Paganism as a Reaction

One issue I find problematic in the alternative-spirituality movement – including New Age, Neopaganism, and many Western non-Christian groups – is that we’ve emphasized a focus on validating beliefs and experiences, but we seem to have overlooked becoming better people.

For example – how many Pagan groups do you know that advocate acceptance for people the way they are?  How many do you know that promote change to meet an ideal?

I am familiar with groups that promote self-improvement, or at least working to adhere to a behavior and ethical code.  But my sense is that, among those who identify as Pagan, Witch, or New Age, the thrust is towards validation and acceptance.

So, this post is an exploration of how Paganism – and specifically Neopaganism – might provide options for us to become better people.

Also, this essay is an examination into the ways Pagans can get locked into response-mode, how that might be limiting to someone’s path.  I offer a few thoughts on ways to break free from that mentality.

Quick note – it should go without saying, but these are simply thoughts and observations I’ve had around Paganism.  I’m not married to any of these ideas, but I find them interesting to consider in the context of self-mastery.  I reserve the right – as should all people who call themselves human – to change my mind or my opinion as I learn and grow.

Paganism as a response

First, I find it helpful to examine how modern Paganism became popular, and how Paganism functions for many of its practitioners.

So I’ll start by inviting you to consider – how many people do you know who became Pagan because they were pissed off at Christians?

I know only one person who was raised Pagan.  All the rest became Pagan because they experienced shitty Christians (or shitty Christianity).  I mean, I’m Pagan because of the way Christians treated me.  And most Pagans I’ve talked to have similar experiences.

Since many people become Pagan because of something Christians (or Christian churches) have done, this kind of conversion can be seen as a response.  We respond to a shitty situation or incident by leaving the Christian religion.  In my case, Christians hold that love is the most important value to uphold.  Some Christians express love by acting with cruelty.  Cruelty is not an expression of love.  Since Christians treated me with cruelty, they were acting hypocritically, so I chose to end my association with Christianity.  My actions were a response to the experiences I had with Christians (and Christian churches).

Would I be Pagan if I hadn’t been treated poorly?  I don’t know.  Who can say what their life would be if they made different choices?  But I can say that my treatment at the hands of Christians prompted me to seek another spiritual path.  So my actions were a response.

A lot of people look for the opposite of Christianity when they experience a crisis of faith.  That’s totally normal, and I’m not really qualified to make judgments about the validity or rationale for a person’s path (unless you’re harming or coercing other people).

But many Pagan practices, especially in Wicca, are a direct response to cultural conditions.  Before 1951, Witchcraft was illegal in England.  Once those laws were repealed, Gerald Gardner promoted Wicca as a religion.  If we look at the practices of Wicca as  Neopagan path, it appears Gerald Gardner stitched together ceremonial magic with nudism and nature-based fertility.  Wicca has since grown beyond those origins, but it is not a pre-historical religion that was passed down in secret.  It was invented in the 1920’s, and is often portrayed as a way to legitimize magic and alternate sexual practices.  That is to say, Gardner launched Wicca as a response to cultural conditions that prohibited nudity and magic.

And that’s OK.  But like my own exodus from Christianity, Wicca is a response – Gardner wasn’t able to fulfill his spiritual needs in the existing religious organizations, so he responded by creating his own.

And I feel like this is a bigger trend in most Pagan and Neopagan paths.  Most people don’t change religions when they’re comfortable, so perhaps there’s a mass discomfort (or mass trauma) causing people to respond accordingly.  Maybe Christianity simply isn’t fulfilling anymore, and is pushing people away.  Many Christian groups are demonizing a group of people (like LGBTQ+ folks) in order to drum up a sense of tribalism, which has a polarizing effect.  People in the in-group tend to bond more strongly against perceived enemies, and people in the out-group are marginalized, pushed aside, or labeled enemies.  In a progressive, global, multicultural society, these actions alienate a fair number of followers.

Another factor in Paganism as a response, is that our society is becoming secular and materialistic.  Naturalistic Philosophy – the belief that all observable phenomena arise from purely physical sources – is a constant subtext to our culture.  Also called “Scientism” or “Scientific Materialism,” Naturalistic Philosophy implies that there is a rational and material explanation for everything a person experiences.  (I used to call this scientific materialism, but some adherents of this philosophy find that term offensive, so I’ve adjusted.)  This is a great philosophy when you’re trying to find a better way to build an iPhone, or to evaluate material usage and waste in a business process.  But there’s no room in Naturalistic Philosophy for purely non-physical phenomena.

So even though everyone has a ghost story, in Naturalistic Philosophy, there can be no such thing as ghosts.  Even though we can be spiritually or emotionally moved reading a book, it can’t be measured, thus is considered subjective – therefore invalid – evidence.  There can be no Gods or Magic or Spirits, because those things are artifacts of consciousness, immeasurable, and therefore nonexistent.

And yet, people still have phone telepathy, or precognition of accidents, or ghost experiences.  I’d like to suggest that one reason people are moving to Neopaganism is that most Neopagan paths offer a worldview that celebrates the intangible (and interesting) experiences that fall through the cracks of the laboratory floor.

It may not even be validation of the woo~, but simply acknowledging that immaterial experiences have merit.  We read a good book because we like it, even though it doesn’t give us an edge in our next sales pitch.  We enjoy a cup of tea with a friend without having to have a cost-benefit analysis of the time spent and the networking achieved.

Immaterial experiences matter.  And Neopaganism celebrates them.

It appears, then, that Paganism is a response to this centuries-long devaluation of the non-material.  Consider the story of Robinson Crusoe, who – through hard work – transformed his material world into spiritual and material prosperity.  Crusoe does not rely on magic, but rather the physical mastery of the resources around him.  So it is, in our modern culture, that we are taught that value exists only in the work we do (usually for a corporation), and that our value is measured only by the materials we can buy.  This worldview leaves no room for immaterial experiences.

For those of us who’ve seen ghosts, it’s no wonder we’re looking for a spiritual path that celebrates immaterial experiences.  (This is not a debate about whether magic is real.  Who knows?  But clearly something is happening, even if only in our subjective conscious experience.)  This, again, is a response to the world we live in.  Our jobs, our scientists, nor our economy cannot account for ghosts or magic.  But people love a good ghost story.  So we respond to the absence of immaterial effects by switching to a spiritual path that celebrates the immaterial.

I mentioned Wicca as a Neopagan countercultural response.  I am aware that Heathens are less reactive, and tend more towards embodying a core set of values, which I would view as less of a response.  Greek and Near Eastern pre-Christian practices are also being revived, offering a historically-based practice for people who are called to them.  But even the most meticulously-researched historical Pagan spiritual path has gaps.  What do we do when our reconstructed religion doesn’t have an answer?

How do we fill the gaps?

Young religions like Wicca and Neopaganism often have gaps in theology, ethics, or mystical practices.  In contrast, religions like Christianity have the benefit of thousands of years of art, philosophy, and co-opting indigenous practices.  These different techniques help to create a rich, full experience for people following that religion.

It’s a fundamental truth that humans share practices and information.  (If you don’t believe me, do a quick search for “Grandma’s recipe” or “family recipe”.)  In some ways, that’s good – I’ve got a batch of red beans and rice in the slow cooker right now because someone posted a recipe online.  With religion, this can get a little complicated.  Catholicism has a habit of absorbing the local spiritual practices of whatever culture it came to dominate, as is the (suspected) case with St. Brigid.  This might feel like cultural appropriation.  But it’s also a factor that leads to the preservation of many indigenous spiritual practices.  This preservation is why Mexican Catholicism looks different from Vatican Catholicism.  Or why Tibetan Buddhism looks different from Japanese Buddhism.

When we’re throwing out tradition “Because Christianity,” we lose a vast repository of spiritual tech that works and adds meaning to spirituality.  It’s sort of a baby-and-the-bathwater situation.  When you’re building a spiritual path from scratch, or building a spiritual path to be the opposite of a mainstream religion, important material will be left out.  If Neopaganism can survive for a few hundred years, I’d expect to see artists creating robust, fulfilling spiritual practices, artwork, and narratives intrinsic to the tradition.

But that takes time.  And many influential Neopagan artists haven’t been born yet.  In the meantime, we have people practicing Paganism who reach for a guide to ethical behavior (or belief, or practice), wanting to do something different from Christianity or mainstream society, but instead finding a gap.

It’s not just newly-created religions that experience gaps.  Some Pagan paths are reconstructions of ancient pre-Christian practices.  Asatru and Heathenry are an attempt to reconnect with Germanic and Scandinavian spiritual practices, and there are numerous Druidic organizations that seek to reconnect with Celtic spiritual practices.  The same can be said for ancient Egyptian, Greek, or even Sumerian spiritual practices.

I am a proponent of authenticity whenever possible, so I see the reconstruction of these spiritual paths as a very good thing.  But even the most dedicated historian must admit we don’t have all the information about these ancient religions.  There’s just not enough information for more than an educated guess.

Many practitioners compromise.  We do our best to respect the historical record, then we use educated guesses and personal gnosis to fill in the details.  This process of filling the gaps is a type of response – we’re using our contemporary understanding of spirituality to respond to the historical data, and create a living tradition that we can practice.

Much of the filler in Paganism comes from the New Age movement, which in turn borrows material from Helen Blavatsky and her (controversial) Theosophist movement.  Surprisingly, some of the material also comes from Christian philosophies (though it might not seem like it).  Plus,  many Indian and Far Eastern spiritual practices have been imported, like yoga and Buddhism.  So, part of the answer to where we get the material to fill the gaps in Paganism is that we borrow it from other religions, or we attempt to fill it in with material from the culture we live in.

One of the gaps – and a central challenge with Paganism – is that it lacks a central and functional guide for ethical behavior.  Wicca has “An’ it harm none, do as ye will,” but problems with the Rede have been addressed by many folks more experienced than me.  Furthermore, because of the inherent diversity in Pagan religions, right behavior for me is not necessarily right behavior for you.  And worse, some Pagans aren’t even interested in changing their behavior, but rather finding acceptance and validation for their current behavior.  Without a central pillar of belief for guidance, Pagans must look elsewhere to fill the gaps and figure out what is appropriate in a given situation.

Since most Neopagans are raised in a culture dominated by Christian religion, it makes sense that some of our fundamental values stem from Christianity.  Even if we don’t realize it.  For example:  we think nothing of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to extend the life of a person for a few weeks, often without regard for the quality of that person’s life.  This is an extension of the Christian value that God has given humans life, and it’s not ours to decide when it ends.  It also reflects the Christian value to give people a chance to do good and/or “come to Jesus” in order to earn their way into Heaven.  If we truly believed in reincarnation (as many Neopagans do), it seems to me that we’d be more likely to allow someone a merciful end to their suffering, so their soul can move on and reincarnate in their next life.

In a similar example, a Buddhist might look at the amount of pain and suffering a sick person is experiencing, and how that suffering is magnified amongst family and loved ones.  Since a core ideal of Buddhism is to reduce suffering, euthanasia might be more acceptable to a Buddhist, in order to reduce the overall suffering in the world.

