September 16, 2014
After I posted the piece about Going Back to Germantown Meeting, I realized there was more I wanted to say about commitment. As often as the word is used, I don’t think most of us make many genuine commitments in our lives. I found myself thinking especially about my becoming a pacifist when I was about 19.
My first year in college was 1964-65. I went to Haverford with no strong political or social viewpoints and an inclination to vote Republican when I was old enough to vote. Over the course of that first year, particularly because of my exposure to the Vietnam War but also because of continuing reflection on what I had seen of poverty in Ecuador as an exchange student in the summer of 1963, I became much more engaged in a host of political and social issues. Most importantly, I realized I had become a pacifist.
I sat quietly on my own with that realization over the next few months, and then in the fall of 1965 I told my parents I was going to apply to be recognized as a conscientious objector. My father received that decision poorly. After some good advice from the Dean (John Spielman) I put the letter I had written to my draft board into a drawer. I didn’t cease to be a pacifist as I did that, but Dean Spielman had persuaded me I didn’t have to do anything quickly because I still had a student deferment.
In the fall of 1967, with my student deferment soon to expire, I finally did send the letter (or a fresh version) to my draft board. Some months later, after graduation, they turned me down and classified me 1-A. That led within a few months to an induction order, which I refused. I was arrested and released on my own recognizance. A year or two later I was again classified 1-A, sent an induction order, and again refused. In the event, I never was tried or convicted.
Was that a commitment that I made? Yes, in a way. I’ve been a pacifist ever since. But in a more serious sense, no. The experience of those years left me thinking again and again about what I had done and why. It concerned me that my decision to declare as a conscientious objector had caused a rupture in my relationship with my dad. It concerned me that my draft board had turned me down, taking me, I gathered, to be an insincere applicant seeking CO status to dodge the draft. I had answers to those concerns (my father was wrong, my draft board was wrong) but how did I know that truly was a pacifist, that I would sustain that commitment no matter what the challenge.
I didn’t really have a good answer to that. I was a pacifist; I knew how to respond to the usual objections, and believed those responses. But I realized there wasn’t any substantial foundation to my pacifism, or at least not one that I could articulate to myself. It was in that frame of mind that I began attending Quaker meeting, encountering along the way a number of older men who had been pacifists for many years. Gradually—this took years—I came to the realization that I needed to give sustained attention to the still, small voice that held me back from participation in war. I couldn’t just listen occasionally to that ‘teacher within’ (a phrase I encountered later at Earlham), I had to listen steadily, and I had to try to understand better what that meant to listen steadily. I’m still on that path.
That was the real commitment. The turn to pacifism was an invitation. I accepted that invitation on a trial basis around age 19, but it was 15 years later that I fully accepted that invitation in becoming a member of Germantown Meeting.