In the twenty-first century, Quakers are noted for their individuality. Nevertheless, if we review the various Testimonies found in Books of Discipline, a picture emerges of the ideal Quaker: a gentle, soft-spoken person with no detectable racial bias or animus toward those who are less well-off. In fact, feelings of compassion and mercy are stirred whenever our ideal Quaker sees a poor family struggling with basic needs.
Well, I’m obviously not an ideal Quaker. I can, for example, get angry with partisans of Donald Trump, and thoughts of repugnance at the poor sometimes pop into my mind. The latter occurs, for example, when I’m working at Walmart as a cashier and am checking out a large family with unkempt, noisy children who climb onto the conveyor belt. The overweight parents are buying cokes, chips, and candy with the food stamps they’ve gotten from the government. “How gross!” or something like that flashes through my head.
Now, if thoughts are indicative of character, that means I’m a person who sneers at the poor and considers myself superior to them. However, contrary to the Freudian model of the mind, thoughts do not necessarily reflect a person’s basic personality or character. A thought may be only a random, ephemeral phenomenon produced by an accidental firing of synapses in the brain.
However, if I dwell on such a thought and worriedly concentrate on it, I may develop a pattern of thinking such thoughts, i.e., a neurotic obsession-compulsion. Rather than mulling over an unwelcome thought, it’s best to ignore it, to brush it to one side, as it were. With such a technique, thoughts of hatred and disdain lose their power and do not lead to any kind of action.
A textbook case of this process is described in NPR’s Invisibilia podcast. A man known as “S,” very much in love with his wife, was bothered by intrusive thoughts of killing her. He became so anxious over this mental violence as to become a complete recluse. Only when he was treated by a “mindfulness” psychiatrist did he get relief. He still had thoughts of stabbing his wife, but he no longer paid attention to the thoughts. They could harmlessly drift away.
And, in my case, thoughts of hatred toward the poor are more than counter-balanced by thoughts of compassion. I let the disgust evaporate before it can really become bothersome. I concentrate on the thoughts of love and empathy that arise in my mind. Those are the thoughts I choose to define me.
There is the question of unconscious racial bias among white people. If an African American passes me on the right side of a one-lane freeway entrance ramp, I may think, “You Black *#%! That thought, in and of itself, is no proof of racial bias. However, if negative thoughts about African Americans pop up regularly in my mind, if there’s a pattern of such thoughts, or if such thoughts lead to discriminatory actions, that’s evidence for racial prejudice (although it could theoretically be a compulsive obsession like “S” suffered from).
Especially telling are incidents in which, out of fear of African Americans, white persons call the police when they observe people of color performing the ordinary actions of daily life. These bad thoughts leading to bad actions almost certainly result from the racism of the thinkers.
To conclude, thoughts may or may not be indicative of a stable personality trait, may or may not be indicative of racial bias, for example. We must look at how people act to deduce how they are; and, even then, we must be careful about judging another person.
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