A different (and controversial) example might be Pagan attitudes towards money.  Many Neopagans (and especially Wiccans) refuse to pay or accept money for teaching or spell work.  The idea is that money is impure, and will exert a corrupting influence on the work.  This comes straight from the Christian philosophy that money is of the world, and therefore less pure than spiritual matters.  That is, immaterial, spiritual pursuits are godly, and therefore “better” than material things like money.  This attitude also comes from the Christian belief that God is responsible for miracles, and that humans oughtn’t take credit (or payment) for that which is God’s domain.  If we were truly Pagan, we might say that we incarnated into a material existence for a reason — perhaps to master the material realm as well as the spiritual.  Money is an excellent way to negotiate and transmit value, and to expand the influence of our will.  Furthermore, if we look to Nature, many animals participate in the exchange or saving of resources.  (Think squirrels hiding acorns, or birds collecting trinkets.)

Now, some of these ideas may come as a shock.  If you’ve divorced yourself from all things Christian, how is it possible that you’re still following Christian beliefs?  It’s normal to feel a little disrupted by this.  But consider pre-Christian tribal societies who ensure that their shaman is provided for.  Consider hoodoo, in which practitioners are paid for their services.  In some Buddhist countries, monks are only allowed to eat on what they collect in a donation bowl, and some monks offer blessings in exchange for donations.  Even in a basic Animist worldview, we give gifts to the spirits in order to maintain good relationships, so that the spirits give us gifts in return.  It is normal and natural to participate in an exchange of resources.  If you don’t feel that way, I invite you to consider where those beliefs come from.

Side note:  Also on the topic of money, maybe pay attention to how many Big Name Pagans have had to launch GoFundMe programs for medical or funeral expenses.  For fuck’s sake, people, you can give up a trip or two to Starbucks so that someone who deeply influenced your spirituality can afford to be cremated.  Buy their books, pay for their classes, and/or volunteer to help organize their events.

It seems to me that filling gaps in a spiritual path with something familiar is a normal and natural process.  When someone is following an ancient or lost spiritual tradition, they may not know how to behave in a given situation.  This could be because our technology is different, our laws are different, or simply lack of written resources.  If we encounter a situation that our spiritual path doesn’t prepare us for, we fall back on the default behavior from our surrounding culture.  Often, this comes from the way we were raised.  (We may not even be conscious of these behaviors!)  So in the case of money in Paganism, if we’re not specifically taught to make financial contributions to our Pagan community, we’ll probably just approach it by whatever default we grew up with.

In this case, Christianity.  (Maybe New Age or Atheism.)  And even if you were raised atheist or Pagan, you were still raised in a culture that is strongly influenced by Christian values, so you may have adopted Christian ethics without realizing they are Christian.  (I live deep in Mormon country.  Guess which religion I picked up counterproductive habits and beliefs from‽)

Want to see how Christianity has influenced regular culture?  Have a picnic in a cemetery.  How do you feel about that?  How do you expect to be treated by other visitors? Maybe you feel a little uncomfortable with the idea.  I know I do.  That’s a sign that we’re bumping up against a Christian value we didn’t realize we had.  I worry about what other people will think, or that I’ll be 86’ed from the cemetery, or even that ghosts or dead people will rise up and drag me to hell – which is another way Christian values have influenced society.  In comparison to non-Christian societies – Japanese or Tibetan, for instance – the difference is stark.  In Japan, ancestors are honored and welcomed – some people keep a shrine for ancestors at their home.  Tibetan Buddhists have extensive rituals for contemplating death; if our culture embraced something similar, perhaps we wouldn’t feel acutely uncomfortable at the idea of a picnic in a cemetery.

It’s only here in the West that hanging out with dead people seems uncomfortable.  Interestingly, people used to have picnics in cemeteries as recently as the 1800’s.  Also interestingly, it’s socially OK for people to go to a grave and talk to a dead person.  Humans seem to be wired for it.  But try the same thing with a Ouija board, and watch how many people come out of the woodwork to warn you about Darque Speerits.

So, we fill in the gaps in our spiritual practice – consciously, or unconsciously – with existing beliefs and practices.  It takes work to change those core beliefs.  That means challenging our preconceived notions and biases (which is always uncomfortable).  It means spending time looking at why we have knee-jerk reactions to things like paying for a Pagan event.  Or having a picnic in a cemetery.

Kudos to everyone out there who is doing that work.  If you’re not there yet, that’s cool too.  Just realize that this is uncomfortable, but necessary.  Your writing doesn’t get better when someone tells you it’s perfect.  You don’t walk into a karate class already knowing karate.  It’s perfectly reasonable to expect that you’re not already enlightened, and that you’ve got some hard lessons before you get better at your spiritual practice.

A response typically isn’t as fulfilling as a coherent path

There are more than a few Neopagans who end up back in Christianity because Paganism doesn’t fulfill them the way they expect.  They find that it doesn’t have the answers, it doesn’t solve an underlying anger, or it simply lacks depth and mystery.

This can happen when people engage Neopaganism as a response.  Sometimes, a trauma is so deep that a person has to find the most opposite path they can to Christianity.  What are some of the buzzwords that might attract people looking to rebel against Christianity?

Satanism.  Witchcraft.  Paganism.  Et cetera.

Using spirituality for revenge can only be satisfying for so long.  Longer, if it keeps getting a rise out of people.  But eventually, the satisfaction of “sticking it to the man” just doesn’t fill the craving for a spiritual connection.

One possible reason for this, is that when a spiritual path is defined in relation to another spiritual path, it’s not standing on its own.  It’s like a kid playing tug-of-war; we learn quickly that we fall down when the other kid lets go.

Side note:  This is not to suggest that everyone participates in a religion for a spiritual connection.  For many people, religion is just “something we do,” sort of like standing for the Pledge of Allegiance.  This might explain some people’s sensitivity about non-Christians living in America.  In their America, Christianity is just what everyone does.  Unsurprisingly, most mainstream religions actively seek to dominate their social landscape; that way, the religion (and the control scheme inherent in that religion) is inseparable from the cultural and social behaviors.  But I digress.

I was talking with my beautiful and intelligent wife about this the other day.  She mentioned that, in her view, Pagans who stop being Pagan were never really Pagan to begin with.  That is, they never had that full, deep spiritual Pagan experience.  I thought that was a good way to put it.  She also clarified that sometimes, people do find that deep spiritual experience in Paganism, but it’s not quite the right fit, and they keep looking.  Simply leaving Paganism isn’t necessarily an indicator of fulfillment; it’s a bit more nuanced.

Thing is, it can be difficult to distinguish a spiritually authentic practice from a knee-jerk spiritual response.  And that’s OK!  We need the freedom to be able to try things out, and see which practices and beliefs fit.  And to get rid of the ones that don’t work for us!

But that doesn’t mean that we just “do what feels right.”  Well, it kinda does, but substantial personal or spiritual growth requires a level of discomfort or sacrifice.  If a Neopagan only pursues “what feels right,” they risk locking into the pursuit of “positive” emotions, and attempting to suppress “negative” emotions.  How many times have you heard a Lightworker or New Ager (or even a Neopagan) say, “Quit bringing your negative vibes into this space!”?  Like, how else are we supposed to deal with life’s bullshit?  I find it unhealthy to expect people to be “on” and “positive” all the time.  (Not that I invite or tolerate drama in my groups.  I just think it’s important not to condemn “dark” or “negative” emotions.  Or even a healthy level of discomfort.)

Side note: if a person has exploitive, coercive, or harmful impulses that “feel right,” we should not encourage a person to indulge those impulses at the expense of others!

Many of the emotions that our society considers to be “negative” – things like sorrow, depression, anger, conflict, etc. – are feelings that we have for a reason.  There’s a reason we get angry when someone treats us poorly.  There’s a reason we cry when we’re feeling sad.  If we just lock those feelings away, or pretend we don’t feel them, or anesthetize ourselves against them with fancy crystals (or drugs), we’re not living an authentic or fulfilling spiritual path.

Furthermore, and more to the central point of this essay, all of these actions are a response to something else.  We feel bad, so we respond by seeking out healing and protection.  Or validation.  And those definitely have a place.  My experience, though, is that validation, healing, and protection are a bottomless pit – no matter how much you throw at them, it’ll never be enough.  On the other hand, karate is hard (physically and mentally), but it’s very fulfilling (to me) to work towards an ideal.  I think spirituality is similar.  If we’re following a path that’s coherent and authentic, and matching ourselves to that path (whether it’s set forth by a guru or our higher self), it might be hard or uncomfortable.  But it’s more likely to be fulfilling than a path based on emotional reactions, or reactions to situations we encounter.

I mean, I get it.  I experienced several childhood traumas, and I know how good validation and healing energy feel.  They’re soothing, and it just feels good to be free of the bullshit for a while.  But immersing myself in the Light isn’t actually helping me to deal with the ugly things in my life.  Things might appear pretty on the surface, but there’s a mountain of shit building up in my unconscious – unless I put on my emotional hip waders and shovel shit through the pipelines.

Validation is good, until it leads to stagnation

One of the hallmarks of modern Paganism, at least on social media and the groups I’ve experienced, is the push for validation.  Often, this takes the form of “You do what feels right,” or “Everyone’s path is valid,” or even “It’s not up to you to question another person’s experience.”

And Gods help you if you challenge someone’s beliefs or spiritual path.

Here’s the thing.  If your spiritual path is valid, it can weather criticism – and if it can’t, then you should be questioning it.  One of the factors I consider for the healthiness of a group is how well the teachings (or the leader) can stand up to criticism.

Or to a challenge.

I’ve noticed a lot of folks bristle at the idea of being challenged.  There seems to be an unspoken rule in American culture that we’re not supposed to “talk back.”  Are you uncomfortable asking for a lower price when you make an expensive purchase, like a TV or a cell phone?  Do you feel like it’s rude not to take someone at their word?  Do you get anxious when you need to say “no” to someone, without having an excuse as to why you can’t accommodate them?  These are all symptoms of discomfort with a challenge.

Let’s put some context around the idea of a challenge.  A challenge isn’t necessarily a demand to do what I say!  A challenge should be seen more like asking, “Are you sure about that?”  Consider two male deer.  One of them says, “I’m taking this herd of females for myself.”  The other says “Fuck you, we’ll see about that,” and they engage in a discussion/contest to decide the winner.  Or maybe a more peaceful example; two English professors get into an argument about whether J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a metaphor for World War II (with the ring symbolizing nuclear weapons, and the Orcs representing the Nazis), or whether it’s a story that reminisces about the loss of pastoral farming to industrialization.  They might argue with each other, challenge each other’s positions, offer support for their positions.  It could even become a heated discussion!  At the end, though, they’ll probably both walk away thinking their perspective is right, even though the other had good points.  (Interestingly, both of these professors can be correct.)

We experience challenges all the time.  When a woman stands up on a plane to protest and prevent a deportation, we applaud – she challenges authority and refuses to surrender her phone.  On a more personal note, I feel awkward when someone challenges me.  Like, if I go to the deli counter and ask for shaved ham, and the counter lady says “We don’t do shaved ham here,” I feel uncomfortable – but that doesn’t mean I can’t challenge her back, saying “I’ve gotten shaved ham before, other people slice it thin like that for me.”

