June 6, 2008

Living with a hyphenated identity

A two-part post by Cat Chapin-Bishop has revived in me my interest in identity development among Friends in general and in considering what it means to be "a hyphenated Quaker" in particular.

Cat writes with great detail about the wrestling she's been doing, around identifying either as Quaker or as Pagan... and why she has not truncated her own naming of who she is within one tradition while dismissing the other.

I posted a couple of comments on her blog, which in turn prompted me to flesh out more of my thinking. Of course, I've written earlier about my experience with growing up Jewish and having to figure out the whole Jesus question as it relates to my being Quaker.

But I would say that over time, my view has shifted and evolved as it pertains to the concept of "hyphenated Quakers"--Friends or long-time attenders who call themselves Buddhist Quakers, Jewish Quakers, Pagan Quakers. (Yes, yes, I know: the hyphen is invisible in these cases, but you likely get my point.)

First of all, I have come to interpret that the side-by-side naming of the two faith traditions with which a Friend identifies represents an "in-between" identity, an identity that is valid and whole in its own right.

In fact, I now believe that the hyphen between Religion One and Religion Two, between A and B, represents an important part of a persons' faith journey that deserves care and attention. Whether it's about adopting a new faith tradition and leaving an old one behind, moving from young adulthood to middle age, or transitioning from one gender to another, an identity shift from A to B won't necessarily take if we don't spend enough time wrestling with A and B, or A hyphen B, or even B hyphen A.

I also want to state what to me is rather obvious, that going through an identity shift is a process, not a singular event. Experiencing an identity shift is not segmented and compartmentalized, like the children's game in an old train station that involves leaping from one large linoleum tile on the floor to another, being careful not to touch the lines.

Rather, the process is gradual and fluid, like a traveler who moves through a large airport by progressing on a moving walkway. "Destinations" like Identity A and Identity B are connected by the process of getting from one place to the other; they are interconnected.

In my own case, I myself needed to see myself as both Jewish and Quaker for a number of years, and this in-between hyphenated identity was a large part of my clearness process for membership.

But if Friends had said nothing to me about my hyphenated journey, progressing and regressing between Judaism and Quakerism, I would not have been helped either, and I perhaps would have felt unheard, unseen, not fully understood.

On the other hand, if Friends had pushed me to drop the hyphen, to be "one or the other," I may have left the Religious Society of Friends entirely. Pushing an issue--Where do you stand?! Are you a Quaker or are you a Jew?!--would have likely made me feel bullied rather than companioned; chastised rather than challenged.

To be clear, pushing is different from laboring together and companioning one another, and we ourselves don't always recognize when we could be best helped by having space to "stand still in the Light" (G. Fox, Epistle X) or to "sink down to the Seed..." (I. Penington)

I say this because it is hard to know how much to push, how much to let be, how much to comfort, how much to witness.

What I myself still wrestle with is what to make of Friends who take their hyphenated Quaker identity into their later years. Intellectually, I can acknowledge that the blended or in-between place may, in fact, be an endpoint in and of itself for these Friends. They may never be able to identify fully and solely as Quaker (or as the alternate religious identity).

From a socio-emotional perspective, I can also understand that there may be such a strong sense of family and of being known by both groups, who am I to ask or insist that they cut themselves off from loved ones?

Why do we expect everyone to get off the moving walkway, just because the rest of us do?

At the same time, while I've come to understand the hyphenated identity as part of a longer process of our spiritual development, I continue to have the concern that the Quaker faith tradition is changed prematurely or inappropriately when practices and ideology from other traditions are brought into our meetinghouses without testing the appropriateness of doing so.

For me, the dangerous territory is about what happens when those of us who have claimed both A and B seek to reconcile our own hyphenated identity by knowingly or unknowingly "inserting" or imposing or Quaker elements into our other practice, or elements of our other practice into Quakerism.

And so Cat's post has got me thinking about the interrelationship between the identity development of individual Friends and seekers and the nature of how our faith is passed on, especially within a meeting community.

In the past, I had written about these two themes almost as if they were completely separate--leaping from tile to tile, if you will.

Now I wonder if it's not a moving sidewalk between the two, with lots of interesting stops to get off at and take a longer look around.



Cat C-B (and/or Peter B) said...

Interesting. I'd never thought to compare my "hyphenation" with transgeneder issues before, but it's a particularly apt comparison... Especially, I think, in that it has been my experience that not all trans folk do transition fully to a new gender. Some do: some self-identify as trans specifically, as queer, permanently. And that's not even taking into account the various ways people can be intersexed. It turns out that the issue of gender identity is not a simply binary, on/off, boy/girl. And perhaps neither is spiritual identity.

I may be in an intermediate stage of a process around my hyphenation. (I hope I'll always be in formation spiritually, but that's another matter!) Or I may not. It's hard to know, but important to stand where I find myself with some truthfulness--or so it seems to me.

