Category Archives: Philosophy

Hope

Evil can only be said to have truly won when there’s no one left who cares enough to resist it. Which is one of the reasons I don’t really believe in ideas of ultimate evil, just as I don’t believe in any kind of ultimate ‘good’ either. But, it is certainly true that humans can manifest evil through cruelty, and the acceptance of cruelty.

Faced with deliberate cruelty and oppression, hope is always the most important answer, and the key to resistance. We have to hold on to the hope that this can be overcome, and that enough of us aren’t up for it. We have to maintain our belief in other human beings, sometimes in defiance of all evidence to the contrary. We have to believe that collectively, we can and will do better.

Holding that belief protects us from paralysis. It stops us being totally overwhelmed even when things seem truly overwhelming.

Hope doesn’t have to flourish naturally. It is a path we can choose to walk, a way of being we can choose to adopt no matter what we’re up against. To hope is to refuse to submit to fear, to refuse despair, and apathy and inaction. Hope keeps us trying in whatever small ways we can, to make things better.

And if all else fails, what you do is keep the small flame of your hope alive, until you can find opportunities. We can keep hope alive for each other. We can talk about it, express it, imagine what it would look like, plan and tell stories. We can remind each other of times when hope was justified. We can keep saying ‘we can do better than this’. We are better than this. We aren’t beaten yet.

No matter what happens.

We can do better than this.

We can make things better than this.

It is worth keeping trying.

Never give up. Never surrender.


Being Goldendark

‘Goldendark’ is a term and concept being developed by author and PhD student Kevan Manwaring. I’ve been following his work for years (followers of the blog may be finding him a familiar name as I’ve reblogged him a few times now).

In his blog, Kevan sets out Goldendark thusly “This new approach I term ‘Goldendark’, an aesthetic which daringly engages with the ethical without descending into didacticism. While acknowledging the bleak reality of things it seeks to offer a glimmer of hope – a last gleam of the sun before it sets. This ‘gleam’ could be manifest in the arresting quality of the prose, the originality of the imagery, the freshness of the characterisation, or in redemptive plots.” It’s a work in progress and he’s clear about not wanting to be dogmatic.

When I first read it, the idea really resonated with me. The gothic speaks to me, I’m drawn to dark and creepy things. My formative reading experience on this side was Clive Barker, and the combination of the awe and the awful is something I’ve always been drawn to. Without contrast, you end up with homogenous sludge.

So I was very excited when Kevan reviewed Hopeless Maine and said “gets my Goldendark stamp of approval” (you can read the whole review here.)

The kinds of stories we tell have a massive impact on our culture. We live in dark times. But, if we wallow in the darkness, if all we give ourselves are grim dystopian futures, tyrannies and horror, we lock ourselves into that narrative. I have noticed a lot of people responding to recent political issues with references to The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones. If we believe we’re heading that way, the odds of going there are greatly increased. Here’s to glimmers of hope.


Complexity, spirituality and Paganism

The world religions which have a monastic element tend to emphasise simplicity. However, these are often also religions where there’s an aspect of rejecting or overcoming this material world in favour of spirit. One of the things I’ve always liked about Paganism is the soulful embracing of the physical that goes with nature based religion. Questions of simplicity and complexity do not look the same from a Pagan perspective.

Nature is complex and often gloriously inefficient – evolution wanders forward, and while the longstanding form of the shark may seem graceful and enduring, if they stop swimming about, they drown. Pandas. Everything about pandas demonstrates how evolution can and will take bizarre and complicated routes. Then there’s the issues of food chains and eco systems – subtle and complex webs of interdependence. Where there is life, there’s complexity.

We humans have an observable appetite for it. Our urges to create, to play, to invent and imagine demonstrate that simplicity doesn’t come naturally to us. It has to be imagined, taught, created through discipline and given value. I think many ills can be traced back to this – people forced to live narrow, boring, predictable, grinding lives tend to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol just to give existence some breadth and depth.

Many years ago, I minored in psychology, and became aware of the relationship between complexity and child development. Children need environments that stimulate their senses, but don’t overload them. Sound, touch, smell, sight – whatever is available to you needs something to chew on in early childhood to develop as a human. The same is also true of baby rats, and no doubt all other mammals too. We are not designed for bland or sterile environments but for spaces vibrant with life, possibility, danger and wonder.

As Pagans we know that if you spend time in nature, there’s a lot going on in terms of movement, sound and colour in most parts of the world. A still, silent environment is dead, and probably human. And at the other extreme, the maddeningly over-stimulating environment is also human, because we don’t know when to stop. Rush hour traffic, multi-screen leisure time, noise and light pollution – we’ve become rather adept at creating forms of complexity that make us sick.

We need complexity and stimulation, we suffer when faced with either too little, or too much. The question, as always, is one of balance. We need the kind of complex things to think about and interact with that uplift us – be that the glorious chaos of wild places, a chess game or an opera. Complexity is life, and life is complex. Given any chance to question what we’re doing and I think most of us know what’s too much. We develop skills to tune out, to not see or hear so as to avoid information overloads. The answer is not to keep doing that, but to do something better where we can.


