Kindness and honesty

This week I read an excellent article by Meg-John Barker, about kindness and honesty – it’s over here https://www.rewriting-the-rules.com/conflict-break-up/kindness-and-honesty-can-we-have-one-without-the-other/ and it has got me thinking about how we frame honesty in the normal scheme of things.

Often honesty is presented as a hard thing – to be brutally honest. Telling it like it is, adds a slapdown into a conversation that implies that how the other person thinks it is, is wrong, rubbish, useless. Hard truth is something we have to take. There’s often something macho and combative about it. I’ve seen the notion that what is being said is the truth used to justify a great deal of innate unkindness. Truth and honesty can be a way of excusing, or justifying verbal aggression, putdowns and meanness.

We also tend to encounter truth in a singular form. I think this has a lot to do with the dominance of monotheistic religions. One God. One truth. One true way. In practice, truth can depend a lot on perspective. People don’t tend to come to conclusions about things for no reason at all, and if you aren’t willing or able to square up to why they hold something as truth, challenging it will only entrench them. We may want plain and simple truth, but often truth turns out to be a messy, multifaceted thing, full of history and perception, and belief even when there seem to be a lot of ‘hard facts’ involved.

Keats took us round the notion that beauty is truth, truth beauty. Beauty is a very subjective idea, more in the eye of the beholder than truth is normally held to be. In terms of applying ideas to life, I’ve found this notion reliably useless. It doesn’t help me do anything, it doesn’t tell me anything. It just sounds good. But what if truth is kindness? Certainly the reversal isn’t true, apparent kindness cannot be counted on to be truth. As the blog I linked to points out, kindness that isn’t true is just setting up some serious unkindness for later on.

I think there’s a huge problem in how we all talk to each other – especially around politics – that truth justifies unkindness. That to have your honesty taken seriously, you must be brutal and pull no punches. That kindness is inherently a bit suspect, and is probably softening or fudging something rather than dealing with how it really is. The idea of brutal truth supports toxic behaviour. It justifies being abusive to people we think know less than us and have poor reasoning skills rather than feeling obliged to try and help them. Brutal honesty also enables people who want to have their conversations by hurling insults and criticism – and if you challenge it, well, that’s because you’re a snowflake and can’t hear how things really are.

I’m going to look harder for kindness in truth, and be less willing to accept that truth itself is a reason to accept unkindness from those dishing out their certainties.

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Novelty and the landscape

There is a definite joy in walking somewhere I have never walked before, and seeing a view that is wholly unfamiliar to me. For people seeking a relationship with the land, I think the excitement of not knowing what’s around the corner is very much part of the attraction. However, there’s a risk in thinking of this relationship in terms of the exotic and the unknown. If we’re too focused on the quest for novelty and beauty, we can miss what’s around us.

Landscapes change all the time – with the seasons, and less happily, with human interventions. A person doesn’t need a large number of places to walk to have every chance of experiencing something unfamiliar. I could spend my whole life exploring just the county I live in, and I would never run out of new things to see.

There’s a quote I’ve seen a number of landscape writers refer to: “To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width.” (Patrick Kavanagh). I would say that the same is true of Druid experience. Skimming over surfaces in search of excitement is fun, but it’s not Druidry. It is the depth of your encounter with a landscape that changes it from a tourist experience to a spiritual experience.

Depth of experience takes presence and attention. It calls upon a person to immerse themselves in what is around them, to step beyond their thoughts and into the physical world. You have to show up without assumptions or an agenda. I find that in taking an interest in the small details of a scene, I am guaranteed to always see something new. It may be a cricket in the grass, or the colour of a changing leaf, an owl feather in the path, the exact way the light is catching a hilltop today. In changing light, familiar landscapes become new and surprising, although you have to spend a lot of time looking at the same landscape in different conditions to really appreciate and enjoy this.

