Category Archives: Philosophy

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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What is treason?

Treason, and traitor are words I’ve seen bandied about a lot of late, especially with regards to anyone in the UK who remains in favour of the EU (about half of us, if not more). Treason is an interesting concept that could use a more careful look.

Historically, treason is a feudal concept. Treason is the betrayal of your monarch, and by extension, your country. It comes from rebelling against the monarchy, and it is easily used to get rid of people the monarch doesn’t like. Anne Boleyn was executed for treasonous adultery, for example. As it’s a punishment primarily affecting power hungry nobles, and thus also potentially benefiting other power hungry nobles, it’s not been greatly challenged in history. And of course challenging the notion of treason would bring you dangerously close to being treasonous.

Rather revealingly, there’s also a thing called ‘petty treason’. This is the crime of social disruption and attacking the hierarchy – if a wife killed her husband or a servant killed their master, they would be executed for petty treason.

Democracy allows us to challenge and question authority. It allows us to ask for change without risk of death or injury. At least in theory. Having radically different political ideas should not be considered treason, nor should honest mistakes that lead to significant problems. In a democracy, what should we consider treason? Clearly it can’t be about affronting the monarch any more.

I think for something to count as treason now, we’d have to be looking at the deliberate betrayal of a country as a whole in a way intended to cause harm to the citizens, infrastructure or viability of that country. However, to distinguish treason from cock-up I think there would have to also be an element of benefit to the people undertaking the action. Destroying the land and polluting the water for the sake of personal profit (fracking). Ruining the economy so as to profit from short selling currency and shares. Being paid by a foreign power to harm the country. Putting life in danger by putting personal profit ahead of environmental safety. These, for me, would be modern acts of treason.

I find it strange that people can get away with destroying the fabric of the land for the sake of private profit, and that not be considered an assault on the country as a whole. Yet at the same time, people who are pro-Europe are labelled traitors.


Fake it until you make it?

Faking it is a complicated practice. You may find that wearing a fake persona some of the time can be very useful – as a way of dealing with the public, or with colleagues for example. A certain amount of fakeness can be necessary for achieving a professional demeanour. If it works for you and enables you to get things done, then fair enough.

Playing a role, or roles you think other people want you to play, can be exhausting. Presenting as the person you think people want you to be, because you feel that your authentic self wouldn’t be acceptable, is pretty grim. I’ve been there, and I’ve done it. I’ve tried to be nice, and helpful and kind and co-operative with all comers. I’ve also failed utterly at this and found it left me feeling miserable and isolated. I am better off dealing with people who do not need me to be mostly working to please them. I guess a certain amount of this may be inevitable in life, but the question of how much you can stomach is an important one.

If you feel (rightly or wrongly) that you true self isn’t acceptable and that you must fake your nature to get by, it can be soul destroying. It can lead to bitterness, and resenting the people who don’t have to fake it. Behind the pleasant persona, a person can be burning up with rage and frustration. This can become an array of things. It might lead to the cognitive dissonance of narcissism, with the tension between persona, and feared worst version of self becoming the basis of dreadful behaviour. It can be a way in which oppression is piled onto the oppressed, too. If you are not allowed to function as a complete person with your own feelings and needs, this can add weight to other abuses. The pressure on the oppressed to ‘act nice’ is a way of keeping people down, and powerless and silent.

Faking it for the benefit of someone else may well be a very bad idea for your own wellbeing.

I think it all works very differently if you want to be other than you are. Pretending to be a certain way helps build habits and patterns of behaviour, and most of what we do is habit. Wanting to live a certain way by faking the habit until it becomes your normal life is a reasonable way to get things done. Faking attributes and virtues that you want to have, until they truly become part of who you are, can be a good way of making change. There’s an interplay between who we are and what we do. The person who wants to change who they are can get a lot done by changing what they do in-line with what they aspire to be.

I’ve done this around the issue of patience. I was not a naturally patient person. I’ve spent a lot of years faking it. I’m a more patient person than I was. I feel good about this because it’s a change I sought.

Our first responses aren’t always our best ones. We can react from experience, from family stories and cultural norms to think, feel and do things we don’t like. There’s nothing inauthentic about wanting to change. If the change is really about you, then you’ll feel good about making it, even when it gets challenging. If the change is about appeasing other people, it may always chafe, or make you miserable, and it probably needs questioning. Unless your nature inclines you to hurt and harm other people, you shouldn’t need to fake an identity for the sake of those around you.


Contemplating Resilience

It looks increasingly like ‘resilience’ is going to be a key word for me in all sorts of ways. I think it’s an essential part of making change, and I think it’s something best handled at a community level, not a personal level.

How do I approach things that are fragile and help them become more robust and survivable? It’s something to consider with regards to the people around me. It’s a question for social groupings, for businesses I am involved with, for volunteer outfits I’m working with, and for the place I live. It’s a wider question for us as a species and I expect that exploring resilience on the small scale will lead me to a lot of thoughts about the larger scale, too.

It’s not the first time in my life I’ve moved towards a concept that will define how I go forward. It may be the most conscious I’ve been in doing that. Without resilience, everything else becomes harder and less likely. If I can help develop coping mechanisms, support systems, more dependable and enduring structures, I can keep good things keep going. I can help good people keep going.

