Category Archives: Philosophy

Telling people to be grateful

While I’m largely in favour of practicing gratitude, I’m also interested in the ways it doesn’t always work. Telling people to be grateful can be one of those problem points. I see this as distinctly different from encouraging people to practice gratitude, which is fine. Broad encouragement pokes people towards looking at the good things in their life, appreciating them, voicing that appreciation and so forth. Telling people to be grateful has a very different swing to it. It’s come up recently with newspapers telling black people that they ought to be more grateful over their personal achievements.

If you’re telling someone to be grateful, it assumes you know what’s going on in their lives. They may not see their situation as being one where gratitude is an appropriate response. If you’ve worked your arse off to get somewhere against great odds, being grateful for the crumbs others have dropped is not a healthy response. If we make something positive out of disaster or tragedy, we should not be pressured to feel grateful for the awfulness that set things in motion.

If one party is telling another party what to do, it tends to indicate a massive power imbalance. Telling someone how they are supposed to feel is a way of invalidating their emotional responses. It can be a way of writing off a person’s experience, background, struggles and personal effort. Focusing on the need for gratitude can draw attention away from both the work a person has done, and the barriers they faced to getting to where they are. If people are achieving things in spite of prejudice, disadvantage, illness, poverty, lack of privilege… telling them to focus on what they should be grateful for is a way of taking power away from them. It says ‘don’t look at what you did, think of everything that helped’. And that isn’t always appropriate, or fair. Using the idea of gratitude to stop people celebrating their own achievements really isn’t cool.

Telling people they should express gratitude runs the risk of turning gratitude into an act of public performance. It can stop people from being authentic. It can stop people talking about the difficulties they’ve faced. For gratitude to be meaningful, it has to be felt. If instead, it is something we feel obliged to perform to avoid criticism, it becomes a very hollow, potentially toxic activity.

It’s always worth asking why it is we want a person to express more gratitude. What do we want them to shut up about? What do we not want to think about or deal with? What of theirs are we trying to own for ourselves?

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Shifting the boundaries

I was never terribly good at boundaries, growing up. Being a parent taught me a great deal about boundary setting. It’s no good declining to give a child boundaries, because that can leave them feeling unsafe and unable to navigate. Boundaries that are too limiting and rigid create resentment and restrict a child’s growth. The boundaries have to shift as the young person develops and changes. Those boundary shifts have to be talked about, so that they can happen in the right way, and be understood.

It took me a long time to realise that all the same things apply to adults. We need to have some sense of where the permissible edges are. We need the right to hold boundaries, but also the freedom to change them at need. Where we draw our lines in one instance cannot be taken as the rule for where our lines are. If I say yes to something once, I have not said yes to it forever.

Developing trust between people can mean a process of changing where the boundaries are. The process of interacting with each other can change how we feel and think, what we need and expect, and what risks we’re willing to take.

In some ways I’ve become a lot more guarded with my boundaries in recent years. I am far less tolerant of people who try to cross my lines uninvited. That’s about emotional lines as much as it is about physical contact. In some ways I’ve become softer in my boundaries because there are people I trust to honour what I say, and to still honour what I say if I need to change things.

We like clear and simple rules because they seem easiest to work with. But for every rule – religious or secular – it’s easy to think of times when breaking the rule would be the better choice. Lying isn’t good, but if Anne Frank is in the attic and Hitler is at the door, of course you lie. I’m not in favour of killing people, but sometimes this is necessary to save lives. If a shooter walks into a school, there should be no question about trained police taking them out in any way they can. And of course because people are difficult, this kind of argument can then be used to try and justify arming anyone who wants to be armed. Give people clear and simple rules for all situations and a subset of those people will always try and bend the rules for their own gain.

When it comes to dealing with people, simple rules tend not to work very well. What we have are massively complex social structures full of privileges and power imbalances. Our dealings with large numbers of people are shaped by rules, habits, social norms. These are not easy things to think about, which is why I think it pays to focus on the most immediate and specific interactions where we have the most scope to make change.

How do we recognise and honour other people’s boundaries?

Do we have any habits of thought that might means we’re not listening? Do we assume our own rights or entitlements trump someone else’s? Do we think a certain kind of person just makes a fuss?

What do we do when our boundaries aren’t respected? Do we have choices?

How we deal with each other’s boundaries is a fundamental building block for our societies as a whole. What we normalise, or ignore. What we undertake to change. What we refuse to back down over. What we demand other people take seriously.


