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Knowing Our Own Demons

by Marge Abbott

Dark side of the moon“Friends, whatever you are addicted to, the Tempter will come in that thing. When he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you, and then you are gone. Stand still in that which is pure, after you see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After you see your thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit. Then the Power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and there does strength immediately come. Stand still in the light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone. Then contentment comes. When temptations and troubles appear, sink down in that which is pure, and all will be hushed and will fly away. Your strength is to stand still, after you see yourselves.

Whatsoever you see yourselves addicted to — temptations, corruption, uncleanness, &c. — then you think you shall never overcome. And earthly reason will tell you what you shall lose. Hearken not to that, but stand still in the light that shows them to you, and then strength comes from the Lord, and help comes, contrary to your expectation. Then you grow up in peace, and no trouble shall move you. David fretted himself, when he looked out; but when he was still, no trouble could move him. When your thoughts are out, abroad, then troubles move you. But come to stay your minds upon that spirit which was before the letter; here you learn to read the scriptures aright. If ye do any thing in your own wills, then you tempt God.

Stand still in that power which brings peace.
George Fox, Epistle X, The Power of the Lord is Over All, T. Canby Jones, p.7

Those who know Muriel (Mickey) Edgerton, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, have, I suspect, all encountered something of her sharp tongue.  Most if not all also have reason to know the depth of caring that can burst through her demeanor even when she is most caught up in pressing for us to live up to her vision of what Quakers might be. She describes herself this way:

I have a vision of how Quakerism CAN BE/HAS BEEN practiced and my judgmental personality type interferes badly with my ability to participate lovingly and wisely with Friends at Gwynedd Meeting, and probably every where else!!  . . . The opportunities to share that “Good News” with others has been mostly in the encounters with hospice patients and their families, and with my hospice colleagues.  So I have no doubt that God is using me just the way I am, flaws and all, in witnessing to and modeling Jesus’ teachings of how to do Kingdom living. I know that is what my life is “supposed” to be about and I am doing that the best I can and mostly that makes my heart sing.  When I get involved in something that makes my heart sink, I am pretty sure that is a sign that I’m NOT supposed to be doing that.

Self-knowledge can be painful. I often am upset by my motives or my inaction, or the stupid things I do. I’m sure I drive people nuts with how little I talk. Many probably see me as arrogant because of this. Since I easily go into defensive mode, I can seem even pricklier and push people further away.  We each have our own ways of being in this world which make it difficult to love and be loved just as we each have qualities which burst through gloriously when given the chance.

Self-knowledge allows us to engage with others honestly and stop projecting our own problems on to one another. Self-knowledge helps open the door to humility so that we might enter into rightful relationship with the world, neither lording over others in arrogance nor cowering in a sense of worthlessness. The Light which shines in every heart helps us find this point where our hurts can meld into compassion and our anger morph into a powerful energy and passion. The unique blend of contradictory feelings that is each of us is transformed as we stand still in the Light. In attending to this In ward Light we move close to the New Creation.

George Fox was quite aware of the contradictory, confusing, and sometimes ugly impulses that any of us might experience.  In his Journal (Nickalls, p. 19) he writes about it this way:

Yet I was under great temptations sometimes, and my inward sufferings were heavy; but I could find none to open my condition to but the Lord alone, unto whom I cried night and day. . . .And I cried to the Lord, saying, “Why should I be thus, seeing I was never addicted to commit those evils?

I can quite identify with Fox here as I find I am skilled at imagining all the multitude of things that can go wrong, especially the things I can do to make any situation worse. The essential lesson of the Light, is not just that it makes you more conscious of your own flaws, but that it somehow transforms them, pointing the way to live more fully in a place of engagement with justice and mercy. Fox put it this way:

And the Lord answered that it was needful I should have a sense of all conditions, how else should I speak to all conditions; and in this I saw the infinite love of God. I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. And in that also I saw the infinite love of God; and I had great openings.

When we are blind to ourselves, that which is part of the darkness within can sneak up on us and really mess things up. Discernment is not possible without an honest understanding of our own impulses and tendencies. Ministry can all too easily be turned into something damaging even with the best intent if we do not pay attention to who we are and what forces are pressing us to act or not act.

Conflicting Awareness 

As might be expected, self-knowledge is not enough. Perhaps some people can will themselves to change in significant ways, but my personality is such that as soon as I try and push myself hard in one direction, something inside me fights back, digs in its heels and clings to familiar patterns. We even have the oft-quoted words of Paul:

I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. (Romans 7.18-20, The Message)

Paul sees this as part of the human condition, trapped in sin and unable to do what we know is right. He names the freedom he found in Christ to overcome this power of sin and resistance. Modern-day Americans might explain this in psychological terms, but the experience is real for many people. I also know that there is a real freedom that came as I learned to trust in the divine Spirit and stopped attempting to hold tight control.  Supportive people were invaluable, as was coming to find the humor in my efforts and gradually becoming more able to enjoy my own foolishness as something to let drop away rather than clinging to it.

Darren Kenworthy, North Pacific Yearly Meeting, writes of some of the contradictory pulls in his life:

This sense of seeking to show others how to be without allowing oneself to be shown, without acknowledging what comes before us and makes our own light possible in first place, seems to me a great pitfall of prophetic ministry. I had an authentic prophetic experience, in the sense that my consciousness of what it meant to live in a wealthy industrialized nation at the expense of the many who didn’t live there had changed, and my altered way of relating to my material wants and needs. I didn’t, however, have the capacity to live that out as a ministry in the way that some other folks I had met might. This insight, framed in different terms at the time, coupled with a clear sense that the technical challenges of the job were at least somewhat outside what I had any reason to think I was capable of at the time, prompted me to tell the people in charge of the school that I would be tempting God to allow me to fail if I were to accept.

How often do we confuse ourselves by comparing what we are doing with what others accomplish, then list all the ways we fall short. I am especially good at doing this when I am just learning. I see vividly how the task is done by those who have been practicing for years and see myself as inadequate. Each of us has our own story of falling into the trap that the apostle Paul bemoans of being unable to live up to our own hopes and ideals and thus feeling paralyzed.

Being Intentional

Do you know what might make you burst out in frustration?  What might make you yell at another person? What might make you become overly shy and unwilling to speak up when you have much to say?  Paul Buckley, Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting is quite explicit about the importance of self-knowledge and honesty about our own condition:

We need to know our own demons. Being intentional – remembering to ask – is a struggle. Finding the humility to wait for an answer is even harder. For much of my life, I have been encouraged to make decisions and rewarded for it. Taking the time for real discernment can feel like an excuse for procrastination and sometimes it is. My personal temptation is to act, more than to wait.

For Paul, the struggle is to “not run ahead of the Guide” in the words of Isaac Penington. He thinks he knows what is needed, so the discipline of waiting for the holy “yes” is a hard one for him. I’m the opposite in that I can often find myself half-paralyzed and unwilling to act. It constantly amazes me how many wonderful excuses I can find for not doing something that is uncomfortable, or that stretches me even when I know that this is where I am being led.  The impulse to speak quickly, without reflection, is endemic in our culture.

We each have the capacity to look inside, to watch how we react in different situations and to be intentional about how we interact with other people and in the choices we make to get engaged with a variety of issues.  Do I want to be part of every cause?  Do certain people infuriate me, even without intending to?  Do I get trapped in a sense of unworthiness if anybody questions me?  Do I want everyone to hop on my bandwagon immediately?  What are the demons that push me into unhealthy conflict?

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