of that is that what’s done electronically can be superficial, though it needn’t be.
Another contributor, I think, to the undoing of conventional community has to do with architecture. There’s a book written by Christopher Alexander, an American architect, called A Pattern Language. He argues in that book that architecture is imperative for good community, and we don’t have good architecture anymore. Homes are so spread out. It’s possible to enter your home without ever seeing your neighbor. Striking up conversations with people is really difficult. If you go to an old part of any city or town, where people don’t have garages, you’ll discover that neighbors talk to one another.
Inequalities exist, without a doubt. We’ve certainly become more cognizant about that. We become aware of unequal treatment, and then we slowly move to address it. We’ve done this with Native Americans and African Americans, and now we’re doing it with gays. Our first response is always to say that it’s not an issue of right and wrong. Eventually it becomes an issue of rights, and then we finally make the change.
For centuries in our culture we felt free to prevent gays and lesbians from having equal rights, and now we’re realizing that people are born this way, and it’s not a choice, and then it becomes a matter of civil rights. Fortunately, our learning curve seems to be a little shorter, and we’re moving on this issue more quickly than we have on others.
What would you like readers to take away?
Certainly my object is not to make them Quakers. But my hope is that they will consider anew not only the personal benefits but the societal benefits to be gained from these testimonies. That they really do offer us a way forward, for us personally and for our world. And until we take them seriously, our lives will be diminished. These things are essential for what it means to be human—to love deeply and to live together.