Judging well

Being judgemental is something that tends to be discouraged on spiritual paths. We often hear that we shouldn’t judge each other, and should be more accepting of each other. In many contexts, this has merit, but judgement, like all things, is complicated. If we reduce it to a handful of simple instructions, many good things can be lost to us.

Judgement is a concept that is often framed as a way of putting someone else down. To judge is to criticise, to find fault or insufficiency or to apportion blame. However, this is just one set of options.

What happens when we go out into the world determined to seek out the very best? When we look around us to judge what is most beautiful, most valuable, most worthy? When we do that so that we can follow through by supporting it?

We make judgements all the time about how to use our time, energy and resources. Those decisions may not be especially conscious or deliberate, and may be driven by habit or cultural pressures. When we judge deliberately, we become able to invest deliberately.

If we pause to scrutinise what we do in our spare time – to take a not too contentious example – then all kinds of things may emerge. It is quite normal to relax by flopping down in front of the telly. It is quite normal to spend a lot of time scrolling through social media. It’s when you start judging your down time for what it gives you that you learn who you are and what you most benefit from. I find a little social media time can be highly beneficial to me, but if I keep doing it through lack of any better ideas, I suffer. I benefit greatly from time spent crafting. I do better watching a single film in an evening than whatever a television had on it. When I judge, I can pick the best of what’s on offer, and act on that. Other people’s judgments will naturally yield different results.

I have only so much time in a day, only so much energy. When I make deliberate judgements about what’s good and what’s best, I can invest that time and energy more carefully. I can decide what and who to support to best effect, rather than having my energy dissipate in dribs and drabs. I can judge what does me most good, and what does me no good at all. I can judge where I am most effective, and where I don’t make much odds and can act accordingly. By being really judgemental, I make myself more effective.

If I love something, then I’ll throw myself into supporting it. That might be about a specific book, or an author, a musician, a cause, a community… Judging opens the way to action. At the same time, I don’t waste my time and energy on things that I judge unfavourably. I move away, I quietly let go, I invest no energy. That something isn’t for me doesn’t render it valueless. It just means there’s nothing I can usefully do or gain from contact. There’s no point squandering resources over drama around that.

‘Don’t judge’ can sometimes be a kind option, but it can also be a recipe for being bland and non-descript, and having no direction or values. It can be a means of encouraging us simply to hide from ourselves the judgements we make. If you are going to judge, better to do so consciously. Harness your judgement as a means to focus on what is good, and it becomes a powerful tool for your journey rather than a problem you have to overcome.


Fickleness, loyalty and virtue

Loyalty is generally seen as a virtue. In heroic cultures, loyalty to your leader is much prized – loyalty makes it to the list of nine Heathen virtues for this reason. It is key to cooperation, and is woven into marriage vows as well – we often pledge to love each other in sickness and in health, for better or worse – to be loyal regardless of adverse circumstances or better offers. To stick with someone, or something when the going gets tough, can take courage and determination as well as generosity. Loyalty is something to treasure.

However, like all ideas, it has its limits. Staying loyal to the person who has abused your loyalty stops looking like virtue and starts looking like self harm. If people are not loyal to us in return, it may be ill advised to remain faithful and devoted to them. Staying loyal to someone who has behaved dishonourably is also questionable. JK Rowling’s loyalty to Johnny Depp, for example, does not inspire confidence in her, and strikes me as a rather dishonourable choice. There can be no honour in loyally sticking up for the cheat, the abuser, or the exploiter.

Loyalty can get us stuck places to no one’s benefit. Sometimes you just need to come in, and do the things, and when the things are done, move on. Staying out of a sense of loyalty can keep something going that is no longer use or ornament. As Pagans we recognise that death and decay are part of the natural cycle. Everything has its seasons, its lifespan. To loyally cling on and not give up on something that needs to be allowed to die may feel like virtue, without having the consequences of virtue.

Truly virtuous behaviour, from a Pagan perspective, makes more good happen. It enables, it causes self and/or others to flourish. Virtue promotes health and wellbeing, and enables us to have good lives in all the sense of that word. Anything taken to excess won’t do that. Loyalty taken to excess becomes limiting and harmful.

We all need room to experiment and to change. What made sense for us at one life stage may stop making sense as we age. Our needs shift. Sometimes we all need the freedom to flit between projects, jobs, friends, lovers, belief systems, in order to figure out who we are and where we fit. Sometimes we need to be fickle, to change our minds, to pull away from what we once enthusiastically embraced. If loyalty must be absolute, and commitment must be unconditional and for always, we stifle ourselves.