There’s nothing wrong with craving novelty and excitement. However, there’s much to be gained from thinking carefully about how best to seek it. What kind of carbon footprint accompanies our walking footprints? The further we go in search of the exotic experience, the more expensive our experience is, in every sense. If we set out, Bilbo Baggins style and follow the path from our own front door, we build substantial relationships as we go. I think there’s something especially magical about being able to see a somewhat unfamiliar place in relation to one you know.

Every journey brings the potential for surprise. There is no knowing what waits around the next corner, and even in the most familiar locations, unfamiliar encounters may await. A tree may have come down, a fox may be crossing the path, an unexpected flower may be blooming.


Self esteem and childhood

Most people develop their self esteem in childhood. A child who is loved, praised, supported and encouraged will have a sense of their own entitlement to exist. Many children however get their self esteem crushed early, or never get to develop much sense of self worth. Obviously, abusive families will damage their children, but there are other sources for this, too.

Many families don’t set out to harm the next generation, but pass on family truths, stories and patterns. They may think they are protecting a child by stopping them from getting unrealistic ideas, above their station. They may have a child who doesn’t fit the family narrative about what’s ok – a queer child, a left handed child, a neuro-divergent child, a child who is too quick, or too slow, or thinks too much or moves too much… Landing in a family that cannot understand your very nature does not make for a good start in life. There’s no malice here, but incomprehension can be pretty damaging.

I’ve met adults who were told at school they were stupid, or lazy, and didn’t get a dyslexia diagnoses until much later in life. I’ve met kids who were set back because no one realised they needed glasses. I’ve also met a lot of kids who had clearly learned some really unhelpful things at home – violent kids, and kids so spoiled they didn’t know how to deal well with anyone else. I’ve never met an ugly, useless or evil child, but I have met plenty of kids who were either treated that way, and thus growing into those roles, or learning problematic ways of being.

We’re learning from the moment we’re born, if not sooner. Every sound and movement from the beginning shapes our sense of the world and our ideas about who we are. Well meaning families can still produce children with no self confidence. Families who take against a child can do massive damage.

As an adult, there’s nothing you can do to go back and change your beginnings. Trying to talk about it with those who were there isn’t always helpful. But I think trying to understand the mechanics can be good. If your family didn’t allow you to grow up happily as yourself, trying to understand why they did that can be productive. It’s easy to end up with a short answer of ‘I wasn’t good enough’ but I invite you to consider whether you can imagine another human being who was not born good enough. If your shortcomings feel vague and hard to pin down, if you just, for some reason, didn’t seem to deserve love, or attention, support or praise then it probably wasn’t about you. It should have been about you, of course.

If you take out the assumption that there was something intrinsic in you to explain why you didn’t have a good experience of growing up, it becomes easier to see what was going on. It can be much easier to let go, when you can find a different perspective on this. It can be easier to forgive, where that’s appropriate, to recognise abuse, where that’s the size of it. The emotional neglect of a child is a form of abuse. It may be that your parents in turn were emotionally neglected and don’t even know where to start. Sometimes these things have their roots deep in our ancestry.

Tell yourself a new story, about how you were as inherently acceptable as any other child ever born, but your environment didn’t really work for you. Imagine what the right environment for you would have looked like. Consider how you can make that for yourself, now. Do some of the things that were missing. Find people who can play the roles you need people to play. Know that growing up feeling like a failure doesn’t make you a failure, and is not a truth about the sort of person you are.


Chasing shooting stars

Last night my household went forth at midnight in search of meteors. The internet had assured us that it would be a good night to see them. The internet had also given us a weather warning for thunderstorms, so we knew it might not work. What we got was somewhere short of storms, and largely devoid of stars, shooting or otherwise.

I remember a party at this time of year, back in my teens, when I and many of my friends lay out on the host’s drive to watch the shooting stars. There were a lot of them and it was really beautiful. This is debris from a passing comet, but for me, knowing the details of what’s going on in no way disenchants the experience. Space debris burning up as it enters our atmosphere is remarkable stuff, and a reminder that we really are open to things from other parts of the universe.