There’s a time and place for validation, and there’s a time and place for challenges.  Including keeping our cool when we find ourselves challenged by others.  We like it when other people validate us for what we’re thinking or feeling or saying or believing.  It’s a lot harder when people challenge us.  But we’re all different people, with different ideas and thoughts.  Given the diversity inherent in Paganism, it’s inevitable that we will encounter people who challenge our beliefs (or whose very existence stands as a challenge to our beliefs).

So it behooves us to become passingly comfortable with being challenged.  And with challenging others.

In Neopaganism, there’s an unspoken rule that we aren’t supposed to question or challenge people on their beliefs.  The whole point, I think, is to nurture people, to validate them, to make them feel safe and welcomed.  And these are great ideals (though I would argue that they come not from Neopaganism or reconstructionism, but rather the Hippie movement of the 1960-70’s).  But how can we prevent people from being exploited, coerced, or harmed if we don’t challenge the people doing the exploitation, coercion, or harm?  Very often, predators begin grooming their potential victims by validating them and making them feel good.

So validation is not inherently good; rather, it’s a tool used to achieve a particular purpose, good or bad.

More poignantly – how do we coexist with other Pagans who believe differently, if we need validation all the time?  It would be more reasonable to expect differing beliefs might create tension.  Likewise, it would be reasonable to expect to be challenged, just as we might challenge others.  This is the price we pay for the freedom to choose our individual spiritual path – we have to find a way to live in tension with other people and paths that are different from ours.

One way to do this, is to remember that being challenged isn’t the end of the world.

The unquestioning validation I see in many Neopagan groups is also unhelpful in the long term for personal and spiritual growth.  Why would you need to work on your habit of dominating a conversation, if you’re already perfect and beautiful just the way you are?  What’s the point in working to commit more to your group, if you’re already accepted as a slacker?  And worse – if a fake psychic is bleeding someone for thousands of dollars, how are we going to call them out without violating the “sacred truth” that all paths are valid?  Hint:  we can’t.  And people do spend thousands of dollars on fake spiritual shit.

Side note:  As usual, not all spiritual things are shit.  But some people use fake spiritual shit to prey on vulnerable people.  We need a better way to discern predators, which I think involves challenging them.  Which in turn means that real Pagans need to get more comfortable with responding to being challenged.  More of that “price to pay.”

Now, clearly there’s a lot of nuance on this topic.  We don’t want society hurting people because of who they are, and we don’t want people feeling threatened for holding a belief or viewpoint.  We also don’t want to leave room for people to hold a harmful view, justifying it under the banner of diversity.  (Like, for example, the wackos advocating for legalization of pedophilia.)  I think that there’s a way that we can challenge people on their views without it being a condemnation.  That happens on both sides of the discussion.  As a challenger, we can be more careful to avoid condemning a person before they have a chance to clarify their position.  As someone being challenged, we can adjust our perception of a challenge as an opportunity to clarify, to which we can respond appropriately.

(Again, we don’t need to justify our inner emotions and beliefs.  But if someone is asking us why we seem to be behaving unethically, we should be able to give a good response.  If we realize that we’re not, in fact, behaving ethically, we should be able to recognize it and change our behavior.)

The same goes for spiritual paths.  The Jewish religion, as I understand it, exists in a constant state of debate by rabbis over the interpretation of scripture.  They have an official scripture, but the meaning of those words is subject to interpretation – and it’s the debate over interpretation which forms the central pillar of the religion.  You could make the same argument about the conflict over teaching Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and whether it should be included or excluded from the canon for its depiction of race.  The point is the tension between those arguments – because often, each side can be right, even if they conflict.

In Neopaganism, then, there is certainly a place for validation – we all like our views reinforced.  But not when it leads to harm or exploitation.  (We would not validate someone’s beliefs who advocated for having sex with underage children.  We could validate someone who had a spiritual experience with a deity or spirit.)  There is also a place for challenging beliefs, or having your beliefs challenged – if it’s a valid and defensible position, it should be able to stand up to the challenge.  If your beliefs can’t stand up to a challenge, then perhaps that’s a sign to clarify, revise, or adjust your beliefs.

Final note on this point:  to challenge something does not equate to condemning or invalidating it.  Rather, a challenge is more like saying, “are you sure about that, or do you need to clarify your point?”  A squirrel might challenge a thistle looking for a meal; the thistle’s thorny response sends the squirrel looking elsewhere.  Another challenge might look like, “Was that really a ghost, or did the light flicker because of the guys practicing Jujitsu upstairs?”  A lot of people get defensive about being challenged.  But the older I get, and the more I learn about healthy boundaries and interpersonal skills, the more I believe we need to rethink the way we consider challenges.  Rather than a condemnation, maybe we consider a challenge as an invitation to explore our position (or our beliefs) more deeply?  Just a thought.  There’ll probably be more on this in a later post.

Often, we don’t realize we’re stuck

My wife called me out the other day for playing a victim.  It wasn’t my intent; I’ve suffered some shitty things in my life, which still affect me on an unconscious level.  Also, our modern society gives special consideration and power to victims.  I found myself stuck – my body was reacting in a way my conscious mind wasn’t aware of, and I was relying on old habits to navigate a difficult situation.  (You might say I was reacting.)

I’ve had to pull the victim card to be taken seriously, as a white cis-gendered male Pagan.  Apparently, I can’t possibly know what it’s like to be sexually harassed, or have to fear for my life when I walk out the door, or to be in a domestic situation where my grip on reality is in question.  (Actually, I do.)  I think there’s a tendency in Neopaganism to validate people’s victimhood, and to take people more seriously because of it.

As usual, I’m not saying that victims deserve to be victims.  (And at this point, I think if you’re reading that into what I’m saying, you’re deliberately acting like a troll.)

But it’s easy, I think, to get stuck in victim-mode.  When a psychiatric condition gives you control over the way the school treats your kid, it’s tempting to spam it as a way of influencing the school.  When you get attention and compassion from talking about your trauma, it’s tempting to keep bringing it up.  When you’re excused from being held accountable or responsible because of your victim status, it’s tempting to keep lean harder into it.

But the mindset and energy of being a victim places all the agency outside ourselves.  While it might feel empowering, it’s actually the opposite.  I’m a little wary about even saying this.  It feels like a slippery slope to victim-blaming (and it can be, but is not my intention).  But if we’re doing magic to try to make our lives better, then on some level we have to acknowledge that we want some level of control over our lives.

Playing the victim locks us into the space of responding to things.  If you think about it, it’s very much like leaving the Church because of a disagreement.  Or pulling harder in a tug-of-war.  If you’ve experienced trauma, it’s important to get help to triage and heal from that wound, whether it’s physical or psychological (or both).  But just like the problem with the tug-of-war, if we keep holding on to our victim status, it perpetuates the trauma on the other end of that dynamic.

The trauma on the other side of victimhood might be an abuser or attacker, or it might be an authority who takes action on our behalf.  In the case of an abuser, perpetuating our victim status keeps the attacker present on the other side of the abuse.  In the case of an authority, playing the victim surrenders all our personal agency to the authority to take action on our behalf.  Staying in victim mentality locks us into a position where we are always operating from a place of responding, instead of being proactive or exercising our agency (and will).

So, just like it’s important as a Pagan to have a stable core of beliefs and practices, it’s important for each of us as an individual Pagan to stand on our own.   If we really are seeking to be personally empowered, we’re not helping ourselves by staying in reaction-mode.  We can’t simultaneously use magic or spirituality to improve our life our our situation, and also use a victim status to navigate our life’s narrative.  The two are not compatible.

I’m doing this too, as I write this.  Who would I be, if I hadn’t been bullied into accepting affection when I was young?  Who would I be if any of the shitty things that happened to me, hadn’t happened?  At some point – at least for me – I need to decide who I am and what I do.  Not in response to some outside influence, but as an expression of who I am.

And I know that some folks might take my saying this as victim-blaming, or victim-shaming, or whatever.  Not my intent.  Again, if you’re the victim of a crime, go to the police.  Get help.  Avoid contact with people who try to keep you in a harmful situation.  But also realize that it’s easy to get stuck in that victim mentality.  You’ll probably find your life works better when you’re free from reaction-mode.

The duality of response versus authenticity

In general, I don’t like to oversimplify a topic into two opposites.  For example, I feel like it’s problematic to simplify the world into “good vs. evil,” or “of the light vs. not of the light.”  With that said, I still find value in looking at a topic through a duality, so long as I keep in mind that the metaphor is not the reality.

So it is with Paganism.  In this case, I’m thinking “response vs. authenticity.”  I can be Pagan as a response to the people and institutions around me, or I can be Pagan because that’s the most authentic expression of my spiritual self.

It seems like this perspective might be useful across a range of different topics.  If victimhood is a response, then what might it look like if we flipped to the other side of the duality, and approached trauma with agency?  (This is a train of thought that I’ve found helpful in dealing with anxiety, depression, and other side-effects of trauma.

One problem with getting locked into response-mode is that it becomes easier for other people to manipulate you.  That might seem counterintuitive, given the current political climate.  After all, most of the political left in the US is geared towards resisting the Republican regime.  But here’s the trick – resistance is largely ineffective at enacting legislation.  Sure, there’s a lot of noise, but actual policy changes are few and far between.  What’s worse, people on the political right – from the Executive branch all the way to twitter-trolls – are acting in such a way as to evoke a response from the left, which functions as a distraction from the actual legislation and policy that’s being enacted.

In other words, when we’re stuck in response-mode, we’re letting other people set the terms on which we’re engaging with a given topic.  All someone has to do is say “The Pussy Church is anti-Trans,” and suddenly every Pagan rushes to their keyboard to CAPS-LOCK their opinion.  Only, no one seems to notice that by making the initial (and inflammatory) statement, the original poster locked every outraged respondent into the choice of voicing their outrage, or risking being ostracized as a TERF.  No one seems to realize that there are other possible responses to this statement.

Consider the alternative.  If a person has come to terms with their own views on transgender people in Paganism, and their beliefs and practices are authentically developed, a much different situation happens.  If a person is a Dianic Wiccan, they might say “The Pussy Church seems similar to our practices, but we don’t know enough about them to really judge.”  If a person is a God-Goddess Wiccan, they might say “It’s not my place to decide one way or another for another person’s path, but for me the magic and sexuality only works with biological gender.”  A queer Pagan might say, “Every human falls somewhere on a spectrum between gay and straight, masculine and feminine, and a variety of other traits, so the Pussy Church isn’t at all for us.”  A Transgender Pagan might say, “The Pussy Church is a bunch of assholes, and I want nothing to do with them.”

In other words, having an intrinsic and authentic belief system gives each of us a perspective against which we can measure other perspectives.  Furthermore, a well-developed belief system helps us to be more resilient and less threatened by beliefs that we might not agree with.  Alternately, if I’m shaky on my basic beliefs, I might feel threatened by a challenge presented simply by the existence of another group.

Side note:  a challenge doesn’t need to be articulated.  Simply existing can be a challenge to another person’s identity and perspective.  As a white, straight, cis-gendered man, I’m sure my very existence – not to mention my hubris expressing an opinion – acts as a challenge to people who believe people like me are what’s wrong with the world.  But if we’re committed to the idea that we’re all humans, then we must acknowledge that a person’s opinions are valid, regardless of their class.  If it’s wrong to silence someone for being transgender, it’s likewise wrong to silence someone for being cisgender.