The comparison that has generally come to my mind in the past has been, not about gender identification, but about racial identification. Pagans are the butt of so many jokes, and the target of a fair amount of contempt. This is the people who loved me and raised me, and at least one part of the reason I still wear the pentacle and self-identify as Pagan is that it would feel like disloyalty not to--like "passing" in the world of a kind of religious Jim Crow. (I can only imagine that such issues must have played a part for you, having grown up a Jew, as well.)

But there is more to it than that. While I agree with you that there's need of "concern that the Quaker faith tradition is changed prematurely or inappropriately when practices and ideology from other traditions are brought into our meetinghouses without testing the appropriateness of doing so," and feel no real need to alter either Quaker practices or worship to bring Pagan elements into my meeting, I do see cultural things that I think Pagans do very well that Quakers could learn from. (That road goes both ways, by the way. I'd love to see some Quaker practices jump the gap to the Pagan community, too.) Things like hearty laughter, sitting up late around a campfire, and a willingness to be emotionally open to one another and to share passionately and joyfully what we observe along our spiritual journeys.

I miss the campfire conversations Pagans have after a good ritual, where we try to "eff the ineffable"--to explain to one another our deepest experiences, and to listen deeply to each others' stories. Yes, Quakers do this too... but we're all so shy and afraid of talking too much, taking too much air time. Long pauses and soft voices seem to make up a lot of the Quaker accent, and sometimes we're a little affected about it all. (Pagans are affected, too, of course--but over the years, I'll admit that the ones who pride themselves on wearing dramatic robes and saying self-important things have gradually dropped out of my rolodex...)

Cultural things I'd like to see some sharing on. More laughter. More earth. More of a sense of deeply belonging to one another, and of spontaneous closeness, without checking first to see if we're smiling too widely, or not sounding "spiritual" enough.

Maybe I'll see more in time, as I become a seasoned Friend. Maybe Spirit will lead me to introduce changes I can't see at the moment. But for now, I have my hands full trying to integrate a new identity without selling out the loving bonds to humans and spiritual experiences that tie me to another as well.

Thanks for reflecting on this; I know you have been looking back for your own reasons, but it is really helpful to me to have a companion in sorting through this stuff.


I don't know where my journey will take me.

Liz Opp said...

Hey, Cat, thanks so much for taking time to write and share a little bit more of your own reflections.

As for the raucous laughter, staying up late, emotional openness comment, I have had experiences like that among a group of yearly meeting Friends who gather 3-4 times a year for "fellowship through singing and potluck," as I call it; and I've also had a bit of that sense of "deeply belonging to one another" among Conservative Friends, though my time among that group has been much shorter.

I chalk that up to a humility and a living into their faith in a way that doesn't seem to occur as widely among Liberal Friends...

But I also know for me, I need people to accept my serious, deeply spiritual side of me before I can let loose and join in the hearty laughter, etc.

I often wonder if Friends seem to seldom have these opportunities of fun and joy because we no longer have a day-to-day community. Instead, we have an every-First-Day ad hoc community, with an occasional yearly meeting session or retreat thrown in. So it's hard to get to know one another outside the context of weekly worship when we're not watching kids play together, getting into arguments together, "chopping wood and carrying water" together...

That's my own four-cents worth, anyway.

Thanks again for getting the conversation on this topic started.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Anonymous said...

I'm not a hyphenated Quaker, but I wonder if some people who are simply want to avoid having to repudiate something--or better still, want to acknowledge the good they've found in more than one place.

It reminds me a bit of married women (and some men I know) who hyphenate their names. Honor is still given to the family of origin even as honor is given to the family being created.


Liz Opp said...

Hi, Cath--

I hadn't considered the idea of hyphenated last names when marrying, but yes, there is something similar going on there.

The thing I still wrestle with, though, is what to make of--and how to labor with--Friends who are actively engaged in another tradition and who draw on language from or actively request inclusion from a practice other than Quakerism and think nothing of it.

I want to show respect to the person(s) engaged in the process of coming to terms with reconciling an identity--perhaps moving from spiritual refugee or immigrant to spiritual citizen--while also encouraging Friends to go more deeply into our tradition and practice.

Thanks for stopping by.


Anonymous said...

Liz--you just wrote words that leap from the page for me. I am a refugee worker. And as such, I hope to help refugees (and immigrants) become as adjusted to their new country as much as possible for them to have a happy and productive life.

But I would not ask them to completely leave behind language or practices from their home country. In fact, there have been lawsuits over that, and the Prime Minister of Canada just apologized for that kind of practice in Native residential schools.

Diversity is a good thing, IMO--and fear that it will dilute tradition is often unneccesary since tradition is not a static thing, itself--it's very fluid. Traditions change over time based on new ideas.

So, it's a tricky subject. Our personal history is as much a part of who we are as our current affiliations.

