The admirable quality of keeping low

Published on: 1/23/2011

A friend of mine recently made a lofty declaration about the latest political "disgrace." "This must not be allowed to happen," he exclaimed. He has a much higher capacity than I do for outrage, so he says things like that a lot.

I wonder how he can be so certain. I read the article and it sounded like a pretty reasonable proposal to me.

But I don't want his ready certainty. I want more uncertainty, along with the openness to learn more facts and to consider different points of view.

To do that, I'm working on an interesting Quaker spiritual practice most of us have never considered: keeping low. What an alien notion in a competitive, winner-take-all society! In a world of self-esteem not anchored in accomplishment. In a world where anything that smacks of lacking confidence is seen as weakness that might draw the more fit survivors to peck our poor bowed heads bloody.

Before I explain what "keeping low" means, I need to mention two other related Quaker beliefs: 1) there is that of God or the divine in everyone, and 2) no person is "higher" than another person. The second is a very democratic sort of idea.

"Keeping low" means not putting ourselves above others. It's what my parents meant when they warned us, "Don't get a swollen head." Don't think too highly of yourself, they said often, because really, you are not all that. Among the dark Norwegians in my line, humility is grounded in superstition: if you do get above yourself, expect a hard, hard fall any minute now.

The Quaker notion is a little different. According to Patricia McBee, "To keep low is to be teachable and open to the workings of the Spirit. . .to be taught by everyone we meet: children, bus drivers, the folks who disagree with us. . .government officials. . .Keeping low says we look for ways to learn together, to integrate our piece of the truth with others' pieces of the truth. . ."

Keeping low is a missing piece of the puzzle in our debate about civility and careful speech. Without keeping low, civility is just another form of framing, a more gentle way of waiting to pounce with our own clearly superior, more elegantly stated, notions.

Civil speech is courteous, respectful, and truthful. It does not depend on exaggeration or slanting information. It's pretty clear why civil speech is essential to solve the hard problems that face us. We don't have to waste time defending ourselves or refuting falsehoods. We don't get sidetracked.

It also makes life more pleasant and encourages us to develop better vocabularies and more sophisticated ways of speaking. And that's fun. If you want to feel humbled about your ability to use language, see the Coen brother's True Grit.

Still, others remind us that strong speech is sometimes necessary to awaken people to the seriousness of situations, while a few gloat that the civility of others will give them an advantage in manipulating the masses.

Misleading people is reprehensible, so we'll ignore that. But sometimes it is necessary to inflame people, to move them to do the hard work of changing corrupt or broken systems. How do we know when to escalate? Now that we move our anger and fear from 0 to 60 in a fraction of a second, we lose the ability to understand degrees of urgency.

I have a lot of faith in keeping low as a way to a wider truth. As McBee says, "the miracle of keeping low. . . is its power of disarming our opponents with our compassing and willingness to learn. It's a critical and exacting practice for those who would be peacemakers."

Or, I think, those who would be problem solvers. Keeping low isn't just for avoiding bullets anymore!