How do we fairly share resources? How do we support each other, practically and emotionally? What are we willing and able to pay for? What can we do if financial support isn’t an option? How can we think and act more collectively for the common good rather than feeling isolated and powerless? These are questions that open the way to more resilient ways of being. Asking what we can do for each other that makes things better is the heart of how we achieve greater resilience.

What can I do? In some of the specific situations I’m looking at, there are practical things that need to change to achieve greater resilience. Too much knowledge and responsibility shouldered by too few people. In some of the situations, the key is cash flow, and getting money moving in better ways will increase the amount of resources available and put a number of people I care about on a better footing. I need to work differently so that others will be better paid, and I’m fine with that. Selfishness is very much at odds with resilience, it isolates us and encourages us to compete rather than co-operating, which in turn makes us all more vulnerable.

What can I do to help the people around me be more emotionally resilient? This is a tricky one. It brings up questions of how much care and energy is invested in whom, and who I am willing to feel responsible for. Factoring my own resilience into the mix, I just can’t afford to invest too much of my energy in people who take a lot and put very little back in. When I look at how best to deploy myself as a resource, the most immediate answer is that I can’t really afford the people who see me only as a resource to deploy, because that undermines my own resilience. Depression and anxiety make me less effective. Exhaustion increases my risks of depression and anxiety. I need to learn how to attach my own oxygen mask first.


The contradictions inherent in virtue

Every virtue has the seed of its own destruction inside it. Taken too far, or taken the wrong way and things that should have been virtuous and brought good into the world become dysfunctional or damaging. The problems come when we get too focused on practicing the specific virtue and stop putting it in the context of a bigger picture.

Tolerance that tolerates intolerance sows the seeds of its own destruction. When you accept that all views deserve to be heard and all comers are due a place at the table, you empower those who will take power from others. Tolerance needs to be conditional on excluding the truly intolerant. When we’re so invested in our tolerance that we’ll tolerate anything and anyone, we enable Nazis, fascists and other haters.

Modesty and humbleness, and avoiding pride can in itself become a form of pride. These are particularly Christian virtues, and the way they seed their own destruction can often be best seen in those who claim Christianity as their faith. When people become enthusiastic participants in their own martyrdom, and keen to announce how humble, modest and good they are, it’s pride in a different hat. But it’s more problematic than simple, honest pride, because it’s also self deluding.

Being kind can become profoundly unkind when it supports people in doing harmful things. If we’re too kind to tell someone that what they do isn’t working. If we’re too kind to call out an abuser, question dodgy thinking or protest at inappropriate behaviour, we enable all those things. The kindness that lets someone carry on destroying their own life isn’t very kind at all.

Often the wider frame we need for navigating here, is honour. But even honour holds the seeds of its own destruction. If we focus on how to appear honourable and how to put ourselves forward as the best and most honourable people, we won’t always do what’s needed. Sometimes what’s needed is a lot more complicated than personal honour will allow. When the laws become toxic and the leaders are false, it ceases to be honourable to hold up laws or dutifully follow leaders. When the truth around you is evil, lying can become necessary. When the system is unfair, cheating can become essential.

At every turn, you can use the seed of destruction within a virtue to act badly while claiming the moral high ground. At every turn, you can use the knowledge that every virtue has its limitations to justify not even trying, or to protest that virtue itself is meaningless. It is a difficult thing to meaningfully practice virtue in a dishonourable age.


Freedom, responsibility and community

I ran into existential philosophy in my teens, and with it the idea that you can only have freedom in so far as you are willing to take responsibility. It’s a notion I’ve carried with me into everything I do. What it gets you, is a very different sense of what freedom even means.

All too often, people take freedom to mean selfishness and the scope to do what one will, act on whims, run off alone and generally be antisocial. Now, I’m very much with the wiccans on this one – an it harm none, do what you will. Freedom without being alert to harm is not any kind of good at all. Freedom that doesn’t care about harm easily turns into abuse and exploitation. We can think about how big companies treat the planet and living things. We can consider the freedoms the rich have and who pays for those.

There’s a lot of noise in politics at the moment about the way in which those who have should not be called upon to support the have-nots. Freedom from social responsibility for the rich is not something I understand. When it manifests, it is framed as a good thing for those being relieved of their responsibility, but what does that do? What does it mean to feel no responsibility for anyone else? No duty of care? No ownership of the suffering of others?

When we undertake to be responsible for each other’s wellbeing, we create community. When we are willing to care enough to lift up those who are less well off than us, we increase the amount of good in the world. When we see ourselves as involved with and invested with the lives around us – human and non-human alike, we are rewarded by our own sense of connection. The person who engages and takes responsibility is never alone. The person who can only care about themselves can only seek comfort in wealth and material goods, and these things do not provide comfort.

Rather than talking about freedom from responsibilities, we need to explore the very different kind of freedom you get by taking responsibility for other lives. It is an honour and a blessing to hold that kind of responsibility. It is a place of power and openness, and it lifts the person who gives as much as the person who receives.


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?


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.