To me, it seem that the most measured, balanced, and nuanced opinions about complex Pagan topics come from people with a strong and well-developed core practice.

On getting better…

This whole essay is intended to give you things to think about, in the hopes that you examine your own beliefs and actions.  Hopefully, this leads you to make deliberate adjustments to become more effective, more authentic, more compassionate, more spiritual, more coherent.

You might not agree with me, and that’s OK.  (See Validation and Stagnation above, where the price of freedom of speech and thought is having to find a way to deal with people who disagree.)

Here’s the thing, though.  If it’s true that response-mode makes us more susceptible to manipulation, and creates a mindset where we’re defined in relation to something else, and sabotages our ability to take action in the world – then it makes sense that ditching that mindset would be essential for becoming a more effective Pagan (and magician).  So – we’ll be more effective Pagans if we pursue the beliefs, practices, and ethics that lead us towards having more agency, and away from being reactionary to outside influences.  I see this as a Very Good Thing.

But I can tell you from experience that it is not a comfortable thing.  The only suggestion I can offer on that front, is that you have to make peace with the edge of your discomfort.  If you’re always comfortable, you’re not growing.  But you don’t want to push yourself into stress or traumatic discomfort either.  It might be helpful to consider a teaching from Yoga to find your edge, listen to your body, and pay attention to the line between “I can’t do this” (which is a lie) and “I shouldn’t do this” (which is the truth).

So.  Some practical actions you can take to start getting better, and move out of the response mindset.

  1. Take a class, or join an existing movement.  One of the great features of an existing program of study is that it’s been tested to work by multiple students and teachers.  In some respects, there really is no good substitute for having a mentor observe, coach, and correct you from a position of experience.  Also, if you’re not in the habit of self-change, joining an existing and established group can help you learn how to adapt to new information and create change for yourself.
  2. Learn to tolerate differences.  By this I don’t mean shouting (or typing in all caps) that trans women are women.  What I mean is that it’s helpful to cultivate a bone-level knowing that it’s OK for someone else to have a different opinion than you without it being a threat.  If you feel good with where you’re at on this, take it up a notch and start letting your existence sit in tension with a person (or idea) you disagree with, without needing to yell or convince them.  Just let the differences sit.
  3. Learn and practice setting and enforcing healthy boundaries.  Also learn and practice respecting other people’s boundaries.
  4. Learn how to let shit go.  Seriously.  One way you can think about this is, that if you are not a member of a marginalized group, or if you’re not personally affected by an issue surrounding a marginalized group, maybe take a step back.  Not every social injustice is worth amping up your blood pressure and stress level.  The more you cultivate the ability to let an issue go, the better you’ll be able to resist the manipulations of trolls.
  5. Develop a deep personal practice. This may take some searching and experimentation to find a good fit.  And don’t need to feel like you can’t switch horses if you need to. I switched martial arts after 15 years.  I definitely have some habits to adjust, but that depth of practice gives me an edge many other practitioners lack.  If you take the same approach to your spiritual practice, you’ll have similar results.  So – if you like Wicca, cast a circle every day for a year, and draw down the Moon every cycle.  If you’re into Sumerian practices, celebrate all the holy days for a couple years, and find a prayer or devotional to perform every day.  If you’re going towards Norse, same thing – read the stories over and over, and practice regular rituals.  Whatever you decide to do, you need to put miles on it.  This helps you develop some of the deep bone-level understanding of your spirituality, and it’ll help you build a solid core practice.  Which, as you read above, will help you become more resilient in the face of challenges.

As you can guess, none of this happens overnight.  My guess is that if you’ve read this far, you’re probably someone who values delayed gratification, so some of this may be preaching to the choir.  But I’ve done it both ways – I’ve whipped up a quick programming skill to perform a task, and I’ve spent years practicing the same series of moves.  I can say, with no hesitation, which one is more effective in creating lasting and meaningful change.  (You can probably guess too.)

Do you have thoughts on Paganism as a reaction?  Send me an email at dmkoffer at gmail dot com.

Everyday Paganism – Elemental Earth

I wrote a post last year about Elemental Water, with the intent of writing one about Elemental Earth.

But anyway, I built a deck.  (Well, I helped my dad build stairs for a deck.)  And a website.  And I did some rebuilding on my personal beliefs and values.  And I think there’s something here, in the way that we move earth and create structures to support our daily lives.

The new stairs, attached to an existing deck. A solid construction 40 years ago let us build these as an addition, instead of a whole replacement project. My photo.

Not another gods-damned element post

I have this project I’m working on, about how elements and Pagan practices function in the desert.  I thought someone had recently written a book about this, but after about a half-hour of google-fu, I can’t seem to find it.  (Shoot me a link if you know which book/author I’m thinking of.)

And I thought, “You know, maybe I could discuss the different ways that the elements manifest in the desert, because it’s different from the way magic manifests on, say, the coast where there’s plenty of water.”

Only, I’ve seen a metric fuck-ton of Pagan books organized around the elements.  I have a lousy one sitting on my desk right now.  So, if I’m tired of it, other people probably are too.

Accordingly, I ask your forgiveness for the tired old “elemental Pagan post” here.  Hopefully some of these ideas will be fresh and interesting, and challenge you to think about your life and your magic in a different way.

Dirt and soil

You’re looking at the back of the stairs. On the left is the pile of dirt we dug out.  And when I say “we,” I mean my dad had it mostly done by the time I got there.

We don’t really think about dirt very much.  I mean, we sweep it off our furniture and out of our homes when we’re cleaning.  We scrape it off our shoes before we come inside.  Some folks dump dirt into a pot, and poke a seed into it with some water.  You may be familiar with dirt roads (and all their questionable charm).

So dirt isn’t inherently bad.  We walk on it all day long, and it’s the origin of the food we eat.  Like water, there is an appropriate place (and shape) for dirt.

When building dad’s deck, the first thing that had to happen was anchoring the base of the stairs to the ground.  Now you might think that’s a pretty simple thing, but the ground wasn’t level, and it had poor water drainage.  (Pooling water could cause the wood to rot).

This speaks to the ability of earth and soil to facilitate growth.  In this case, we don’t want the growth of bacteria and fungi, which would damage the wood.  But we could take that soil and put it somewhere else to level the ground, or we could put it in a planter pot for growing flowers.

There is a mystery here, if you care to examine it a little closer.  Consider Earth not just in its aspect of “rock” and “stability,” but “structure,” as in providing the structure for a plant to send roots into.  Consider how that structure offers not just physical structural support, but also holds on to nutrients and moisture that the plant needs.  The plant has to take the nutrients, and has to do the work of pushing the earth aside as the roots grow.  But the earth holds onto those things, as a sort of unlocked potential.

So anyway, to build the deck we had to move some dirt.  With a shovel.  Which, if you think about it, is probably super relevant to starting any new project in your life.  You need to do some work — actual work, not just “thoughts” or “intentions,” but picking up a shovel and digging.  In this case, we dug a long, narrow hole to start on the base of our stairs.

Sand

A closeup of the light-grey sand, with bricks nestled in. After we dug out the dirt, we filled the hole with this sand. It lets the bricks slide a little for a good fit, and helps the water drain.

When I think of sand, I think about coarse silica sand that looks like little balls, about the size of those little styrofoam balls that break off packing material.  But this is a specialized form of sand specifically used for well drilling, and your idea of sand is probably a little different.

Other kinds of sand are beach sand, which includes tiny fragments of rock and glass and seashells, desert sand which may be rounded or sharp, or hourglass sand.  Maybe sand-dune-sand, or sandbox-sand, or something like that.

So after digging a hole, we filled it with sand.  Two main reasons for this were that a) it’s easier to shift things around to seat the base of the stairs, and b) the holes between the sand grains are large enough to let the water drain.

A recent post I read on magic talked about using magic to cross a big gap in your life.  It suggests that many people try to fill the gap between [where you are right now] and [where you want to be] with a few big boulders.  (The boulders represent large actions or enchantments.)  But in reality, it’s a whole bunch of little decisions and actions and enchantments that actually get us across.  Like sand.

Incidentally, this idea works pretty universally across metaphors.  It’s a lot easier to make a whole bunch of little decisions and actions to bridge the gap between [where you are] and [where you want to be].  Want to get a black belt?  Each training class is a grain of sand.  Want to be a musician?  Each time you practice is a grain of sand.  Boulders, then, would be like the “silver-bullet” solutions, the one-clean-shot-to-fix-my-problems type of thinking.  Which are a) a lot of effort and b) place a lot of faith in one or two actions, which c) can roll or go wonky and mess up your project.

In reality, unless you’re one of those rare people who can fix things by flipping an internal switch or shooting a personal demon with a silver bullet, filling the gap is the result of a whole bunch of tiny actions and choices.  A.k.a. sand.

And because sand is a bunch of little chunks of stuff (or metaphorically, small actions and choices), a mistake with one doesn’t undo the results of all the others.  And it becomes a lot easier to adjust and shift around all those other little grains in order to make the bigger things fit.  And when you do put bigger stuff on top of your sand (or pile of actions and choices), not only is it easier to make them fit, it offers superior support to bear the weight of those bigger things.

Bigger things like bricks

A row of bricks resting on the sand. Who needs a perfectly level rock to build on, when you can make one?

You should be able to see that, on top of the gray sand, we used lie a line of red bricks.  One interesting thing about bricks is that they are a) solid like stone, and b) manufactured in a specific shape.

Ever been to your local courthouse?  It’s probably made of stone, like marble.  Or maybe the interior has polished flagstones that you walk on.  That effect is pretty impressive by itself.  Now consider the effort that goes in to cutting a block of stone from a quarry, then polishing it, then hoisting it up to put it in place.

I mean sure, polished stone is impressive, and it lasts a long time.  But that permanence takes a lot of effort.  (And machinery.)

So bricks work as a compromise.  More permanent and weather-resistant than wood or soil, easier to work with than cut marble.  By building a solid foundation with these blocks of solid building material, we created a foundation that will allow the stairs to be fully supported, well-drained, and still bear the weight of people walking up and down the stairs.

Your beliefs might function like bricks in your life/magical practice.  Or you might have a set of basic techniques and skills on which you base your practice.  These are the big things, important and foundational.  Your world would (rightly) be rocked if one of these broke or shifted, so it’s a good idea to be intentional with the bricks you choose to build your practice out of.

Have you ever known someone (or been someone) who had a crisis of faith?  Where things you held deeply as true were revealed to be false?  I have (on both counts).  You go a little crazy when this happens.  Like when your deck rots and starts falling apart, and maybe someone trips and almost tumbles down.  But it’s also an opportunity to build a good, solid foundation to support your new deck.  (Ahem, I mean spiritual practice.)

Wood

You can see how the supports are structured, and how everything attaches and reinforces other parts of the structure. Also note the metal hardware for attachment, which is (coincidentally) also a manifestation of Earth.  The deck has seen some weather, so you might notice a little bit of warping in the wood.

