The United States is the land of individualism—or so we think. In truth, individuals largely take their attitudes and beliefs from the groups to which they belong or with which they identify. Thus, in this present moment, an individual who identifies as Republican is likely to hold an anti-immigrant attitude and believe there was massive fraud in the 2020 presidential election. A Christian Fundamentalist is likely to be homophobic and believe in the literal truth of the Bible. Of course, there are Republicans who aren’t anti-immigrant and Fundamentalists who are tolerant of homosexuality, but they are exceptions to the “rules” that define their groups.
I’ve been interested to learn that group membership even affects the senses. In “Group Think,” an episode of the Hidden Brain podcast, we hear of an experiment in which a sweaty t-shirt was smelled by students from two rival universities. When the emblem on the shirt was from the other college, students found the odor more disgusting than when the shirt was from their own school. Their sense of smell was affected by group affiliation.
The experiment recalls George Fox’s famous declaration, “All things were new; and all the creation gave unto me another smell than before, beyond what words can utter.”
Maple syrup is popular in Canada. A maple leaf even appears on the national flag. When an experimental sample of Canadians simply tasted honey and maple syrup separately, they showed no marked preference for one or the other. However, if subjects were first primed by Canadian symbols, maple syrup emerged as the clear winner. Taste was affected by people’s identification with Canada.
We are told that Jewish children were once given honey cakes to eat, upon which were inscribed the words, “The Lord God gave me a skilled tongue to know.” The implication of the ceremony was that the words of Torah were sweet as honey.
Of course, in sports sight is always being distorted by group loyalty. Was the pass in an American football game successfully completed, or was the football bobbled as the player went out of bounds? Fans of different teams will often “see” the play differently. Or consider the police body camera footage from an incident of deadly force. Someone who is pro-police may very well interpret the video differently from someone who has taken a stand against police violence.
Regarding mystical vision, who can forget George Fox seeing an ocean of darkness covered by an ocean of light? And, of course, the Quaker Inner Light is a metaphor from physiological vision.
This lengthy preamble leads to a personal question. How has my membership in a Quaker group affected my personal preferences and perceptions? “What!” you say. “You just recently became a member of OCMM. You haven’t been Quaker long enough to be affected by that fact.” Of course, it’s not formal membership that’s at issue but, rather, my identification with Quakers. That identification has a long history and has been particularly intense since I started taking FGC spiritual deepening courses three years ago. Moreover, for some time I have been a participant in two Quaker worship sharing groups, one of which is right here at Old Chatham Meeting.
I’ve noticed that I no longer take pleasure in the violence of action movies like Batman Begins. While I can’t prove causality between Quakerism and a changed taste in movies, I think the connection is very likely. I also feel a deepened sympathy for the outcasts and misfits of our society. After all, Quakers themselves are misfits in the dominant American culture of consumerism. When someone arouses my irritation or antipathy, I mentally say the phrase “that of God in everyone” and usually feel the negativity subside. While I personally am no social activist, I feel an increased admiration for those who actively try to help people on the margins of our society.
Have I, then, become a Quaker saint? Well, no. I still have a marked tendency to anger. I often forget Fox’s admonition, “Be still and cool in thine own mind and spirit.”
And I can make disdainful jokes about eccentric neighbors, namely the cat lady and her alcoholic son. Even though the lady lets her cats poop in our yard, she possesses an Inward Light. And when her alcoholic son throws fast food trash into the street, allowing it to blow into our yard, he is to be pitied rather than scorned.
There’s no need to detail my many imperfections of character and spiritual failings. Still, I think Quakerism has improved me. And progress is the thing. We are on a journey, and progress toward the Goal makes me hopeful of one day, perhaps not reaching the Goal, but coming close enough to see, smell, even taste It.
~ Richard Russell
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