I wanted to see the meteor shower, of course. It’s easy to make something like that central to an experience, and to be sad, angry or frustrated when conditions aren’t suitable and you don’t get the thing you wanted. It was a cool, damp night and the cloud formations out over the Severn were dramatic and beautiful. We could hear owls out in the fields. There were crickets in the hedges. It felt glorious and ridiculous in equal measure to be getting up at midnight and going for a walk.

Life is so often like this. It’s easy to get focused on the apparently big, dramatic and important things and miss out on what’s actually there as the drama is failing to deliver.


Girls who are too good for this world

In the last few weeks, I’ve read two books, quite accidentally, with some similar themes. They were, The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy, and The Queen of Love, by Sabine Baring-Gould.  The Constant Nymph was published in 1924, The Queen of Love was published in 1894, and I think the dates are important because the options for young ladies with complicated romances in their lives were pretty limited – you married them, or they ruined you, or you were forever alone.

Both novels feature a young lady who is wild and original and lives on her own terms and to her own standards. Both of these young women fail to please or appease the people around them, who are revealed as hypocrites by contrast. The young ladies are authentic, passionate, wholehearted and fundamentally good. The people who think ill of them are mean spirited, obsessed with social appearances, and oblivious to the true value of what’s in front of them.

In one of these books, the young lady dies. I won’t say which one, because it’s the only way I can talk about this and avoid spoilers. She dies, because there’s really no way out for her that allows her to remain true and good, aside from death. The girl who lives does so because there are some good people around her, not just the mean spirited hypocrites. The good people shelter her, and she is able to build on that. The girl who has no friends, has no options. They really are girls, too. One is fifteen by the end of the book, the other is seventeen during most of the action.

I think characters like these are ancestors of the manic pixie dream girl. They’re too good for this world, too pure of heart for the impure interpretations of those around them. All too often, people who create such characters cannot imagine a viable future for them, or a way of life in which they might get to be happy and secure. Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a similar figure – a woman who is inherently good in herself but betrayed by all the key people in her life. Mary Webb’s Gone to Earth offers another in the same vein.

Older books tend to punish fallen women by killing them. Women are not allowed to come out of love affairs unscathed – even the most innocent love affairs (with all due regard to The Mill on the Floss). Women who give too much of themselves and do not pay enough attention to social norms, are punished for it in much of our older literature. We seem to have replaced this wild, social misfit with new, similar figures who also have no future, and no imaginable life. They come into stories to shake men up, to re-enchant and re-inspire and then they slip away – they don’t die as often as they used to, certainly, but they do still die. And yes, I’m still angry about Bridge to Terabithia.

It makes a pleasant change to read an older novel in which a girl who is both wild and good, comes out on top in the end. The prejudice of those who judge her is revealed for what it is. The true virtues of the girl shine through, and she is not killed to protect the hypocrisy of people who consider themselves better than her. I wish there were more stories of this shape. I think these are stories we need, in which wild women are allowed to live on their own terms. Women who are allowed to be passionate, and sexual, and true to themselves, and who are not crushed by society for being as they are. Alongside that we need the room for actual women who are actually wild and unconforming and I know from firsthand experience how much judgement and prejudice remains in the world for women who don’t behave in just the right way.


Disbelief

Your friend has been accused of a terrible thing. Your first reaction is likely to be that you will want to believe this is wrong. The accuser has horrible motives of their own, perhaps (after all, this does happen). There’s been a mistake, a misunderstanding. Some explanation exists that makes it all ok. Not only do we do this when people we care about are accused of terrible things, we can do it when people we care about do terrible things to us. We love them, and so we want them to be decent people. We may shoulder the blame for what happened so that we can carry on believing they are good people.

We may believe that how a person has treated us is representative of who they are. This is often something that comes up when people defend abusers. What’s going on here is as much about the person offering the defence as anything else. If you believe that how a person presents to you, is how they are – which should be a sane and fair assumption – challenging that is uncomfortable. If they were hiding that part of themselves from you, why did they do that? Or were you not paying attention? Were the signs there all along? Should you have seen this? Did you unconsciously turn a blind eye? These are not comfortable places to explore.