To me, Wood seems to fit in with elemental Earth.  Perhaps because it’s solid, you can build with it, and it grows out of the soil.  Even more than brick, wood can be cut to the shape you need.  And assembled.  But there are some things to be aware of with wood.

Wood works like a compromise between the solidity of stone and the fluidity of water.  (Maybe because trees need both soil and water to grow?)  Wood is easier to cut and shape than stone.  It can be hauled around and moved more easily.  It lasts a long time, and its lifespan can be increased with treatments like paint or lacquer.

Different woods have different grain structures, which respond differently to stress.  We used pine in this project.  It has long, straight-ish grains which bear weight well.  It does require a seal coat; we left the wood unfinished over the winter, and moisture has seeped in and cracked the wood near the grains.

Other woods, like Oak, are harder to work, but some folks like the way they look finished.  Exotic woods like Mahogany are usually used in high-end furniture for their interesting swirls and patterns, but might not be worth the expense for an outdoor deck.  Softer woods like balsa-wood are used in craft projects, or for their extremely light weight – but would not be strong enough for a large project like a deck.

For the combination of cost, durability, and ease of use, wood is often the choice for building projects.  I mean, can you imagine a wrought-iron deck?  Cool, but heavy and expensive.  Or a plastic deck?  Just no.

Like digging out the soil, we had to shape the wood to fit our needs.  Each support beam was cut from a single two-by-twelve piece of lumber, with a zig-zag cut out for the stairs.  Each stair piece had to be cut to length, then attached with screws.  Someone will probably replace this deck in another 40 years, which is an excellent compromise between structure and longevity.

Fasteners

Screws, nails, and brackets, all made out of steel.  So, again, Earth.  And like bricks, these are Earth molded into shapes that are useful for getting things to stick together.

We put the stairs together, got the steps all bracketed in, supported, and screwed together.  And then we walked up and down the stairs.  And I’ll be damned if it didn’t feel like walking on solid ground.

There was a slight glitch in one of the measurements.  Dad said, “Walk on it, your feet will tell you if it’s level or not.”  And sure enough, I could feel the ones that were a little out of whack.  Everything was still rock-solid, but the ones that were mis-measured were tipped forward just a bit.

There are a couple of mysteries here, if you care to ponder on it.

Implications

Me, standing next to an outcropping at the City of Rocks.

So what do we do with all this?

Well, first of all, you don’t have to accept your life the way you find it.  You can use a shovel to move the dirt around, or wood and brick and steel to build something different.

You can build structures in your life that are custom-fitted to their application.  Like a brick for supporting a larger structure, or a sand-pit for water (emotional) drainage.  Earth can be used to fasten things together, like a gold ring to fasten two people together.  Or maybe a piercing to symbolize commitment to a spiritual path.

Because Earth has to be moved, shaped, cut, and fastened, your life-structure will work better if it’s built to a plan.  For example, you want to buy a house.  You map out the things you need, like a blueprint.  You save for a down-payment, which works like creating a solid foundation.  You have a home inspection, which tests the stability of your structure.  Maybe you look at property insurance to work like a support beam, to keep your home supported in case of an emergency.

If you measure before you build, and include a decent amount of architectural support, your plans will be a lot more solid.  Solid, in this case, means resistant to disruption.  So, a good plan will be able to weather things like a low paycheck, or an unforeseen expense.

Earth doesn’t move with intent, it moves with work.  You can’t just wish something was different.  You have to actually put your hands on it and expend physical energy to make Earth move.

Even if a rock is broken apart into thousands of tiny grains of sand, it’s still Earth, and still retains some of those properties.  And can actually function better than solid rock for some applications.

Earth facilitates growth, providing the structure for plants to grow, take in nutrients and water, and stand upright.  It can also hold water and allow mold and bacteria to grow in places you might not want.  So be mindful and intentional about the combination of Earth and Water.

If you’re looking at Earth as a metaphor for spiritual energy (or even tuning in with Earth as an elemental force), I think a lot of these things still apply.  Earth doesn’t like to move, so it’s great for structure or stability.  It takes work to move or change your spiritual beliefs or structures.  Earth tends to be heavy.  It also provides substance in which other spiritual practices can grow, or on which other things can rest.  So you might make daily meditation a “rock” on which you base the rest of your practices.  Or you might spend some time carving out a mythological belief system, which works to provide meaning and opportunity for your practice.

Dealing with unwanted Earth can be difficult.  One example is when physical objects impact the human body.  It can be annoying like a splinter, traumatic like a flying brick, or even deadly like a bullet.  It can be the unyielding Earth of a set of stairs you’re falling down, which bruise your body before they yield.  Since we live in the physical world, it’s helpful to have a mind for your physical safety when dealing with solid objects.

Final Thoughts

I feel like there’s a lot of Paganism that’s mostly in our heads.  That can be fantasy wish-fulfillment, like pretending fairies and dragons are really visiting you in person, or it could be imagining that running a group in which no one has to work or pay money is somehow feasible.

This article series is an attempt to get us out of our heads, and into the real world.  How do the Elements work if you’re a plumber?  Or a drywall installer?  Or a bank teller?  What can we do with different elements?  How do we manage them?

And it’s a reminder that we do live in a physical world.  And making changes often takes work, effort, time, money, or materials.

What are your thoughts?  Do you have any experiences with elemental Earth that you find relevant?  Please share in the comments!

 

 

Elements of Pagan Ethics and Philosophy

Samhain 2017. Candles, incense, scrying mirror, bell, dandelion root, tarot cards, amulet. A great family get-together, if you’re OK with ghosts. This is an example of how something that’s good and ethical for me might not be good and ethical for someone else.

First post on a new platform!  I’m taking some time with this one, as a magical act to set the tone for this blog.  These are some of the thoughts I have around ethics, that will hopefully guide me forward.

One hallmark of different cultures around the world is the ways they teach people how to behave appropriately.  What is appropriate — and what is not— is relative to the group.  This can be seen in simple cultural differences, such as taking your shoes off in a Japanese person’s home (or not, in an American person’s home).  Sometimes these values come from religion, sometimes from the social group, sometimes the town or state a person lives in.

Modern Neopaganism, however, seems to be lacking in any kind of central code of behavior.  For example, some Pagan groups value inclusiveness as most important; others, discernment; others, tradition.  I’d like to dig in a little on the reasons different Pagans have different values, and where those values come from.

I’d also like to challenge the Pagan community on our ethical practices.  Where do we get our ethics?  Are our actions coherent with our ethics and our beliefs?  What’s the source for our ethics, if we reject certain compilations of stories from the Middle East?

Our dog, Tattoo. He feels most comfortable hiding under blankets.  I suspect he moonlights as either a monk or a jedi.

On comfort

One of the mainstays of many Pagan books is to tell the reader “do what feels right,” or “do what feels comfortable.”  This suggests that your intuition should be your primary guide, and that it will tell you whether a practice is “right” or “wrong.”  (I put “right” and “wrong” in quotes, because what’s right for one person might be wrong for another.)

(Quick side note:  Anytime you find a “should” or an “ought to,” you’ve probably found ethics.  Note the “should” in this example of “doing what feels right,” which offers a model for our behavior.  Looking for the “shoulds” and “ought-tos” will help, if you’re new to ethics.)

I’m not entirely sure where the suggestion to “follow our intuition” came from.  It feels New-Agey, or it may be a spiritual offshoot of the Hippie movement.  In some respects, this is great advice.  Discomfort can be an important indicator of danger or threat.  So if you feel uncomfortable doing the Great Rite with some old dude who swears you’re The Chosen One™ you should probably listen to that.

But in terms of life experience and personal growth, it’s a little more complicated than just whether or not you’re comfortable.  If you’re always comfortable, you’re not growing.  (For example, if you’re always sitting on your couch eating potato chips, you may be comfortable, but your overall health and fitness is not growing.)  And sometimes we need to challenge ourselves — and our comfort zone — in order to check our bias, to learn something new, or even to have an authentic conversation with someone.

I haven’t found a precise way to differentiate between “this might hurt me” discomfort, versus “this challenges me” discomfort.  My yoga instructor used to say, when leading us deep into a pose, that we should listen to our bodies.  He told us that if our body says “I can’t” it’s usually wrong, and we should push deeper.  But if our body says “I shouldn’t,” that’s usually a sign that we’re about to do some damage, and to ease off.  I’m not sure there’s a better way to explain the difference, but I strongly encourage you to figure out for yourself what’s helpful discomfort, and what’s unhelpful discomfort.  Living in this world involves dealing with some degree of it, and life goes much more smoothly if you can tell the difference between them.

So – should a conversation about ethics be comfortable?  Maybe.  Probably not.  These are tough, sticky, nuanced issues, and a lot of times there aren’t any easy answers.  In reading this blog, you might find yourself challenged and uncomfortable.  There may be ideas or concepts that you find outrageous or unacceptable.  Your inclination may be to appeal to some authority to silence me, by labeling my words something socially abhorrent (such as “hate speech” or “promoting rape culture,” which is not my intent, but of which I have been accused).

But we can’t really talk about things unless we can talk about them.  Plus, if you believe that having a conversation – or even mentioning a particular word – is dangerous or traumatic, you’re investing that topic or word with an awful lot of power.  It can take on a life of its own, like the Hebrew golem.

I’m approaching this as a good-faith discussion about difficult topics.  I’m considering it to be a dialogue, or at least an invitation to think about issues, but not as a sermon.  My goal is to reduce the amount of suffering in the Pagan community, and to help reduce the amount of bad information, toxic beliefs, and self-delusion in Paganism.

If that sounds kind of Buddhist, yes — Buddhism has a very strong influence on my philosophy.  I haven’t found a better system of practice or ethics, and I feel like Buddhism offers a robust  and well-tested system for addressing ethics.  (I’m not the first person to stumble on the way Buddhism informs Paganism; you can find more here and here.)

So.  If you find yourself distressed about the things I write, I encourage you to sit with those things for a little while and explore why they bother you.  Remember, they are words.  Though words have power, you have control over the degree to which those words affect you.  Also, you’re welcome to challenge me or initiate a discussion.  Sometimes I make  incorrect assumptions, or my logic may be faulty, or I might not be aware of the details of a situation.  (I mean, I’m human.  Like you.)  If you find yourself rendered incapable of functioning by this blog, it might be worth sitting down with a counselor to discuss more effective coping strategies for a stranger’s words on the internet.

The Maple in my front yard.

Where do Pagans get our ethics?

If comfort isn’t always an accurate measure for determining whether an action is right or wrong, then what is?

As a Pagan, my instinct is to turn to Nature for inspiration.  I can look out my front window at my big old Maple and watch the buds bloom in the spring, and the leaves fall in autumn.  I can watch seed pods helicopter down on a calm, sunny afternoon.  I can relate those to the cycles in my own life, whether it’s seasonal depression, or the cycles of productivity and rest.  I can look at how seeds germinate in my garden and grow to produce fruit and vegetables.  I can watch squirrels play chase around the trees, and compare it to the way little humans like to run and chase each other around.

But Nature seems to be a rare source of ethics for most Pagans.  I suspect a lot of Pagans get their ethics is from political and social circles.  For example, West Coast Pagans tend to place high value on inclusivity.  This is evident in the Pantheacon’s recent decisions to favor inclusion of transgender people over women-born-women.