The treacherous desire for simple answers

There’s something alluring and comforting in a simple answer. Especially when that answer says there’s no problem, or blames someone else. It is true of course that sometimes the simplest answer is the best one. The Gordian knot solutions sometimes make sense. However, many problems are complex and multi-faceted in their nature, they exist for multiple reasons and can’t be tidied up by building a wall, rejecting a minority, or blaming the victim.

Why do we favour simple answers even when they are manifestly inadequate? Why do we accept simple blame narratives? For example the right blames the poor for being lazy and thus causing economic woes, the left blames the rich for taking more than their fair share. Very few people seem willing to talk about fundamental issues with capitalism and markets, because those are really difficult and will make your brain hurt, and aren’t easily solved. The desire for the easy solution may make us accept the offer of it even though it can’t always deliver.

Some of it is no doubt cultural – if mostly what you hear is people telling you there are simple answers to complex problems, you may just absorb that. You may feel they are better qualified to know, or believe that they can use their simple answers to solve things for you. You may be happier with an answer that makes immediate sense to you rather than one full of jargon ad details that are largely alien.

There may be an aspect of how we teach young people. If you grow up learning that there are right answers for exams, and every subject is reduced in this way, then as an adult you may expect binary yes/no answers to life’s questions. If we don’t teach complexity, nuance, multiplicity, then it isn’t reasonable to expect everyone will get there by themselves.

Some of this may come from popular culture, where we expect to know who the good guys and the badies are in a film. Films often offer us the simple solutions of destruction and death to otherwise complicated problems. Heroes win. Villains die. We know who is who. We don’t tell each other stories about the complexity of human nature, how most people have an array of qualities some better than others, how asshats turn up everywhere. We put Nazis in uniforms and make the serial killers and rapists into freaks, so we all think we’d recognise them if they moved in next door. We don’t talk about the ordinariness of human horror, and how hard to recognise it is from the outside.

Simple answers often lay the blame elsewhere, so often what they give us is the reassurance that we personally need not change. It’s not our buying choices, our lifestyles, our desires that need working on. Someone else has to sort it out. Change is generally threatening, most people aren’t keen on it, so the reassurance that you won’t have to do differently may be really appealing.

We need to tell each other more complex stories, and become open to more complicated answers. Humans aren’t tidy creatures. We may like simple answers, but seldom respond well to our own implementing of them.


Contemplating hate

Hate isn’t an emotion we talk about much. Other people, of course, are haters, and using hate speech, but we don’t so often discuss the role hate may play in our own lives. It’s not a socially acceptable emotion, for the greater part. To express it, most people need to feel part of a group that’s doing the same, and to be sure they are justified. Hate doesn’t always come naturally or easily to us, we may have to work up to it and invest energy in feeling it.

Hate goes with revulsion and rejection. We save our hate for the things and people we feel are most unlike us, so it can be an emotion that does a lot to define us. Which if you end up hating haters, can get complicated!

Hating people is an exhausting business and can put them at the centre of your world. Focus too much on hating someone and you can end up more like them. You give them space in your mind and life, and the attention you pay to that hate is no great joy. However, hate is also a powerful emotion, and this is no doubt part of why we have a long history or cursing as part of magical traditions. We all like to think our hate is valid, justified and reasonable, and most of us won’t look at it too hard to make sure this is true.

I think we should hate oppression, exploitation and cruelty. We should hate needless suffering, environmental degradation, extinction, and the loss of beauty from the world. These things are not people, and I think that’s important too. There is a world of difference between hating what a person does, and hating a person. When you hate a person, it tends to be about things that are intrinsic to them – race, culture, religion, gender. It’s not about them changing, it is about having power over them, to control, limit and oppress. When you hate what a person does, there’s all the room for them to do something different, and that’s probably what you’re aiming for. If you are canny, you’ll hide the hate in order to try and persuade them to change.

Hate can be a great motivator. It is a recognition of absolute unacceptability. It can be a key part of defining our values and it is not an emotion a person needs to automatically feel ashamed of. We just have to remember that hating doesn’t entitle us to anything, nor does it prove much. How we express it, and why, is what will define us as people.