We all like to believe in the value of our own judgement. In fact, believing that you can make good calls is a key thing for staying sane and functional. Of course we all want to defend our own judgement, because without that we’re horribly adrift. If my friend has done a terrible thing, and I didn’t see they were a person capable of doing a terrible thing, what does that say about me? What does it say about me if I truly loved a person who did a terrible thing? What if, knowing about the terrible thing, I can’t unlove them? What does that make me? If they lied to me and deliberately misled me, what’s wrong with me that I couldn’t see through that?

Sometimes it is easier to assume the best and be actively complicit at this point, rather than facing the painful alternatives. It may not be the accused person we are protecting, but ourselves, our sense of self, our confidence in ourselves. It’s an understandable response. It is also important to ask how much evidence you need to acknowledge that your friend has done a terrible thing. And that perhaps by association, you have enabled a terrible thing.

Sometimes, we don’t want to look too hard at the terrible thing our friend has done, because if we did, we’d have to question our own behaviour. If their attitude is rapey, maybe ours is too. If they are sexist, or racist and we haven’t seen that, maybe it’s because we have the same issues. If their shouting, temper tantrums and irresponsibility isn’t ok, maybe our similar actions aren’t ok either. And so we may be inclined to support them so that we don’t have to question ourselves.

Questioning yourself is hard. Recognising and putting down problematic behaviour and attitudes is hard. It all comes down to whether taking the easy path is always preferable, even if it means you don’t get to be an honourable person. It often means knowing, on some level, that you are out of order and having to live with the tension between who you want people to think you are, and how you are, and that can take quite a toll.


Re-personing

A person who doesn’t get their basic needs met can experience a loss of personhood as a consequence. If it starts in childhood, the sense of not qualifying as a proper person entitled to basic things can be hard to shake. Everything I’ve read about self-esteem has talked about how the individual with low self esteem has to develop more of it. Many people seem to assume that self esteem is natural and innate, and I think it isn’t. For most of us, how we feel about ourselves is influenced, if not defined by what we learn from our environments.

Developing self esteem is not something most of us can easily do alone. It is a process of building a sense of being a proper person deserving of all the things proper people get. What’s needed here, is a process of re-personing. Or for some people, getting to become a person for the first time.

If you are involved with someone who is de-personed, this will take time to change. A few positive comments here and there won’t fix things. They won’t magically change in face of a few small gestures. It’s important not to get cross with people if they are slower to re-person than you think they should be. It can take years of persistent, positive feedback to help a de-person become a person. They will likely have little confidence in themselves, they may be pessimistic, and from the outside their sense of self may look crazy. If you blame or shame them for this, you will add to the self esteem problems.

From the inside, it can be difficult trusting anyone who is positive. You may feel like they are setting you up to fail, or mocking you, or over-estimating you. Their positivity may seem like a build up to you inevitably letting them down. It’s hard to get past these things and it takes time. An evidence based approach here can work well – gather data on what actually happens. It won’t help that if you have low self esteem, your mistakes and messes will look bigger than your successes, but if you can identify successes at all, you’re under way.

If you’ve taken a serious emotional battering, you may feel that thinking well of yourself is dangerous. If you’ve been knocked down for being happy, for success, for getting too big for your boots and ideas above your station, the idea of good self esteem can itself be fearful. If you think that treating yourself as an ok person will attract violent pushbacks and emotional abuse, it can feel safer to stay with hating yourself. It takes time to learn how to trust other people not to do this to you. It takes courage to give people a chance to prove that they won’t knock you down as soon as you try to stand up. If you aren’t in a safe environment, you may be right to keep your head down.

We all need to spend most of our time in places that allow us to be people. We need room for our own feelings and responses, for our basic needs, and for a few wants and desires as well. We all need to feel safe and respected. If someone has robbed you of your self esteem, growing a new one is not a quick or easy process, but the thing to remember is that it can be done, and that you do not deserve to feel worthless.

