National cultures are not homogeneous. At any one time there may be many subcultures, particularly in a multi-ethnic society like that of the United States. Moreover, historical forces occasionally produce a sudden, unexpected subculture. Such was the case with the 60’s counterculture.
While the origins of the counterculture are somewhat controversial, one cause appears to be the maturation of the so-called baby boomers. These young people had grown up in the affluence of the post-World War II United States. They rebelled against the materialism of their parents, who were haunted by the scarcity of the Great Depression. Moreover, these “baby boomers,” largely middle-class white kids, made common cause with African Americans who were revolting against the racism of the larger society. Resistance to the Vietnam War was yet another insurgency and the immediate cause of the counterculture.
According to Robert N. Bellah (Habits of the Heart), individualism is the best one-word description of the dominant American culture. Bellah also argues that the corollary of individualism is competition. In American society, competitors seek a future in which to enjoy “the rewards of success,” prestige and money. We Americans are exemplars of materialism.
The counterculture, in its purest form, was not materialistic. Based on my memories of Austin, Texas in the 60’s, I recall the run-down houses where hippies lived and shared the rent. Beans and potatoes were often staples of the diet in those houses; and the food itself was sometimes obtained from a government surplus food program or, after 1964, from food stamps. In a pinch, one housemate might raid the private food stock of another.
For men, clothes tended to be long-lasting jeans, perhaps with durable work shirts or inexpensive t-shirts. Women wore jeans or looked for old-fashioned dresses in thrift shops. Transportation expenses could be kept down by walking, bicycling, or taking the bus. If a car were owned, it would almost always be old and unreliable. Reading library books or watching television were the main pastimes, supplemented by listening to free music played at a local bar.
The Hippies almost might have subscribed to Query Five of New York Yearly Meeting. They might have asked, “Do we keep to moderation and simplicity in our daily lives? Have we allowed the acquisition of possessions to interfere with God’s purpose for us?”
Hippies were so focused on cheap living because buying a lot of expensive stuff requires a higher-paying job. Higher pay implies competition, stress, and a willingness to put self ahead of others. The whole point of the counterculture was not to compete, not to give free reign to selfishness. The whole point was to live a relatively relaxed life in which family, friends, and spiritual fulfillment would be the highest priorities.
In our history, spirituality has been problematic. Of course, America in the 50’s was religious; but religion and spirituality are not necessarily the same. In the 50’s, practically all Evangelistic Christians threatened eternal damnation against those who doubted the literal truth of the Bible or refused to take Jesus as their personal Savior. The Catholic Church still taught that missing Mass was a mortal sin, not to mention birth control.
In turning away from such negative religiosity, countercultural seekers discovered many spiritual alternatives. Closest to conventional Christianity were the so-called “Jesus Freaks.” They appear to have originated in San Francisco during the 1967 Summer of Love when thousands of potential hippies flooded into the city. Many of them ended up destitute and on the streets. A local Baptist church offered both physical and spiritual salvation, but these youthful converts kept their long hair and liking for rock music even after being saved. The Jesus Movement disappeared along with the hippies of the 60’s, but it has left a legacy of modern worship services and Christian rock.
Many people in the counterculture rejected Christianity altogether and looked to Eastern religions and sects. Richard Alpert is, perhaps, the most famous of these spiritual pilgrims to the East. Alpert was a Harvard professor when his friend and colleague Timothy Leary introduced him to psilocybin and LSD. Drug-induced experiences gave him a glimpse of a spiritual reality beyond our everyday world, but Alpert went to India looking for a more satisfying enlightenment. He returned as Ram Dass (Servant of God), a name given him by his guru.
Shortly thereafter, he wrote Be Here Now, the first classic of New Age spirituality. The book is an autobiography, a yoga how-to, a reading list, and a collection of aphorisms mostly inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism but with some Christianity and Taoism thrown in.
It was not unusual for New Age adherents to eventually end up in a liberal Quaker meeting. Most of today’s Friends still stand in the Christian tradition, but many are Buddhists or some eclectic combination of Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Eastern faiths. In any case, the essence of Quakerism is spirituality; and this quality attracted people of the 60’s counterculture.
In the normative culture we are supposed to plan. We are supposed to look ahead and choose the right college, the right career, the right spouse, the right church, even the right retirement portfolio. Ram Dass counsels us against all this planning. We are to live in the moment, we are to “be here now”; or, at least, while the ego is hatching plans for the future, a higher level of consciousness is supposed to be in contact with “The Eternal Now” (Paul Tillich). In a similar vein, Query Two of NYYM asks, “Are we thankful for each day (my italics) as an opportunity for a new adventure of life with God?”
Aside from rejecting materialism and a future orientation, true Hippies abandoned American individualism. I remember seeing them sitting in a circle of friends and casual acquaintances, passing around bottles of water or wine and, inevitably, joints of marijuana. Music festivals like Monterey Pop and Woodstock demonstrated counterculture sociability, and the songs themselves had lines like
We can be together
Ah you and me
We should be together
We are all outlaws in the eyes of America…
But we should be together
Come on all you people standing around
Our life’s too fine to let it die and
We can be together… (Jefferson Airplane)
Hippie communes, where people shared work, food, drugs, living space, and sometimes sex partners, were the antithesis of American individualism. During the Summer of Love in 1967, many hard-core hippies fled from the wannabes invading San Francisco and went to the countryside to start communes, of which there were eventually thousands. There were different lifestyles among these communities. Some had a spiritual or religious basis. Some were purely secular. Some had private dwellings together with communal living areas. Some had no privacy whatsoever. Sometimes drugs and alcohol were forbidden. Sometimes anything was allowed.
Of course, Quakers have long experimented with intentional communal living. About 1970, for example, A Quaker Action Group in Philadelphia morphed into the Movement for a New Society, which founded a network of house communes, some of which survive today. In nearby Boston, Beacon Hill Friends House, established in 1957, is a residential intentional community based on Quaker principles. Not far from Old Chatham, in Canaan, New York, there’s a group of Quakers and non-Quakers who aim to foster spirituality and service to others while joyfully living together. In fact, even though they’re not residential, individual Friends’ Monthly Meetings are themselves little communities.
Well, it’s time for a conclusion. Clearly some counterculture beliefs, if taken to an extreme, are questionable. But if mature people attempt to embody community, mindfulness, and spirituality in their lives, balanced to some degree by individualism, forethought, and practicality, who can object? Are not these, broadly speaking, Quaker values?
~ Richard Russell
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