Tuesday, May 13, 2014

N is for Nice and No

The napkin rings are from Ten Thousand Villages.
The dinner napkins were purchased in 1989 in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2014
Nominating Committee: because of several months of bad weather and issues getting some key positions filled, we have not yet given an important report to Monthly Meeting. As the person who is first named on the committee and usually the one with the most viable car, in the end it is my responsibility. Everyone has been very polite about the situation, but the job has to be done, both filling the positions and giving the report.

Upon rereading the previous sentence, maybe I should eliminate the word “polite” and insert “nice.” The etymology of the latter word (according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, “nice” is from from the Latin nescius “not knowing,” which is in turn a form of nescire “to not know,” via  Old French) shows exactly the quandary we are in. If Friends will allow me, in the interests of confidentiality, to provide a composite picture of many nominating committees of more than one organization and to put my own example first, I might suggest that sometimes we are nice because we don’t know what else to do. No one wishes to upset his or her neighbor, or the Friend calling from the Nominating Committee, and people hate to disappoint by saying “No.”

Thus “Nice” and “No” are in a sense opposite. If we are nice, then we are most reluctant to say no, even to unreasonable requests for service in money and time. Many women in particular were raised to think that, if we are being “nice,” we should acquiesce to any and every work-related project and pick up articles of clothing that able-bodied people leave on the floor. The social reality that many women have been raised to be compliant makes it harder for people to believe us when we say “No” to unwanted sexual favors, despite the persistence of double standards of sexual behavior. (As my friends in women’s and gender studies would undoubtedly remind me, the linguistic and social history of “nice” and “no” when it comes to sexuality makes writing about theology look straightforward by comparison.)

As Friends, we are discouraged from waffling behind the screen of social convention, although we have euphemisms of our own when we wish to avoid giving offense. For instance, we all know that “the name of that Friend would not have occurred to me” means that the speaker believes that the Friend in question quite emphatically does not have the right credentials for whatever is under consideration.

If Quakers have heroes, inside or outside of our Religious Society, then they are often the ones who have refused to go along, regardless of the price. And those heroes do not always have to say “No” in as many words. Think of the statements of Martin Niemöller (“First they came for the Socialists...”) and Rosa Parks. All Rosa Parks needed was a physical refusal and the pointed use one word, “may” instead of  “can,” in “You may arrest me.”

In terms of work, successive Quaker committees revising editions of Faith and Practice are quite adamant about the importance of the word “No.” Section 3.09 of most recent version of Quaker Faith and Practice of Britain Yearly Meeting begins:
            It is not expected that any Friend should attend every meeting or sit upon innumerable committees. Decide what is within your physical and spiritual capacity, and be responsible in your attitude to what you do select. Be as regular, faithful, and punctual as possible in your attendance.
Rewriting Faith and Practice is hard work; the Friends who wrote that statement would have been the first to know when to call it a day. Nevertheless, to be true to the old Query, “Are love and unity maintained amongst you?” a refusal may still be “nice” in the best sense of the word.

And yet, an anecdote from my own Quaker experience provides a cautionary tale of the difficulty of one human spirit holding the potential for “nice” and “no” in proportionate measure. Friends may recall that George Fox considered telling the truth, to let yay be yay and nay, nay, among his central testimonies —indeed, the one upon which the others depend; this insistence in turn entails the use of affirmations in place of oaths. A man made of weaker material than Fox would have failed to achieve any of his goals, and yet Fox’s consistency of principle and practice had a price. Some years ago, an older and experienced Friend stood up in a group of New England Quakers who were admiring the visionary nature of the first chapters of George Fox's Journal. “I am going to ask you all a question: would you invite George Fox to your home for a formal dinner party?” Need I add that this Friend was a cook and host of legendary abilities.

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