If your cock-ups are normal, human mistakes – poor judgements, misunderstandings, over enthusiasm, insufficient knowledge and so forth, you do not deserve to be knocked down. There are worthless people amongst us, certainly. They spend their time on deliberate malice and cruelty, knocking down others, taking what they aren’t entitled to, grabbing and wounding as they go. And even in those cases, a punishment involving the denial of basic needs doesn’t seem like a good answer. If you’ve not deliberately harmed anyone else, you certainly don’t deserve to be treated like some sort of criminal.


Identifying your basic needs

One of the things that goes with poor self esteem is struggling to get basic needs met. It can be both a cause and a consequence of the esteem issues, creating vicious circles from which it is hard to escape.

People with good self esteem feel entitled to have their basic needs met. If their needs are not met, they treat it as a problem. For the person with poor self esteem, not getting your needs met can be evidence that you don’t deserve the basic care others receive. It can be proof of not being good enough. It can seem reasonable, if you feel you don’t deserve to be well treated. If you’re always told to put others first, if no one around you treats you like you matter, if your needs are minimalised, ignored, or worse yet, laughed at, this is difficult territory.

There are some basic things that all humans need. We need rest, food, and shelter. Anyone with any mobility needs opportunities to move. We need stimulation and interest in our lives. We need to feel valued and accepted. If you are denied something basic it can erode your confidence that you deserve any of the most basic things. Confident people tend to take what they need, or demand it, and make a fuss when basic needs aren’t met. People with low self esteem can find it hard to flag up such problems.

Whether the problem exists in the current environment, or in the past, is well worth a look. If you find it hard to express need or to raise it when needs aren’t met, there’s probably a history to this. At what time in your life were you denied your basic needs? If you can identify it, this helps greatly. If you are still in that situation, it is, I promise you, the situation that needs to change. Ask why it is hard to seek help, or to make sure you get your needs met. Ask what or who you are afraid of. Ask what expectations you have, or think others have.

The most fundamental need of all, is the need to feel entitled to the basic things that keep humans functioning. If you don’t feel entitled to be treated like everyone else, this is a tough thing to overcome. I think it helps to figure out why this is the case. If you’ve got anyone you think is on your side, talk to them. If you have trouble thinking about what you would need, think of someone you love, and then think about what you would want for them in the same situation. It can be a good way of going around an issue.

If your self esteem has been damaged such that you struggle to get your basic needs met, then one of the things you need is a kinder and more supportive environment in which you can build a better sense of self. Move towards the people who treat you well, and do what you can to get away from the influence of anyone who treats you as though you do not deserve the most basic things. No one develops poor self esteem alone. It isn’t a failing on your part. It isn’t something inherently wrong with you, it’s something born of a context. If that context is in your past, you have a better chance at letting it go and rediscovering yourself. If you are in a situation that is sapping you, it may be harder to get out or to seek better spaces, but I urge you to try, and that no one, ever deserves to feel worthless.

If you find you are living in an abusive environment that you’ve tolerated because you thought you were worthless, please take note: Leaving is the most dangerous time. When you leave, you are at greatest risk of violence. Get help. You deserve help, and help can be found. Talk to the police.


Druidry and Spirits of Place

As my contribution to Pagan Pride in Nottingham, I talked about Druidry and spirits of place. It’s not the first time I’ve talked about this at a Pagan gathering. Spirits of place are pretty much at the heart of my sense of what Druidry is and how to approach it. I tend not to label it as such when I’m blogging because I tend to be focused on something specific – bats this summer, trees, foxes and so forth.

Over the last few years, what I think of as my Druidry has been increasingly about the spiritual aspect of connecting with what’s directly around me. I’ve become less interested in the eight main festivals than I was before. For me, they are purely about community and human tradition, and that’s fine and I can make room for it, but they aren’t where my Druidry lives. Formal ritual doesn’t do it for me in terms of personal practice. I’m more interested in contemplation and communion and the process of being a body in a landscape. I’m interesting in encountering and being encountered.