Resting is a virtuous activity

Industrial cultures are quick to blame anyone who isn’t busy busy busy working and consuming. Our leaders and commentators treat laziness like a mortal sin. It’s lazy people letting the economy down, work harder! It is lazy people who don’t have jobs – magically overcome your illnesses and disadvantages and get useful right now! And so on and so forth. We all hear that all the time, and it is feeding a sense that we have to be busy to be good.

This is total rubbish and doesn’t stack up at all. It’s not those who don’t work who create the problems in the economy, but the whole structure and nature of capitalism. If we want to point fingers at the ‘workshy’ we’d be better focused on those who earn a great deal for doing very little. Our economy depends on us being persuaded to buy things we can’t afford and don’t need – that’s not a good strategy for anyone individually, or for everyone. Debt creates bubbles and bubbles inevitably burst and leave a mess. Blaming those who can’t find work is simply a distraction to stop us from questioning the system itself.

Exhausted people who work all the time won’t do anything revolutionary. They’re too tired. Exhausted people are less able to make good decisions because they don’t have the concentration, and are more easily persuaded to do anything that might give them brief peace and respite. It is worth noting that keeping your victim exhausted is the kind of thing domestic abusers do in order to keep abusing with impunity. I see a lot of parallels between how governments treat the people and how abusers treat victims.

Being well rested makes a person calmer. A calm person can’t be panicked into making a bad decision. A calm person can think things through more easily. The well rested person has better self esteem and is less likely to accept things that harm them. The exhausted person is more likely to feel worthless and be less able to resist exploitation as a consequence.

When you get all the rest you need, you aren’t getting signals from your body to tell you there’s a crisis going on. So you aren’t looking around for something to eat, drink or own that might ease the feeling of crisis. You aren’t trying to buy shortcuts, and won’t be ripped off by people selling you false economies.

The person who rests has the time to reflect, to keep things in perspective, to figure out how they are and what they want. The person who can rest can lead a considered life, self aware and with the knowledge to practice effective self care. Rest time is when we pause to make sense of things, when we can chew over what we’ve learned, and see what’s important and what isn’t. The person who can’t rest may find themselves flailing from one mess to another, with no idea how to stop or even what’s gone wrong.

Rest is a virtuous activity, because rest allows us the space to develop wisdom and insight. The person who is always busy can’t do that in the same way. Hard work is not itself a virtue, and may be at odds with virtue because too much of it destroys the scope for reflection and wisdom.


Do without Doing

The idea that you do without doing and all shall be done comes from the Tao Te Ching. This concept fascinates me, and I’ve been exploring it for some time, trying to understand it. I’ve read various translations of the Tao Te Ching now, and the impression I have is that the person who has entered into the Taoist way isn’t just sitting around meditating, they are present in the world and the things that need doing, are done, but effortlessly.

I am currently experiencing what may be the illusion of understanding something here. So, I’m sharing it.

We can be really invested in looking busy, looking like we’re working hard, really sweating for our results. This is because there is a myth that hard work is a virtue, and another myth that hard work is what brings success. Your background, and your parent’s wealth remain the best indicators of your likely worldly success, not how hard you work, but it is a comforting lie to think we can make it to the top. Put that lie down, and appearing to work hard may seem less attractive.

There is wisdom in knowing what actually needs doing, what matters, what is truly essential. Doing the things that need doing rather than the things we think we should be seen to be doing saves a lot of time and effort. Not worrying what people will think if we aren’t working hard all the time, really opens things up.

I have noticed in my own work that if I am stressed, panicking and flailing then a job takes more time and effort than it does if I come to it calmly. Panic takes energy. If I can avoid situations that panic me – tight deadlines, uncooperative colleagues, being asked to do jobs and not given the resources to do them… it’s easy. If I spend my time doing the things I can do, for people who don’t make life harder for me, the work is simple and almost seems to do itself. If I am happy in my work, and inspired by the work, then the work seems to do itself.

Currently, I think that’s what ‘do without doing’ means. It means doing things in a relaxed and natural way because these are the things that make sense and need doing. No extra arm waving, no stress, no work for the sake of appearing to be working. The more I move in this direction, the happier I am and the easier my work is. Not being time pressured turns out to be especially important for me. I suspect we will each turn out to have things that particularly trip us up and things that are less of an issue and that there’s not a one size fits all solution here.

I’m increasingly interested in my quality of life. It is something I have to seek on my own terms, and worrying what other people will think of me, and what I’ll look like from the outside is clearly something to let go of.


You Animal!

Another blog about habits of speech and why they might need some scrutiny. When a human does something especially vile, it is common to refer to them as an animal. There are a number of problems with this.