I’m not intending this as judgment of either Pantheacon or the Red Tent Temple group.  My position is, in general, that private groups are free to operate as they wish, so long as no one is being coerced or harmed.  (By “harmed,” I mean a physical injury that requires medical attention, a psychological trauma that results in therapy, or a legal matter in which a judge pronounced a legal decision.)

Rather, this is to acknowledge that there was a conflict (between transgender people and the Red Tent Temple group), and a decision was made based on the values of the presiding organization (Pantheacon).  I don’t think there’s any argument that the Red Tent Temple offers a valuable and important function – they absolutely do!  But that function is not compatible with the wishes of the Transgender Pagan community at Pantheacon.

In this example, the organizers of Pantheacon made their decision based on their core values.  They decided that inclusiveness of transgender people is more important than a private space for women-born-women.  That value seems to derive from the liberal left side of the political divide, with its highly-publicized safe spaces and inclusiveness.  I don’t think we could find a case in Nature in which females were excluded from a group in order to welcome non-binary-gendered members of the species, so it seems that Nature is unlikely to be the source for this particular ethic.  (Though if you know of one, let me know!)

A similar case of politics dictating values could be made about conservative Pagans.  I’ve always figured most Pagans would tend to be liberal, because liberals are usually on the side of social equality (women equal to men, and goddess equal to god), and of religious liberty (equality for all religions, not just Christianity).  Not to mention, liberals tend to be environmentalists, and what’s more Pagan than protecting and honoring the environment?  But I’ve met many Pagans in my area who are, in fact, conservative.  They value things like going out in Nature to hike, to camp, or to hunt.  They often own guns.  To them, Nature is an awesome force, and humans have very little power in comparison.  They hunt as a participation in the cycles of Nature, just as powerful predators like wolves and eagles do.

Try and talk to a conservative Pagan about environmentalism though, or about social equality, and they tend to spiral into a condemnation of tree-huggers, communists, and government.  Like liberal Pagans, conservative Pagans’ values are shaped by their political views, and to some degree by the experience they’ve had in their lives.  They are much more likely to advocate personal responsibility, agency, and competition.  They tend to be suspicious of government, regulation, and bureaucracy.

Again, this isn’t intended to be promoting or condemning any one path or another!  Rather, it’s to illustrate the ways that a person’s upbringing, culture, and other life experiences can shape different ethical values.  And how deeply those outside ethics can affect the decisions we make for our Pagan practice.

As far as my own ethics, I mentioned draw a lot from Buddhism.  I also draw inspiration from Greek and Roman philosophers, among whom are some of the greatest thinkers humanity has produced.  When those don’t offer a clear answer, or when I wish to add a Pagan flavor, I tend to look to Nature for guidance.

A view across the Snake River Canyon.

On Nature

Many human behaviors can be mapped out in terms of the narratives that play out in Nature.  Like my tree and garden metaphors above, those narratives can be good and helpful.

But Nature can be a dick.  Sexual predators — and note my use of the term “predator,” referring to a specific relationship in Nature — very closely mimic the behavior of predatory animals, such as leopards.  They camouflage themselves by using pro-social behavior to disarm watchful eyes.  They single out their prey to commit crimes away from the group.  Their actions benefit themselves at the cost of their victim’s health, like a leopard pouncing on a gazelle.

So there’s a reason we use the term “predator.”  Clearly, in this instance Nature is not a good source for inspiration for ethical behavior!

But what about the job market?  Suppose you really want to work at Ye Olde Witchcrafte Shoppe.  Maybe you can engage that goal in the same way a predator would.  You could sharpen your interviewing and job skills, the way a leopard sharpens its claws.  You could single out the job you want, and position yourself in a way to maximize your odds at capturing it.  You could enhance your appearance and qualifications, so that you get the benefit of the job instead of another candidate.

In today’s job market, this would be an excellent strategy.  So being a predator isn’t necessarily always bad.  It might feel wonky to take that job away from someone else.  (At least it feels a little wonky to me.)  But is it wrong, or is it just life?  I’m not sure there’s an easy answer.  Sometimes, even when Nature is an asshole, there are still ways that we can find meaning and value in the lessons.

What about when Nature has zero redeeming qualities?  Like the caterpillar wasp who injects its eggs into live caterpillars.  (Which then eat the caterpillar alive from the inside out.  Yech.)  Is there anything redeeming about them?

Wasp larvae emerge from inside a caterpillar © Jeff-o-matic, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
http://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/body-snatchers-eaten-alive.html

Well… there might be, if trees being eaten by these caterpillers give off chemicals that attract the wasps.  In that context, the wasps are actually saving the trees.

The only real ethical value that I’ve found using Nature as a source, is that “it’s probably more complicated than you think.”  Which, if you think about it, is a pretty decent basis for a discussion on ethics.  The wasp, which we first consider to be an asshole, becomes a hero that rescues plants.  The predator, which we consider to be an asshole for eating Bambi, is a great role model when you’re hunting for a way to feed your family.

Adding more information to a discussion can help.  Nature is a complicated web of inter-dependencies, and adding more information usually helps us get some context for what’s really happening.  And context is really what it’s all about, right?  Excluding sexual predators from a group might be a good thing, if it’s framed in terms of protecting vulnerable people.  But it might be a bad thing, if it’s framed in terms of excluding people who need community support to avoid recidivism.  (Personally, I don’t think including sexual predators is ever a good thing.  But I’ve heard the other argument.  My perspective is, you do you, but I won’t join a group that welcomes sex offenders.)

Complexity, however, leaves the door open for people to use rhetoric to persuade others, simply by changing the story.  We might say we favor the innocent, like little rabbits out in the desert happily living their bunny lives.  Or we might favor the coyote, who has his own family to feed (on rabbits), and without whom the rabbits would overrun the desert and gorge themselves to starvation.  Which one is right?  It all comes down to context.

And maybe that’s the point.  Who’s right depends on who’s telling the story.  And the simpler and easier the story, the more effective it is.  So care must be taken when looking to Nature for ethics, so that we’re not implying something we don’t mean.  And so that we’re not somehow making the worse case appear to be the better.

“Owls are such nice creatures, this one gave a mouse a lift the rest of the way! ”  Or, it’s a different story for the owl than for the mouse.    Credit: https://www.reddit.com/r/Superbowl/comments/83hn3w/owls_are_such_nice_creatures_this_one_gave_a/

On narrative and story

One thing about Paganism, is that there are a lot of different stories going around.  Not just in the “he said, she said” sense, but in the Celtic-Norse-Greek-mythological sense.  However, these are very different cultures, with very different values and ethics.

Narrative — especially mythological narrative — has the power to inform and change the ethics and values of a particular cultural group.  The story of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartans defended their homeland against the armies of Xerxes, promotes a certain set of values.  The story of the recovery  of Thor’s stolen hammer, with its cunning cross-dressing, praises a different set of values.  These values tend to seep into a cultural group and provide templates for people to define what’s “good” behavior.  (And what’s “bad” behavior!)

As Neopagans, or generic Pagans, we don’t really have a cohesive set of stories to guide our beliefs and actions.  Yet some of us have internalized values from various other sources.  Maybe we rely on stories from our baby steps as a Pagan, such as the stories of “the burning times” seen in many Wiccan texts (which are often *ahem* flexible in their historical authenticity).  Or we might bring values from the generic “new age” movement, such as feminism, equality, light and love, and so forth.

Very few Pagans seem to spend much time digging into the stories that inform their values, let alone their meanings or their implications.  For instance, many Pagans follow a Goddess and a God as representations of the generic male and female principles.   Often, the god takes a form of a “horned god,” without too many more details.  This God might be represented as Pan, with his goat legs and flute.  Or it may be the Celtic Cernunnos, with his antlers.  This deity is often honored as a generic masculine force, representative of the male half of divinity, just as the goddess is representative of the female half of divinity.

The Gundestrup Cauldron, showing a Horned God presumed to be Cernunnos. Credit:
Malene Thyssen, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Malene

But let’s dig into the symbolism a little, and look a little more closely at Cernunnos.  We know he’s a Celtic God.  We don’t know much else, although some Pagans are having direct experience with him.   The references we have to Cernunnos are pictures, which show a human male with antlers.  On the Gundestrup Cauldron, he is shown sitting among various animals, holding a torc and a serpent.  For the sake of discussion, consider that Cernunnos is a human blended with a male deer, based on the depictions we have found.

We can make some assumptions about Cernunnos based on these images.  Because he is part man, part deer, we might say that he embodies qualities of both human and deer.  One of the most noticeable aspects of deer are their mating habits; male deer maintain a “harem” of females, and fight other males for dominance and the right to mate with those females.  Combined with his human traits, we can imagine that Cernunnos is a humanoid male who embodies the deer-like qualities of combat and competition between males, and sexual conquest of multiple females.

Now, if you read some of the blog posts from Pagans about sexuality, consent, and trauma, you might believe that many Pagans want nothing to do with the kind of sex represented by a deer-man-god.  I see this as a good thing, and I’m glad Pagans are speaking out about abuse and coercion, and are working to improve consent culture!

But measured against what little imagery I can find on Cernunnos, I find this  to be a contradiction.  People are worshiping — or at least honoring — a deity that seems to be at odds with their values on sexuality.  The only way I can think to reconcile this, is that many Pagans haven’t actually stopped to think about who Cernunnos is.  (Or who any horned god is.)

Granted, this oversimplifies the issue.  I’m sure that there are exceptions, and it’s not my intent to mischaracterize anyone.  I’m also not acknowledging the nuance inherent in the variety of Pagan practices.  My point in oversimplifying the issue, is to invite Pagans to question whether we are coherent with the narratives and mythologies that we practice.

One way to be more authentic is to start telling better stories.  We might demonize (heh heh) a deer-antlered deity for being too rapey, and instead make the protagonist of our stories and myths to be an animal that fits better with the values we want to promote.  Perhaps wolves, since they are reputed to mate for life?

(Although, come to think of it, I’m not sure the mating habits of any non-human species include enthusiastic consent.  Typical mating behavior includes males initiating sex, and females either accepting, or evading them/fighting them off.   I’m not sure what to make of that.  If you know of animals that practice enthusiastic consent, let me know, because I’d like to start promoting it as a core Pagan value.)

We can be more authentic with our stories and myths by challenging and improving them.  Narratives have a deep power of symbolism.  Here at the relative beginning of Neopaganism, we have the opportunity to be intentional with our stories and symbols.  If we just accept the default ethics and values we inherit from our social circles, from other Pagans, or even from our daily lives, then it’s hard to complain when those narratives and symbols promote behaviors that we don’t want.

Credit: KERRY KLEIN/KVPR
http://kvpr.org/post/there-s-lot-crazy-drivers-city-advocates-take-aim-fresno-pedestrian-safety

On being right, and being affected

These days, it seems like everyone with an opinion wants to be right.  There’s a sense of self-righteous justification for everything, from sexuality to behavior to appearance.  I believe this comes from the polarization of American society, and it’s seeping into Pagan space.

However, the need to be right is not the most effective way to navigate social relationships.