I think I would have more of a problem if a person wanted everyone else in a Meeting to adopt his/her hyphenated language or practice than I would if he or she engaged in them alone. For example, I have seen Friends from a Catholic background cross themselves and don't find that troubling. If they asked all of us to start doing it, I would have a problem.

So, perhaps the issue is one of personal practice and corporate practice. And in that case, I think if we trust in the strength of our faith tradition, we don't need to fear a few people who have brought personal practices with them through the door.

And if the few start to grow into the many, perhaps that's a clue that we need to stop and consider if we are being led in a new direction....or not. :) And if not, what do we do that will allow people to be authentic to themselves while also being authentic to their leading to be part of the Quakaer tradition.

I fully understand the desire to keep things as much as they "were intended to be" (if, indeed we can ascertain that), but I also think that we run a risk of becoming more fundamentalist the harder we try.

NOTE: I'm not saying that anyone is a fundamentalist. :)


David Carl said...

Hi Liz,

"chopping wood and carrying water" -- what would be a traditional Quaker way of expressing this traditional Zen Buddhist phrase? :)

Peace and Grace,


Liz Opp said...

Cath -

Much of your own words illuminate my concern and my observation. Yes, some individuals bring the faith and practice of their youth with them into the meetingroom... and it remains a private practice for them.

And yes, as more individuals see one another doing this, an unspoken message seems to begin rippling through at least some of our meetings, that these private practices are okay... and they get "picked up" by others in our meeting as being permitted.

And then over time, groups form and begin to relate to one another... Jewish Quakers that keep the Sabbath by lighting candles and saying Hebrew blessings; Buddhist Quakers who actively practice Buddhist meditation during worship; New Age Quakers who call on the Four Directions or who participate in purification rituals.

It is hard for me personally to trust if these blendings of practice are the result of wanting to keep alive a bit of one's religious heritage, versus if they are the result of having a yearning for something deeper, more meaningful than the somewhat shallow form of Quakerism that many meetings engage in.

But when I begin to speak with others about the deeper roots of Quakerism and the practices and beliefs that exist within our faith tradition, well, these Friends wonder why they hadn't heard tell of such things!

So your own thoughts and musings seem to reflect what continues to weigh on me, Cath. Thanks for doing such a nice job articulating some of the important questions, too.

David Carl -

First of all, I first heard the phrase "chop wood and carry water" probably 15-20 years ago during a personal growth experience I had, and it was never presented as a Buddhist expression, not that I can recall, anyway. Afterward, I simply assimilated it into my linguistic banks as yet another English idiom, like "letting the cat out of the bag."

In a way, it's a case in point to learn all that we can about our faith tradition, because we may not realize that something of America (or of Britain or...) may have just been "added on" and never questioned.

Second, regarding your question of what would be a parallel expression among Friends: I don't know.

Not everything in every language has a one-to-one equivalent.

Maybe it's akin to "staying low" and keeping humble, as Pat McBee describes these nearly forgotten disciplines.

On the other hand, the last few days I've been mulling over something that another fFriend has shared with me, about Jesus' instruction to Peter to "feed my sheep; feed my lambs..." I'm not sure if that applies, though: I don't have the grounding in Scripture that others do.

Perhaps there's another reader of TGRUp who can help...?


Anonymous said...

I had a feeling when I posted that we were on at least one current of the same wavelength, liz, and hoped that would be evident. :)


David Carl said...


If I recall the Buddhist quote is something like, "before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water, after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water." Neither can I think of an equivalent from scripture or Quaker tradition at the moment, although the integrity and equality testimonies seem to bubble up for me when I think of this. When I became a lawyer, my step mother told me "even if you get appointed to the Supreme Court, you'll still have to wash the dishes!" Perhaps she was helping me to "keep low!"

My first reaction to "feed my sheep" was that it was more about ministering to others, whereas the "chop wood, carry water" seems more about the commonplace tasks of life, and that finding God or enlightenment doesn't give us a pass to forego those. But then, I can see a relationship between the two, inasmuch as we often "chop wood and carry water" for the benefit of others. Even the simplest things may be ministry.

Of course, I was ribbing you a little about this, but my intentions were Friendly! And thanks for the link to the McBee article. I've bookmarked it for future reference and sharing with others.


Dave Carl

Liz Opp said...

David Carl -

Thanks for checking back... I took your initial comment as being offered in good humor, and I appreciated being given the opportunity to learn more about that Buddhist maxim, as well as reflect on when and where I first heard the phrase.


David Carl said...

Well, kidding aside I was actually also interested in what a "trad. Quaker" way of saying it might be. Over the past few years your blog has piqued my interest in that sort of thing.

David C.

Liz Opp said...

Well, David C, if you hear back from other Friends about any sort of "classic" Quaker parallel, let me (us) know!


natcase said...

Not a Quaker quote, but my wife Ingrid likes to say "less drama, more laundry," which she thinks she stole from AA.

Not quite the same, but in a similar spirit.


More lengthy comments on this thread are on my blog