For a start, it reinforces the idea that humans are fundamentally better than other animals but that we can fall, through our actions, to being at the same lower level as animals. This in turn backs up all the ways in which we otherwise mistreat and exploit other life forms.

Secondly, it gives the rest of us some rather unreasonable insulation. If we give truly offensive humans animal status, we tell ourselves that they are not us. They are not like us. We are not part of the problem. If the perpetrator in an animal, we don’t need to talk about rape culture, or how fascism is permeating our culture, we don’t need to talk about reasons for radicalisation, or gun control or anything else. Refusing to identify a terrible human being as a terrible human being, we let ourselves off the hook for perhaps helping provide the context in which they have acted.

Thirdly – and this generally applies to men – it suggests there was no scope for them to do better. We often apply animal language to men who sexually offend. They are sharks who can hardly be expected to avoid a piece of meat. Which is shitty logic, because it perpetrates the idea that men can’t control themselves, can’t make rational decisions and so forth. It also suggests that rape is a natural/animal thing and it isn’t. Most species have all kinds of complex things going on around sexual selection. Most often it is the female of the species who chooses the male. Mallard ducks aside, most creatures have reproductive strategies that are either cooperative, or about showing off to attract a female.

At the same time, we deny our fundamental animal natures. We are animals. We are mammals the same as all the other mammals. We are different in some ways but there are plenty of differences between other mammals, too. If we reserve ‘animal’ as a term for those we don’t want to recognise as human, we make it that bit harder to identify ourselves as animals, because it becomes a term of insult. We need to recognise our animal selves, and that all humans are animals of the same sort, stop pretending we are separate from nature, stop denigrating nature and stop creating ways to ignore unacceptable human behaviour.

Changing the words we use won’t change everything overnight, but it is an easy place to start. Change the words we use and we can change how we think about things, and that in turn changes behaviours, and ultimately, cultures.


Reflections on transgender and feminist conflict

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months reading the thoughts of good people who are very supportive of trans rights, good people who are themselves trans, and good people who are very wary about some things around transgender politics, and people on all sides who are downright shitty. I’ve taken my time over piling in, because I’m not trans, and I don’t identify with anti-trans feminists. I find I feel significant sympathies for people on both sides, and significant unease with people on both sides. Usually not the same people.

My starting point is that everyone involved, regardless of their position and opinion, is entitled to have their basic human rights upheld. This means being free from violence and the threat of violence. I am dismayed and disorientated by the violence, and threat of violence coming from all sides. I don’t think it’s ok to punch 60 year old women, however abhorrent you find their opinion. I am also aware that the anti-trans feelings out there can only add to the considerable violence trans folk already experience.

I see online that lesbians who are not comfortable with women who have penises, are being labelled as transphobic. This troubles me greatly. The freedom to love who we love is vital. The freedom to express that as we choose is vital. The right to say no, to any person, for any reason, is vital. I can’t see how not being attracted to someone’s body is phobic. We do not label straight people phobic for not being attracted to same sex people. Every time I go outside I encounter lots of people to whom I feel no attraction. We all of us, as a basic human right, need to be allowed not to have to fake being attracted to people. Being pressured into having sex with someone you do not want to have sex with, is rape.

So, here’s a theory. There are women who have started out with bodies that do not represent them. They identify with, sympathise with, empathise with other women. They want to be recognised as women too. I don’t see any reason to have a problem with this. I know a number of transwomen who I feel very comfortable with and who I have no difficulty identifying as women. Some of them are more feminine than I am, as a cis woman with some gender fluid stuff living in my head.

However, there are also men who want to move into female spaces, bringing all their male privilege with them. Men who want to make women do things for them, and who want women to put them first, and treat them as special, and let them be in charge. Men who feel entitled to tell women who and what they should be attracted to. If a man enters a female space acting from a place of male privilege, I don’t care what he looks like or how he has, or has not modified his body, I’m going to treat him as an entitled man forcing himself into female space. I’ve encountered a bit of this in person, too. It was not a good experience. Anyone who wants to be recognised as a woman cannot at the same time expect to keep their male privilege.

Equally, feminists raising issues about how some men may use trans inclusion to enable predation and violence against women is a thing I take seriously. Female safety is something I take seriously. But, a line is crossed if in the name of feminism, you start trying to deny human rights to someone who is transgender. That’s not what feminism is for. We need to be clear about the differences between human rights, and issues of entitlement if we’re going to figure this stuff out.