When I was 12 years old, I was asked to leave Sunday School.
Our teachers had sat all the students down that day in the basement of the modest red-brick United Methodist church with a tall white pristine steeple. They handed us pens and paper and instructed us to write letters to men serving their sentences in the upstate prison. We were to ask the prisoners to accept Jesus Christ into their hearts and mend their ways. “It’s important to help those less fortunate than us,” said the Sunday School ladies, in that singsong voice adults use when they are telling a child that this is what you’re supposed to do.
I was in 8th grade, and all I wanted was to be invisible. I didn’t want to be prettier, smarter, or different—I just wanted to vanish. I was always gravitating towards the corners of a room, flinching at eye contact, keeping as still as possible, and avoiding speaking at all costs. That morning, though, I had to speak up. I refused to write a letter about the benefits of Christianity to a man I’d never met, who happened to live in a prison. It was insulting and presumptuous, I told them. It was no business of mine.
This was very difficult for me, but behind my fear and discomfort, I felt a strong and quiet sureness about what I said. Maybe, I thought, they would understand. Maybe they would even agree.
They asked me to sit in the hallway until my mother came for me.
My mom wasn’t angry, and I wasn’t in trouble, but after that, she had a hard time persuading me to go to church. For years, I existed happily with minimal spiritual intervention.
But nine years ago, I felt compelled to go back. I was six months pregnant, and I woke up one day with a ready heart, a willingness to listen, and a desire for community—for myself and for my someday-daughter. My mom had been attending a local Quaker meeting for about a year, and I tagged along. It was a modern congregation, with a choir, pews, and a collection plate, but they still honored old traditions with a period of silent worship, where everyone sits in contemplative silence, speaking only when deeply moved to speak. I sat in my pew with my hands on my belly, listening to that thick meaningful silence, and I felt comforted and still.
Eventually, I found my way to a much smaller meeting, where I knew the names of everyone present—a meeting without a pastor or a choir, with a simple collection plate that stays fixed in a discreet location in the lobby. In our meeting room, where the pews are arranged to face one another, we sing songs together. During silent worship, the periods of silence are punctuated with someone periodically speaking of something close to their heart. If an idea, a joy, or a concern occurs to you and if it feels bigger than yourself, you are encouraged to speak it. On two occasions, I—an introverted teen grown into an even more introverted adult—have been moved to speak and have been shocked at the clarity and strength of my own voice.
Printed on pretty much every piece of Quaker literature is this quote:
You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this: but what canst thou say?
Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God? — George Fox
His meaning is clear to me: if you recognize yourself to be a piece of the Divine, how can you not honor it? How can you not speak it?
As I am growing into my own stillness and surety, I have been catching myself using it in a different way. What can I say? What do I know? A year ago, I made a decision to only offer thoughts and stories that came from clear, calm places. I often question myself. Do I have something to communicate, or do I need attention? Is my anger truly justified, or are my feelings hurt? Have I considered that I might be wrong? I stop myself from rambling when I get nervous and focus on the quiet, the space, and the people around me instead. I don’t tell other people’s stories—I encourage them to tell their own.
At work, I am more appreciative of the stories people tell me. At home, I hear firsthand about the worlds of my children. I take the time to learn how their worlds work before I offer advice or anecdotes. It feels like we are learning how to listen to one another.
Where once I would apologize for my introversion and feel guilty for my need to be away, now I can recognize it for what it is: that still, quiet place inside me that needs refilling. I feel like I have a new ownership of myself and my time, and a steadier and more fulfilling relationship with the world around me. There is much freedom in recognizing what I can say, and may be even more in recognizing what I cannot. Respecting people’s distances and honoring others’ narratives and spaces has helped me validate my own.