This is not to say people should have to justify who they are or what they do.  (Unless you’re hurting people, and if you are seriously knock it off.)  I am stubborn, contrarian, and fiercely independent, and I can relate to the impulse to resist pressure to conform.

But some of this pervasive need to be right — perhaps better described as self-righteousness — is problematic.  We, especially those of us who fall on the political left, have become accustomed to fighting for our right to be heard.  And we’re forgetting that other people have that right too.  We’ve gone so far trying to make people behave in a way that protects the marginalized, that I’m not sure we’re still the “good guys.”

For example, when I enter a discussion trying to make someone change their mind, without bothering to consider what they think or believe, come across as the asshole.  It’s much like an Evangelical preacher lecturing you about how you’re an awful human being unless you  do things the “right” way.  (Meaning the Evangelical way.)  How many times have you changed your mind, because someone yelled at you and said you were Hitler?  Or “of the devil?”

I’m guessing none.

I think digging in and resisting is fundamental in human behavior; most of us don’t like being told what to do.  (At least I don’t.  Maybe you do, and that’s OK.)  My sense with Pagans, though, is that we tend to reject that approach.  I mean, how is it any different if it’s a woman preaching to a man about how he’s bad and wrong and part of the problem (because of while male cis-gendered patriarchy privilege), than it is for an Evangelical preacher to sermonize about how women are bad and wrong and part of the problem (because of the Biblical original sin)?  To me, those are exactly the same – only the class of the victim has changed.  Someone is still being labeled “bad and wrong and part of the problem,” without regard to whether that individual is, in fact, part of the problem.

And no one is changing anyone else’s mind about it.  In fact, labeling someone as “bad and wrong and part of the problem” is more likely to alienate a potential ally, than to persuade someone to join your cause.  When I was accused of advocating awful things, when my intent was to promote equality and healthy boundaries, I felt rejected by my people.  I suddenly wanted nothing further to do with the people who criticized me — even as an ally.  (I’m still thinking and considering where my feelings are on this.)

There is a better way to bring people to your side.  If we approach a conflict like a conversation instead of a fight to the death, we can engage the cooperative spirit in the other person.  This requires that we be willing to listen to the other person, and try to understand the best version of what they’re saying.  It also requires that we be willing to be affected by the things they are saying.

For example, here’s a 15-minute (and excellent) video by a woman who left the Westboro Baptist Church.  I think we can all agree that WBC are not the good guys, in any sense of the word.  But I haven’t seen very many people leaving, in spite of the outcry against them.  In this case, it was strangers on the internet having genuine conversations that ultimately helped this woman find her way out.

Being willing to listen and be affected by someone doesn’t mean we have to ultimately agree!  But every human being has a need to be heard and acknowledged.  Genuinely listening to someone helps fill that need.  It also sets a pro-social tone, and it models the kind of behavior we expect from others — which is that we are taking them as seriously as we expect them to take us.

If you think about it, one of the things we Pagans hate is being pre-judged by Christians because we label ourselves “Pagan” or “Witch.”  (Or sometimes “atheist.”)  How is it any different, if we pre-judge a person we’re talking to because they are Christian, or Republican, or straight-white-cisgendered?  I feel like it’s the exact same behavior; only the class has changed.  So logically, if we are behaving in the same way of people we are criticizing, our criticism applies directly back to ourselves as well.

Because of the variety of paths under the Pagan umbrella, I feel like it is essential that we learn how to coexist and participate with people we don’t  100% agree with.  I see listening and being willing to be affected as the most effective path to have conversations with each other, and to develop a guiding set of ethics.

A “troll bridge.” http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TrollBridge

On trolls, bigots, assholes, and other bad-faith interactions

Has your dog ever snatched food from your plate without your permission?  Like you just sat down to watch Game of Thrones with a plate of tasty bacon, but forgot your milk – and when you got back from the fridge, your plate was empty and doggo was licking his chops?

That’s a bad-faith interaction.  It’s also Nature.

No matter what the rules are, some individuals are calculating whether the real-world benefits of bad behavior are worth the consequences.  In that moment, your dog decided that a bite of tasty bacon was worth you being angry with him.

In the human world, the consequences for inappropriate behavior are usually social.  Even sending someone to prison as a felon cuts that person off from their social groups and isolates them from society.  It also marks that person in ways that make it more difficult to be socially accepted, or which limit their rights.  These consequences are significant — usually impacting that person’s ability to get a job or find a partner.  These consequences are intended to be a deterrent against inappropriate behavior, and for most people they work.  (Though I do have a great deal of criticism for the US criminal justice system.  I’ll get into that in another post.)

But in spite of the risk of prison/felony, some individuals calculate that the consequences (or risk of consequences) are acceptable to get the benefita of misbehavior.

For example.  A person who has sex outside their partnership, without their partner’s permission, has decided that getting sex is a real-world benefit that outweighs the discomfort of their partner’s displeasure.  A person who steals has decided that the money (or items) are worth more than the risk of being caught and punished.  An able-bodied person who deceives the government to get disability benefits has decided that the benefit outweighs the social stigma and criminal consequences of committing fraud.

This is not to condone any of these behaviors, (nor to imply that disabled people are committing fraud!).  But some able-bodied people do commit disability fraud.  Likewise, many people do not have sex outside their partnership.  But some do.  They’re the ones I’m talking about.

It’s no different from your dog.  You dog decides that it can live with you yelling at him, but at least he got a bite of your tasty bacon.  These behaviors serve an important purpose in Nature.  In the wild, a dog might have to dart in to a food source, snatch a few quick bites, and get away before a bigger dog can defend the food.  A bear might frighten off a competitor in order to capture a food source (the way a bully frightens his victim).  Nature has taught different creatures different but effective ways to survive in adversity, by selectively ignoring rules or consequences.

So there is a biological and evolutionary reason that people decide to break the rules.  The cheater gets more sex, plus more potential offspring to pass along their genes.  The thief makes a gamble that they’ll get resources without having to work.  The bully discovers that inducing fear in his victims results in the desired behavior.

Ethics is about deciding, as individuals and as members of a group, what to do about it.  Because these kinds of selfish behaviors erode the cohesion of a social group.  In addition to one person getting a free ride while everyone else has to work, these behaviors also create resentment and distrust.

But consider.  If a child grows up in a foster home, and has to compete with bigger siblings for food and attention, that child might develop some selfish and anti-social behaviors for survival.  In that case — like the case of a starving person stealing bread — are these behaviors inherently wrong?

It seems to me that the appropriateness of an action depends heavily on context.  The same response may be appropriate in one situation, but completely inappropriate in another.  In a coffee-shop conversation, punching someone in the face is inappropriate.  In a fight, however, punching someone in the face is appropriate.  And vice-versa:  in a coffee shop conversation, speaking civilly is appropriate; in a fight, a civil attempt at conversation is a liability.  So part of our challenge is to take these impulses Nature gave us for dealing with situations, and apply them appropriately.

An appropriate response is usually one that’s in-kind with the invitation.  So if unwanted attention is the problem, withholding attention from the unwelcome person would be in-kind.  If words are the problem, then replying with words is in-kind.  And so forth, unless there’s an escalation in the level of the problematic behavior.

Repetition of an offense usually counts as an escalation.  So is increasing the effect on another person, like going from yelling to hitting.  In general, initiating an escalation is inappropriate.

In Nature, most animals have some method of protecting themselves.  Running away is a common tactic.  Some will fight when attacked.  Some animals will make themselves a target, in order to divert attention away from other members of their group.  These are some of the mechanisms Nature has evolved to deal with assholes and takers.  Again, the key is deciding which response is the most appropriate to a given situation.

As humans, no matter what punishments we put in place, there are still going to be people who are assholes, takers, or trolls.  People who try to exploit others, who try to provoke or manipulate other people, or any other selfish and anti-social behaviors.  Our police and legal system is one mechanism for dealing with these kinds of people.  But the police can’t be everywhere, all the time.  Not only that, police are often restricted from taking action without evidence that a law has been broken — so it’s wise for us to find other ways of protecting ourselves and our groups from assholes, takers, and trolls.  This is where a system of ethics comes into play.  It tells people what behavior is acceptable, and what happens to people who behave inappropriately.

Looking at this in terms of Nature — wolves, field mice, eagles, bears, salmon – none of these animals have police officers to deal with predators.  If we’re modeling our ethics on stories from Nature, maybe it’s a good idea to consider the ways different animals deal with adversity as a source for our ethical behavior.  (The mechanics for individual behavior are different from the way they work for a group.  This post focuses on what we, as individuals, can personally take action on.  A later post will examine the tensions between group-ethics and personal-ethics.)

A good guideline for dealing with assholes, takers, and trolls, is to assume that they are acting in good faith.  They very well might be!  And most interactions with people start (and end) with words, which cannot physically damage us.  (Though words can be cruel and used to hurt, I’m organizing this along the lines of escalation of force.)  But we should also keep an eye open for signs that the other person is actually acting in bad faith.  If they lie or deceive, or take advantage, or behave in ways that break trust, then it’s appropriate to consider they are acting in bad faith.  A healthy response to such behavior is to set boundaries, to physically leave the situation, or cut contact when they behave in a way that causes you distress.

Assuming that other people are acting in good faith helps preserve social bonds.  For example, my anxiety causes me to be hypervigilant, watching for signs that someone will treat me badly.  I know from experience that being constantly on guard, watching and waiting for someone to act in bad faith, tends to alienate people.  Folks feel like I’m suspicious without reason, and that makes it hard to connect.  And I tend to be over-reactive; if I’m always watching for bad behavior, I’m going to see it more often (even when it’s not intended).

On the other hand, being overly trusting creates an opportunity for exploitation.  So it’s important to be able to turn the “bad-faith sense” on and off when you need it.  Like the dog with the bacon, many criminals are simply opportunists.  They wouldn’t go out of their way to rob a bank, but they might take a pile of cash if no one is looking.  This is the principle behind locking your car doors, and keeping valuables out of sight.  Or meeting Craigslist sellers at the local police station.  Again – not your fault if someone hurts you.  But you can reduce the risk of that happening by limiting the opportunity for someone to do so.

If you see signs that someone is acting in bad faith, even after you’ve tried to connect in good faith, it’s OK to set boundaries.  This is pretty easy to do on the internet by simply closing a browser window.  Or by unfollowing or blocking someone.  In person, it can be as simple as ending a discussion by saying, “I see where you’re coming from, but I don’t think I’m ever going to agree with you.”  Or “Let’s agree to disagree.”  You can disagree with someone and still be friends or part of the same social group.  You can also disagree with someone so strongly that you have to leave (or ask them to leave).

I used to have a pet bird named Goblin.  She loved to get head scratchies — until she got tired of them.  But she couldn’t speak words to tell me she didn’t want head any more head-scratchies.  When she didn’t want them anymore, she’d nip at my finger.  Not hard enough to draw blood, but enough to let me know she was done.  She was setting a boundary with me.  If you look, Nature is full of creatures setting and enforcing boundaries with one another.  When a rabbit jumps and flees from you, it’s setting a boundary that it doesn’t want to hang around.  When a dog growls and raises its hackles, it’s setting a boundary and communicating that it feels threatened by something nearby.

