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March 29, 2003

In a Quaker State of Mind, or Why I Had Stopped Blogging

By and large, I don't take truck with religion. Born and raised an avowed atheist, I had trouble understanding how it could be valuable -- my knee-jerk reaction was that it does little more than narcotize.

Maturation is a wonderful thing -- understanding the colors, shading, textures of what's out there. Part of that maturation was to try to impose less of my notions on other things -- to let them be. In the course of this, I became more aware of the Quakers (also known as the Society of Friends) and their approach.

The Quakers are Christians, but don't hold that against them. From what I can tell, most Quakers can't stand Christians, either. Quakers have no clergy. Quakers think that, yes, Jesus was a child of God, but hey, we are all children of God. He had some great ideas, but wasn't particularly special. Quakers are pacifists. In American history, Quakers are often the first to do that which later on becomes understood as "right" -- they were the first fiercest abolitionists.

A key element of Quaker practice is the weekly Quaker meeting. Apart from occurring on Sunday, it's similarity to other Christian practice ends there. In Quaker meeting, the group sits, silent. Again, no clergy, so no sermon. The only time a Quaker speaks is when the spirit moves her. A Quaker is asked to speak only if it will improve upon the silence. This is a substantial threshold. Entire meetings may go by without a sound. A kind of group meditation. Encouraging real reflection.

In the chattering world that is media, internet, urbanism, that notion of silence becomes even more powerful, meaningful, useful. It's made me wish that everyone took to heart that request -- speak only when it will improve upon the silence.

(This is not to suggest that I follow such an axiom. I'm one of the worst silence-fillers I know.)

When I stopped writing on my website a couple of months ago, I was surprised at how... concerned some people were. "Why did you stop writing?" I realized that, at the time, I really hadn't anything to say. I was posting out of obligation to an audience, not because the spirit moved me.

I was also growing increasingly frustrated with the echo chamber effect of weblogs. A meme drifts out there, and then 38 different people post their take on that meme, and they all link to each other, and, as a reader, you bounce from post to post, the semantic feedback growing until it's deafening. I needed to remove myself from that for a while. To prune a tree. To look on as my g/f and another friend weeded my garden. To get licked in the face by a dog. To prepare my taxes. To watch work out while watching TeeVee.

I'm back. I probably won't post as much as I once did. (Though today is an exception! Suffice to say that when you stop writing, the ideas well up.) I'll try to make sure that, when I do, I improve upon the silence. And if you return to this site, and there's nothing new, I ask you to reflect upon that, appreciate that silence, before you continue through your bookmarks.

Posted by peterme at March 29, 2003 12:07 PM

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Blog when you can improve on the silence from BookBlog
Peter Merholz is back with a new, Quaker-influenced blogging philosophy -- only speak if you can improve on the silence. [Read More]

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peterme.com: In a Quaker State of Mind, or Why I Had Stopped Blogging I wonder if my blog entries are better than silence. That's a pretty high bar to jump over in my mind. [Read More]

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Silence from Seb's Open Research
Peter Merholz : "if you return to this site, and there's nothing new, I ask you to reflect upon that, appreciate that silence, before you continue through your bookmarks." [Read More]

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Tracked on August 27, 2004 10:48 PM

Comments

Good stuff, thanks for writing it.

Posted by: John Dowdell at March 31, 2003 12:45 PM

Equally notable are the rules governing Quaker 'business' meetings:

http://www.gla.ac.uk/~gkea04/business.html

I was in an organization that tried (briefly, with blazingly little success) to adapt those guidelines to a set of project-management rules for running effective meetings...

I hope this comment has improved upon the silence. (I fear this one post will effectively kill the community aspects of your site -- we're now all shamed into non-response by a formidable and preferable opponent called Reflective Silence...)

Posted by: Bryce at March 31, 2003 09:24 PM

I attended a Quaker college and the culture of steady pacifist patience impressed me. I wish there was maybe more Quaker-esque awareness in politics and culture these days - I commend you for taking a break, a pause in the conversation Peter. I didn't have fear - because I saw the emergence of BeastBlog and because I think I knew that when you had something to say, you'd return to the online conversation.

Point of information: The last U.S. President from a Quaker background was Richard M. Nixon.

Posted by: Justin at April 1, 2003 12:15 PM

While i appreciate the gratuitous trashing of Christianity, at least for what it is; a reflection of popular culture's understanding of Christianity mediated through TV evangelists and fundamentalists, I would like to point out that most of the largest mass murders of the 20th centure were explicity secular, from pol pot, to stallin to mao and the cultural revolution, but you don't hear people doing a similar gratuitous trashing of secularism.

Posted by: kevin Jones at April 1, 2003 11:47 PM

This is exactly the reason that I stopped blogging. I felt like I was just writing for the sake of it. The silence has been nice - for me, at least. Now I have the opposite problem. I've gotten so used to *not* blogging that I can't seem to get myself going again. Good to see you got back into it before you got too used to the silence. Also, xy has been trying to get me to go to a Quaker meeting for awhile now. Now I'm thinking it would be a good thing to do at least once.

Posted by: tpodd at April 2, 2003 05:46 AM

The first abolitionists were probably the slaves.

Posted by: Comment at April 2, 2003 10:08 AM

kevin Jones, the line you advance might as well be one of the reactionary right's talking points - maybe bullet point three on a nice little laminated card of same, passed out at NRA and Focus on the Family conventions.

It's an attractive thesis, at least from the point of view of those desirous of constructing a rear-guard defense of religious thought, but it crumbles so terribly quickly when subjected to a moment's analysis.

Firstly, your neatly-pruned list of genocides is (cough) a little incomplete; a more responsible version would have to include, obviously, the National Socialist era and the Armenian genocide of 1919. (More controversially, one might opt to include the US bombing of Cambodia.) None of these campaigns was waged to advance a secularist agenda.

But more importantly, by expanding our scope of analysis past the arbitrary limit of the twentieth century, genocidal adventures like the conquest of the American landmass and the Crusades hove into view, both of which had explicitly Christian(izing) aims. How are you going to construct these as assaults on secularism?

Posted by: AG at April 2, 2003 05:55 PM

Maturation is a wonderful thing

The first time I read that sentence, I read it as "Masturbation is a wonderful thing" :))

What's with the default MT template dude?

Posted by: Toby Little at April 3, 2003 03:56 AM

For sure a post worth waiting for.

Posted by: Mel at April 3, 2003 08:09 AM

Kevin, your point would be more effective if you said "plenty of Christians aren't evil" instead of "some secularists are evil."

Peterme, I love the point about "blogging-to-improve-on-the silence. That said, replace "Christian" with "atheist" in the post and reread.

Posted by: Adina Levin at April 5, 2003 10:36 AM

My experience with Quaker meeting was quite different. Over a period of months I noticed that the same people were speaking, and they were generally speaking on the same themes. These individuals chose to inhabit the space in much the same way as more "traditional" ministers and deacons might. These individuals rushed to fill the vacuum. It was disappointing but revealing. I'm sure this is only one among many possible experiences.

Posted by: RM at April 8, 2003 10:54 AM

Good to see you back. I enjoy your writing...

PS - hmmm...why does your blog look so familiar

Posted by: Donna Maurer at May 2, 2003 05:11 AM


Donna, Do I know you?
Have you ever been to St Louis?
If yes, hit me up on ICQ: 136547585.
If not - sorry you just remind me of someone.
regards,
Chris

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