What flows from this is a growing number of relationships at various stages of development. There’s no feeling of a need to do anything with this – it does not call for rituals, or dramatic action, or big declarations. It is small scale, day to day stuff and it is the fabric of my life. There is nothing in this I can use as a power base – it does not give me magical power, or uncanny insight, or the backing of Gods. It does not give me anything to call upon for my own ends. What it does give me is a keen sense of the numinous in the familiar, and a lot of encounters with wild beings.

This is not a path. This is a relationship with a place, in which there are many paths that I walk in the most literal sense of the words. I walk the paths of the place where I live. I walk, and I encounter and I experience. I do not transcend, or progress, or ascend, or become enlightened. I’m just another mammal moving through the trees. I’ve been exploring Druidry for about sixteen years now. I’ve done the OBOD course, I’ve stood in big public rituals, I’ve hung out with The Druid Network, I’ve read a lot of books. What I want from Druidry is my own intimate relationship with the world, and increasingly, that’s what I’ve got.

On Sunday, one of the people who came to my talk asked if I’d got a book on the subject. I don’t, but I’m seriously considering writing one. It will likely be a slow process, and if I do it, it will take a year or more, most likely. I’m not sure how attractive a book it would be – I can’t offer power, or conventional magic, or progress or status with this kind of work. I know at the same time that this whole way of being and doing is working really well for me and that there could be a few other people who would be interested to know what I’ve done and how I’ve gone about it.

So I’m just floating it out there to see if this is something I should try and write.


Pagan Pride

At the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending Pagan Pride in Nottinghamn. It’s a very large Pagan gathering, but hard to tell how large with people spread out in a park, under trees. As someone who finds tight packed crowds incredibly stressful, I was delighted to find that there was always room, and space, and tree shade, and at no point was it overwhelming.

Much to my delight, the event gave me opportunity to meet in person many people I have known online for years, including Moon Books authors Barbara Meiklejohn-Free, and Taz Thornton. My son went to one of Taz’s workshops and had a fantastic time. It was good to meet Indie Shaman’s June Kent, too, and to catch up with Paul Cudby – author of The Shaken Path, a brilliant book taking a sympathetic look at Paganism from a Christian perspective. Quite a few people told me that I email them about review books, or that they follow this blog, or know me from my Pagan Dawn column, which was all very exciting. Working quietly at home it’s easy to feel that I’m not having much effect, so it’s incredibly affirming getting feedback like that.

In terms of meeting new people, the absolute high point for me was finally getting to meet Mike Stygal. I’ve known Mike as an online and in print voice for many years. He’s currently the vice president of the Pagan Federation, after serving for many years as president. He does an amazing amount of very effective work supporting the Pagan community but he’s not a self publicist. He’s a fine example of a person using their power to get things done rather than seeking power for the sake of being important. I’m a big fan. I had to make quite a lot of conscious effort not to go all fan-girl on introduction. He’s every bit as awesome in person as he is in the internet ether.

There is a real power in getting to be bodily in the same space as people. There’s something incredibly uplifting about being in a gathering full of fellow travellers and kindred spirits – I find this is just as true at folk festivals and steampunk events. There is a joy in being surrounded by people you feel are your people. Having time where you can feel a real sense of belonging and acceptability, is wonderful. Pagan spaces are pretty diverse, so it’s not like anyone can look round and see obvious reflections of themselves, but in that space there is so much room to be as I am, and that’s worth so much.

There are questions to ask about what the environmental cost is of gatherings and travelling to gatherings. How we balance up the impact of what we do. I acknowledge a personal, emotional need for spaces where I can connect in person with other people. I acknowledge that there is always an environmental impact to doing this. I think if you yearn for something because it feeds your soul, then the answer may well be to make more dramatic changes in some other aspect of your life so that your overall impact isn’t too high.