VIEW VIDEO Good morning, friends. Well, it’s a week for celebrations. We’re gathering this evening at 6:30 for our children’s program and our candlelight circle, a rich tradition here at Fairfield. The joy continues for the Gulley family, with Madeline turning 8 years-old this Tuesday. When Joan asked her what she wanted for her birthday, Madeline said an iPad tablet, the wrong thing to say to a librarian who won’t even tolerate a television in her home. I was listening to their conversation and thought to myself, “Honey, that ain’t gonna happen.” I suggested a puppy we could keep at our house, but Joan shot that down, too.
The other day our son Spencer had an early morning commitment, so asked if I could take Madeline to school. Oh, yes, I’d be delighted to do that. So I went and got her, and she came out of their house with her backpack, clutching a handful of envelopes, which turned out to be invitations to her birthday party at an ice-skating rink. Eight invitations, addressed to certain classmates, her own little posse. It gave me flashbacks from when I was a kid, how I was invariably the ninth child, waiting for the invitation that never came. Because of that painful memory, we didn’t let our sons invite only some of their classmates. Instead, we told them Quakers didn’t celebrate birthdays, which saved us money and drama. People say you should never lie to your children, but these are the people who never had children. Children would have made George Washington lie like a rug.
Isn’t it interesting how early we gather ourselves in tribes and groups and cliques? Even cows do this. Spencer has an old cow, #41, that he never takes to market, because it’s become the boss cow. If he wants to lead a hundred cows from one lot to another, he doesn’t have to herd 100 cows, he only has to call out to #41 to follow him and it will, and all the other cows fall into line. We’re kind of like that, aren’t we? You ask someone who they’re gong to vote for and many people, Democrat and Republican alike, will say, “Whoever my party nominates.” We fall into line. We do this in religion. A man in my previous church once told me it was my job to tell him what to believe. A lot of people just fall into line. We learn this at an early age.
I’ve been reflecting on the stuff I want to do before I croak, my geezer manifesto, and today I want to affirm that in my geezer years, I will not fall into line. I will not vote for certain people, believe a certain thing, join forces with certain people, just because someone says I must. I will mightily resist what the American sociologist William Whyte called groupthink. Groupthink. The psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people when the desire for harmony or conformity results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision. Groupthink. Groupthink avoids raising controversial issues or alternative solutions, resulting in a loss of creativity and independent thinking. Nothing will enslave and encumber a group of people more effectively and efficiently than groupthink.
Groupthink is the parent of every vile and noxious movement in history. Think of the evils around which kindred spirits have gathered–Naziism, racism, sexism, tribalism, antisemitism, classism, nationalism, homophobia– each of them a consequence of people affirming an ugly and wicked belief to promote group conformity. Going along to get along. Groupthink.
Friends, too often we dwell on the negatives of aging, the physical and mental decline, the loss of friends and spouses. We forget the benefits of aging, one of which must certainly be our emotional freedom, our capacity for scorn. The other day a friend told me I had made someone mad with something I had written in our local newspaper. My friend said, “He’s really mad at you.” Twenty years-ago that would have kept me awake. But the other day, I simply said, “That is his issue, not mine.” As we age, we develop the capacity for autonomy, the ability to resist emotional coercion, we no longer go along to get along.
Chatting with Madeline about her birthday party brought back a memory. I was in the fourth grade, and my mom told me I could invite three of my friends to attend the play Young Abe Lincoln at Christian Theological Seminary in the city. Mom asked me who I wanted to take, and I said, Bill and Tim and Ricky. She said, “I didn’t think you liked Ricky. I thought he was mean to you.”
I said, “If I don’t invite him, he’ll say bad things about me.”
Remembering that, it made me so glad to be a geezer, no longer having to earn the approval of unkind people. In our geezer years, we are free. Our ability to bear the scorn of others permits us to defend the weak and face the bullies.
I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to you about the Quaker Benjamin Lay. He was a dwarf, born to Quaker parents in Colchester, England in 1672. He eventually moved to Barbados where he witnessed the abuse of enslaved people and became an abolitionist. He then moved to Philadelphia, where he set about irritating and infuriating his fellow Quakers with his anti-slavery speeches. We know him today because of something he did while attending Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1738, when he rose to his feet, quoted the Bible saying all people were equal under God, then plunged a sword into a Bible containing a bladder of blood-red pokeberry juice, spattering nearby Quakers, several of whom were enslavers, crying out that the blood of the enslaved were upon them. His punishment was swift. He was bodily carried from the meeting room. Four Quaker meetings with whom he was affiliated disowned him, and when he died, some 21 years later, he was buried in an unmarked grave in the cemetery at Abington Friends Meeting. In 2018, 259 years after his death, Southern East Anglia Area Meeting, part of Britain Yearly Meeting, became the last of the four Quaker meetings to reverse his disownment. I do not know if we are ranked in heaven, but if we are, I am persuaded that Benjamin Lay, who cared more about justice than praise, sits in the highest row of glory. Let’s one day sit there with him.