Humans are, by nature, social and vocal creatures.  It is very easy to set a boundary with your words, by saying to someone, “Stop that, I don’t like it.”  (Though society frowns upon biting or growling.)  If the other person persists after you’ve used your words, they are probably acting in bad faith.  That is, they want something from you, and are signalling their disregard for your wishes in pursuing it.

(Side note:  if you cut ties or stop a discussion with someone who is acting in good faith, you are no longer the good guy.  Using “the silent treatment” can sometimes make you the asshole.  Likewise if someone asks you what they said that was offensive, and you blow them off with some variation of “If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.”  Cutting ties and refusing to engage can be weaponized, just like any other behavior.  The distinction lies in your intent; are you acting in good faith, trying to increase understanding and community, and to reduce suffering?  Or are you acting in bad faith, twisting healthy social mechanisms to silence or dominate someone you disagree with?)

If the other person doesn’t respect your decision to disengage — in other words, they keep pursuing you — you can physically leave the place.  Or you can block them on social media.  When you cut ties, sometimes the best thing is to remove yourself from the situation.  You can’t be hurt if you’re not physically present.  You might feel like you have a right to be there, and you may be right!  But are you willing to pay the price of being hurt in order to be right?  A mouse might have every right to live in a wheat field, but if there’s a hawk circling, it’s wiser and healthier to make itself absent.  Same goes for stepping out into a crosswalk in front of traffic; being right won’t pay the hospital bills if you’re hit, and won’t feel better than a broken leg.

If you remove yourself from a situation and the other person continues to pursue you, it’s appropriate to consider self-defense options.  Pursuit might look like cyber-stalking, phone call harassment, showing up at your work, following you, doing things you’ve told them you don’t like or don’t want.  Self-defense can be calling the police, using pepper spray, getting help from your social group, or even self-defense skills like karate.

A picture of Goblin, a Pacific parrotlet who loved tucking herself into weird corners like the crook of my arm.  And biting when she didn’t want head scratchies.

Actions you can take, and setting boundaries

Have better conversations

Like I said before, we can’t talk about these things if we can’t talk about them.  I define a “better conversation” as one where people talk about what’s really important to them.  A bad conversation is one where everyone pretends to agree just to be polite.

That means having difficult conversations about emotionally charged topics.  And the only way that happens, is by not shutting each other down when these topics come up.  Since most of the shut-downs happen in response to our inner emotional reactions, each of us must take personal responsibility for figuring out and working through our personal biases underlying those emotional reactions.  In other words, be the change you want to see, rather than yelling at other people trying to make them be the change you want to see.

We should also take responsibility for confirming that the information we’re using to make decisions is factual and accurate.  And we should also take responsibility for our claims, arguments, and interactions with other people.  It’s easy to throw blame on something or someone else, as the reason we do things.  But authentic conversations only happen when we accept responsibility for ourselves.

Play “Switch the Class”

One way to start becoming aware of our unconscious biases and ethics is to play a game I call “switch the class.”  I played this game with a co-worker once, who was spouting off about how gay people shouldn’t be allowed to get married.  I switched it up, and asked him if it should be OK for Hispanic people to get married, or for Catholic people to get married.  It’s ridiculous to try to stop those situations, so it’s also ridiculous to try to stop gay people from getting married.  (He said “Huh, I never thought of it like that,” which I take as a win.)

It works the same for any group.  If you find yourself saying “straight white men are the problem,” switch the class.  Say to yourself, “Feminist lesbians are the problem.”  “Poor black men are the problem.”  “Robe-wearing Buddhists are the problem.”  If the new sentence sounds ridiculous (or offensive), then you’ve discovered an unconscious bias in your original statement.

Once you know your biases, you can work on them.  You might catch yourself when you say something offensive, and apologize.  Or you might take a moment to consider how a situation is more complex than it seems.  This helps you become more willing to listen and be affected by others.  The goal is not to be perfect, and perfection is an impossible standard.  Rather, the goal is to get better, to grow, to keep improving.

(Side note:  If our ethics say that “Stereotyping is bad,” then all stereotyping must be bad, or we’re incoherent and condemning our own behavior.  So if we’re trying to break stereotypes such as “Women are lousy drivers” or “Black men are lazy,” then we must also acknowledge that statements like “Straight white men are the problem” are stereotypes, and are just as problematic.  A better, more mindful approach is to condemn behavior.  “People who use power to coerce other people are bad.”  That can apply to anyone, regardless of gender or skin color, and is — in my experience — true.)

Be more self-aware

Another helpful tool for developing our ethics is to cultivate awareness and responsibility for our own behaviors.  By this I mean be aware of how you treat others.  Also try not to commit the actions you condemn in others.  This applies especially to people who use a condition (neuro-atypical, mental illness, disability, etc.) to excuse inappropriate or harmful behavior.   While certain conditions can qualify a person for protected status or accommodations, those conditions do not function as a free pass to behave in a way that causes other people harm or distress.  It does not matter if you have depression, anxiety, a disability, or anything else — you are still responsible for your behavior.  If you act inappropriately toward someone, that person is not obligated to tolerate your behavior.

So if my anxiety causes me to act like a jerk toward you, my anxiety is not an excuse for my bad behavior.  You shouldn’t be forced to be uncomfortable with my inappropriate or harmful behavior simply because I have a condition.  And you are free to set boundaries, telling me what behaviors you will and will not accept.  It’s my job to manage my words and behavior to respect your boundary.  If I don’t improve, I shouldn’t be surprised if you leave or cut ties.

I have seen psychiatric conditions used as tools to dominate or coerce other people; others may (rightly) set boundaries so they are not adversely affected by this behavior.  For example, my ex-wife used her condition of co-dependency to justify her poor treatment of me.  When I set boundaries, she became verbally and emotionally abusive.  I’ve seen people with autistic children use autism as an excuse to not have to prepare for/contribute to Pagan events.  Worst are the memes that claim that “if you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best.”  Nope — you may have depression or anxiety, but I don’t have to tolerate you being an asshole (or a taker, or a troll).

Set boundaries

Because most of these things are happening in the realm of words and conversations, our most effective tool is our words.  We can use words to set healthy boundaries.  Setting a boundary is not rudeness, discrimination, intolerance, hate speech, or anything of the kind.

(As with most issues, there’s some nuance here.  Sometimes, people say things that are rude or discriminatory.  Logically, though, all boundary setting is not rudeness or hate speech.  Some boundary setting might be rudeness or hate speech.  Acting like some is the same as all is problematic.)

If someone sets a boundary, be sure that you are not, in fact, behaving inappropriately.  You might feel like they are being rude.  But that feeling could very well be an emotional reaction to not getting the reaction you want.  Our modern American culture teaches us to be afraid of being rude.  We’ve normalized taking responsibility for other people’s emotions, which is an unhealthy (and impossible) standard to meet.  An example might be interacting with a potential romantic partner.  If they reject your advances, that is not “being rude” — that is setting a boundary.  (A stranger has no obligation to manage your emotions.)  Likewise if someone says “In this group, we don’t accept complaints without suggestions for improvement.”  Again, this is not rudeness, but setting a boundary.  (The group is setting a boundary that it is not an outlet for venting or therapy.)

A good way to identify whether someone is being rude or just setting a boundary, is to consider who is acting on whom.  If I am doing something that only affects me, another person telling me “no” is being rude.  If I am doing something that affects someone else, them saying “no” is setting a boundary.  If someone else is doing something that affects me, if I say “no” I am setting a boundary.  If someone else is doing something that only affects themselves, my saying “no” is rude.

Another way to identify whether something is rude or just a boundary, is to consider who has to do the work.  If I beg out of bringing a potluck dish because of my mental illness, the rest of the group has to absorb the cost of those extra place settings.  That creates extra work for other people, which is usually considered rude.  If you’re making racist or sexist jokes, other people are required to do the inner work of not punching you for being an asshole.  (And for perpetuating stereotypes that harm entire classes of people.)  Creating that extra work (and discomfort) for others is considered rude.

Again, setting boundaries is not rude.  It’s emotionally healthy.  If you get angry because someone is setting a boundary, it’s a good idea to talk to a professional and do some self-reflection.  A good place to start is with your expectations about who is responsible for what.  A therapist can be a great resource to help in this process.

Tell better stories

Another way you can become more coherent and mindful of your ethics is to explore your spiritual path.  Sit with the symbols, and think about what behavior they represent.  Are those behaviors in line with your values?  If you value a particular trait, but behave in a way that undermines that trait, that’s a sign that your beliefs, values, and behavior are out of alignment.  If you’re working with a goddess of death and sorcery (like Hekate), but are preaching light and love, your values and your behavior might be out of alignment.

This works with stories and myths too.  Do you preach peace and love, but hang swords and knives and velvet wolf tapestries all over your apartment?  Might want to sit with those stories a little longer — wolves are vicious apex predators, and swords and knives are weapons for inflicting harm.

Are you preaching inclusiveness and fair treatment, alongside advocating murder and posing in a picture with a knife?  (Yes, I have seen this.)  Again — maybe time to sit with your stories and values, and get things into alignment.

Find the stories that illustrate your ethics.  Focus on telling, retelling, and acting out those stories.  It doesn’t matter if it’s classical mythology, or just stories from Nature.  Spend some time with these tales, and make sure that they’re not saying something you don’t mean.  Tell those stories to your group.  Act them out in plays.  Memorize them.  Internalize them.  Identify with the characters, and learn how those stories teach appropriate behavior.  Those stories will weave themselves into the tapestry of your personhood, and of your social group.  They will become part of your identity, and provide a non-conscious, automatic system of ethics to guide you when you’re feeling lost.

Final thoughts

Remember that ethics is complex, sticky, and nuanced.  Very rarely will a situation distill down into a simple aphorism or phrase.  Including this post; I’ve clearly oversimplified a few things.  I freely acknowledge that they are more complex than perhaps I have portrayed them!

Sometimes, a simplified narrative will be in conflict with someone else’s narrative, and we’re each responsible to figure out how to deal with that — without dominating or coercing the other person.  (Unless the narrative itself promotes coercion or harm.)  Remember it’s probably more complicated than it seems.  Try adding more context, and see where that takes you.  Or challenge the narrative, and have an honest (and civil, and rational) discussion around it.

Realize that you might be the one who’s acting like a judgmental asshole, and not realize it.  Try to become aware of your biases.  Work on listening to and being affected by other people.

People often have strong emotions tied up in their values, and these emotions can cause people to defend their values vigorously.  Again, listening and being willing to be affected by other people will help you have better conversations.  This will help you move towards a real sense of community.

Listening to someone doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with them.  Rather, it means we see them as an equal human being, and we take them as seriously as we want them to take us.  Even the people you hate are human beings, with loves and biases and concerns and strengths and flaws.

We aren’t being very ethical if we’re committing the behaviors we are condemning in others.  Sometimes we don’t realize that we’re doing it.  It’s helpful to check in with our statements and beliefs to make sure the’re in alignment.  It’s also helpful to play “change the class” when we’re making broad statements, to see if we’ve got an unconscious bias that we might not be aware of.

What are your thoughts?  Do you have a preferred source for deciding what’s right and wrong?  Have you ever changed your ethics?  I’m interested to hear your stories in the comments!