Various Friends observed during a recently held retreat on the Spirituality of John Woolman how amazing it was that the main concerns raised by Woolman some 250 years ago were still current today. On the surface it seems unlikely: we no longer have to deal with slave trading, stage coaches, or buttons as unnecessary things on clothes. However, the way we relate to and treat people, mainly the ones that are not the way we are, and the matters of business and commerce are still very much on the agenda today.
As a child of the sixties I am used to see problems and injustices, to denounce them, and to call for solutions. Together with my generation I was shocked by the witnessed use of violence in Biafra, the recognition of the limits of energy resources, and the advancing pollution of our environment. The grievances affected us and we eagerly sought solutions to turn away the disasters, which seemed to threaten our privileged lifestyles. We collected for charities, travelled by train from one meeting to another, and bought many of our consumer products grown organically or trade through alternative market channels.
What strikes me again and again is that these actions have led to a cat and mouse game with the big corporations: Thirty years ago I predicted that one day the mega retailers would make the local health food stores obsolete because they could pretend to the consumers a better world for a lower price due to their market dominance. John Woolman would be horrified if he had to look at how the wasteful consumption habits now became resistant to criticism by the fact that the products are certified as organic, fair trade, and climate neutral. Most alternative manufacturers and distributors trade almost exclusively with superfluities and compensate the unavoidable waste of energy in processing and transportation with carbon credits.
Unfortunately, it is a fact that the elemental things, for example staple foods, receive little appreciation and generate little added value. In today’s society, even in circles that call themselves progressive, health and environmentally conscious, variety and convenience are unquestioned realities. A full shelf and a wide selection are important for eating “right”. And there are many ready-to-use products that help simplify lifestyles or are time-saving and thus apparently support our complex lives. Our extreme privileges give us a strong sense of entitlement for theses superfluities.
During discussions among the participants of the retreat various ideas and insights based on their own experience were exchanged. The participants agreed that the consumer society is not sustainable at all and that each individual can make decisions to advance his belief in a better world. The discussion ended in the advantages and disadvantages of a particular label or product. But I also noticed that many of these actions are profoundly contradictory. For example, the consumerist behaviour “if I want to wear something different” was being justified by either buying second hand or from a distributor meeting many certification standards well. As I understand John Woolman, he would have refused to even take into consideration that ‘he just wanted to wear something different’.
Thus remains the question about superfluities. Such question is in contemporary discussions not self-evident and, if addressed at all, countered with a rhetorically convincing justification or trivialization of each single action. That means, the thinking is already influenced by the hyper-individualization and fragmentation of life to the point that only specific individual steps are considered (eg “This fair trade organic mango is yet on offer, full of vitamins, and creates jobs in a developing country”). This is also a form of simplicity. Unfortunately, the complexity of the interconnectedness of life is not congruent with such a strategy.
Even a piece of second-hand clothing that I’m wearing is highly likely made at best by low-wage earners who cannot enjoy nearly the same privileges in life as I do. Even within Switzerland, all services and products, and especially any price advantages, can only be realized through low wages, non-self-determined working conditions and precarious social benefits.
However, the material aspects are probably the most transparent ones in the world today. Really obscure becomes the debate about justice, transparency, and superfluities in the abstract world of finance. A transaction that has been a direct exchange in Woolman’s times would triggers a cascade of actions today in which countless invisible actors and beneficiaries are involved. And everybody is involved in this system through savings, pension plans, insurances, and the expectation not to lose the hard-earned and necessary money.
Therefore, I wish the strength to face my discomfort, the burden of the collective injustices that I feel as a constant heaviness on my shoulders, with a radicalism of John Woolman’s spirituality. First I would like to recognize and eliminate the superfluities. Only then does it make sense to me to search for the most socially and environmentally responsible variation of the essentials. I am aware that this is not a linear process, and that this aspiration is not possible without giving up fond habits and privileges or without feeling the palpable consequences of this spiritual attitude and the mystical experience of oneness. I need to remember our origin, the divine spark in all of us, which also gives me agency, because “it is an exercise in seeing how God sees, the perception of what is little and unimportant” (Soelle, Essential Writings).
Spiritually, it is important for me to seek this radicalism. Theologically, I can live in a meantime and wait until the redemption arrives (or the redeemer comes back). But I am looking more for an experience similar to an inward second coming. John Woolman and many early Quakers understood the idea that the kingdom of God on earth was possible in the now quite well and acted accordingly.
Reference: Soelle, D. (2006). Essential writings: selected with an introduction by Dianne L. Oliver. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
For more on John Woolman, his spirituality, his radical ways of applying his faith to his own life, read an excerpt from Dorothee Soelle’s book The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance here: John Woolman and the society of slave owners
Please read my follow up in 10 complex ways to lead a simple(r) life.
For a further examination of the thoughts on inward second coming, please see this lecture by Ben Pink Dandelion: The end of the world… and what happened next.
Ein deutsche Version dieses Blogeintrages finden sie hier: Über Flüssiges und Überflüssiges.