Last night, I went to the opera. The audience, though decidedly better dressed, had similar demographics to a Quaker meeting, as well as many library functions. Grey hair and white skin abound. In all three of these arenas I regularly hear that the greying of the profession/audience/meeting is a problem. Where are the young people? What's going to happen when all the opera-goers, elderly Quakers, and librarians retire or die?
On the train back from Symphony Hall I was surrounded by older couples examining their programs, who looked at me with bemusement when I joined in their conversations about the performance. This look of bemusement is common in all three arenas. It comes from a very different place than the occasional look of askance when a young person appears and speaks up, but there are ways in which it has the same effect. My fellow patrons of the art were pleased to have me there, but clearly dismissive of me. My love of the opera will keep me coming back so long as I can find affordable tickets, despite my feeling out of place, the same way that my love of metadata and order keeps me plowing ahead in my career. The same applies to my attendance at Quaker meeting. I'll keep coming back because my faith and my God require the spiritual practice of communal worship despite the fact that I feel like I'm not accepted in certain forums as a Real Quaker because I'm not over the age of fifty.
So just how did I find myself the object of bemusement at meeting, at work and at play? Mostly, I think I had adults in my life who always encouraged my interests, even when I appeared to lack the intellectual, spiritual or emotional depth the appreciate them fully. I would put myself to sleep by playing Beverly Sills on my Fisher Price Record Player as a preschooler. Many a Saturday afternoon was spent doing chores with the weekly Met broadcast on in the background. I was taken to performances and museums that my mother wanted to see and expected to behave as best I could. Additionally, I was blessed to be taken under the wing of a series of librarians who never avoided answering a question and gave me all the background information I could handle, even when I was just a student worker pasting barcodes on books.
And when it comes to my Quaker faith, my parents encouraged my explorations of different religions and denominations without censure. I had conversations with many Friends of different generations who treated me as a treasured member of the community. I was expected to attend and participate in worship to the best of my personal abilities, not as a member of a general age category. I had access a wide variety of Quaker texts in my home, even when some texts were clearly above my reading level. I didn't have trouble being taken seriously as an individual until I started interacting with Quakers outside of my yearly meeting. I don't know if this is because I grew up before their watchful eyes or if the way my yearly meeting approaches the spiritual development of our children is significantly different, but I have been blessed to have always been treated as a full member of my meeting and yearly meeting since I was a teenager.
Being taken under the wing of kindly members of an insular and aging group can be very important. Perhaps more important is for kindly members of that insular and aging group to treat newcomers, and especially young people, as individuals and have high expectations of them. Assuming that teenagers or young adults need to hang out with their peers to the exclusion of the life of the rest of the meeting or that children cannot be expected to sit in worship for an hour does not challenge them to join the community on their own time as individuals with individual strengths and gifts.