Quakers are often very interesting people.
And generations come and go.
These are the modest theses behind the new book, Passing the Torch. In fifty-plus years among The Religious Society of Friends (our rather pompous official name), its members, attenders, hangers-on and even antagonists, I have kept bumping into and hearing about interesting people. And many very interesting people.
And having had what some call “a good run,” my generation (beginning, as I did, in the depths of World War Two, and extending, with a stretch, to the early 1960s), is now on its way out.
“Generations come and go,” is how the Preacher of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (one of my favorites) dryly put it. And it’s our turn. Then the Preacher rubs our noses in the fetid fact of evanescence: “in future generations no one will remember what we have done here.”
This last, I think, many of us don’t yet believe. After all, we were told, from many quarters, for a long time, that we were a critical, historic vanguard. Now some voices are condemning us as the heralds of decadence, decay and disaster, which seemed to be running amok in our culture as these pages took shape and the curtain begins descending over us.
We’re also not the first ones to think we can escape this descent into the abyss of the forgotten. Indeed, attempts to defy this fate are among the oldest recorded human activities. Such efforts come in many forms, prominently monuments, stories, and books or other writings.
Of these, stories are the most weightless, typically composed and carried in memory and words. Yet they are the most durable; though they too can die. The biblical Exodus saga is one of the oldest such stories, at least in the Jewish-Christian world. The retelling of key passages at annual Seders includes elements that are likely 3000 years old or more. And that ritual story’s role in the persistence of Jewish culture and religion is inarguable.
Have we, this gaggle of eleven authors, elder (mainly American) Quakers done anything to elbow our way into the species memory? Usually this query is rhetorical, a set-up for some ambitious, maybe even landmark argument, which favorable critics will be tempted to call “bold” or “ground-breaking.”
In Passing the Torch, I was firmly resolved to resist this urge to grandiosity. Here there is no carefully representative group, honed to tick all the boxes. Nor is this a manifesto or a mea culpa, though it reflects our feelings and opinions.
Instead, I wrote to some interesting people, a varied bunch of a certain age, who are Quakers, and invited them to tell their stories, and offer some summary counsel, what we call Advices, to those coming up. I’ve dropped a few of my own, I hope sparingly enough to be palatable.
We’re a motley crew, few of us famous, but we are varied and in my view all have done interesting things. In these pages you will find Friends in the thick of wars, behind bars, facing dire disease, murder, raising families and — since all are Americans – confronting racism and prejudice in many forms and some unexpected guises. Yet they also took time to settle in Friends worship and business, making their own diverse way amid its highs and lows.
Eleven lives, now moving into the sunset. Among us are several centuries of Quaker experience and thought. It’s a longstanding Quaker tradition that, whatever we say or write, it is above all our lives that speak, across the world, and beyond our generation. That’s what Passing The Torch tries to get at.
What does it all add up to? Some good reading, that much I know. (Now available on Amazon.) Beyond that, I’ll leave it to others with more degrees; or defer again to that ancient Preacher in Ecclesiastes:
8:16-17: Whenever I tried to become wise and learn what goes on in the world, I realized that you could stay awake night and day and never be able to understand what God is doing. However hard you try, you will never find out. The wise may claim to know, but they don’t.
And 4:12: So I realized that all we can do is be happy and do the best we can while we are still alive. 13 All of us should eat and drink and enjoy what we have worked for. It is God’s gift.
(And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.
You’re invited; more details here. )
Previous posts featuring Passing The Torch Authors–
1. Barbara Berntsen
2. Carter Nash