Repeating life lessons

One of the concepts that comes up in various spiritual practices is that the lessons we don’t learn we have to keep facing – perhaps over lifetimes, but quite possibly again and again in this one. If I keep attracting a certain kind of person to me, I should look at what I need to learn from the patterns of interaction to free myself from it. I’ve come to the conclusion this is both true and useful, and wrong and misleading in about equal measure.

Many of us will deal with hundreds, if not thousands of people during the course of our lives. People, is has to be said, are not wholly original. There are and have been billions of us, being standout is difficult. And so, of course, inevitably, we run into the same patterns of behaviour, the same odd dysfunctions and weird habits of relationship. I, to take one of many possible examples, keep running into people who find me excessive and too difficult. It’s something I’ve been hurt by repeatedly.

Of course in the grand scheme of things I run into dozens of people who say nothing at all about my being too intense – they don’t notice, or don’t care, or don’t feel moved to mention it, or maybe on some rare occasions, even turn out to like it. Because I’m paying attention to the pattern of people who find me excessive, that’s the pattern I see. If I focus on the pattern of people who have used me, or the people who betrayed my trust, or the people who weren’t who I thought they were, I could make those patterns centre stage instead.

I expect everyone has the same sorts of lists, of people who let them down, or did the thing that really hurt, whatever it was. Stories become prominent shapes in our lives when we notice them and pay attention, and the stories that have hurt us are especially good at getting noticed.

There’s nothing cosmic going on here. The universe is not setting this up to teach me lessons, because it doesn’t need to. There are enough people as a percentage of the population who fear emotional intensity, that I am bound to run into one every few years.

It’s the patterns we don’t deal with that cause the problems. If you are the sort of person who can see a narcissist coming from half a mile away, narcissists will not give you much trouble. If you’re quick to drop users, if you aren’t open to emotional blackmail, and so on and so forth, you will push these people away fast, without even noticing perhaps. They’ll see you aren’t good to latch onto.

So when we ‘learn our lesson’ and the universe stops sending us that lesson, in fact no such thing is happening. We’ll say ‘Sorry, I won’t do that’ the first time a thing comes up and the user will move on and we won’t necessarily see what we avoided. The ‘lessons’ are still there, we’re just holding a different, and better relationship with them.

The trouble with the idea that the universe is sending us lessons, is how responsible it makes us. If you have a run on sexually abusive people, that’s utterly shit luck, and not because you are somehow responsible for attracting them. Abusers exist, they have to show up somewhere. Nothing is directing them to a specific person to teach them lessons, and if we can all learn to take such things a bit less personally, we can be a lot kinder to ourselves and to each other.


Questioning the toxic people

The internet is resplendent with memes about getting the toxic people out of our lives. It sounds simple, and of course in some cases is true. If you’re feeling miserable or anxious, before you assume you’re experiencing mental illness, it’s always worth checking to see if your feelings are largely caused by arseholes. Anyone who is ‘stealing your energy’ and bringing you down seems to be fair game in this process, but life isn’t as simple as memes.

It’s certainly true that if we successfully surround ourselves with people who only tell us how great we are, that we will, in the short term, feel better. If this is because we’re largely awesome, then getting rid of the haters may help us continue to be awesome and happier with it. Most of us, it has to be said, are significantly flawed. It’s part of what makes us human. We aren’t saints. Sometimes, it’s the people who love us most who will tell us what we most need to know about our own cock-ups.

Are the toxic people really toxic, or are we just experiencing them that way for our own reasons? It’s easy to get annoyed by people who share our failings, or possess qualities we dislike in ourselves. They are no more toxic than we are, and learning to tolerate them, can help us be more at peace with ourselves. Throwing them out of our lives can increase our discomfort with those shared qualities, it can do us more harm than good.

Are we finding people draining simply because we don’t have much to spare right now? Recognising our own shortages and insufficiencies, and perhaps a dash of guilt for not being able to do much to help others, we can be kinder to us, and perhaps a bit more tolerant of them as well. They aren’t toxic, we aren’t toxic, we’re all a bit stuck right now – this happens.

Do we find people toxic because they fail to be who we wanted them to be? Did we have ideas and expectations and needs that they’ve not magically fitted in with? Did they turn out to be flawed, human and possessed of their own agenda? Are they not our soul’s reflection, guru, glorious leader, saviour, hero after all? We don’t have to hate them for that. We can get over it and get to know them for who they are.

It’s important to consider that other people make honest mistakes, or have different ways of making sense of things, or different beliefs about what would be useful. That’s not necessarily toxic, just unhelpful.

When we can recognise and honour each other’s humanity, many of the things that might otherwise look like the toxicity of others starts to wear a much more acceptable and human face. It might not be great, but it doesn’t need running away from. There are people for whom this isn’t true, and they become more obvious when looked at this way. The people who keep doing the same things even when they’ve been told those things aren’t good. The people who always put themselves first regardless of the cost to others, who kick you when you’re down, demand, take, blackmail, manipulate and keep doing it. The people who trade in endless put downs and humiliation, power trips, ego trips. These are the people to move away from.


Those who remain

A bit back, I spent some time exploring possible alternative story shapes to the hero’s journey. At the end of the journey, the hero comes back with the new shiny thing – be that an object, a power, or an insight. Then the hero has to persuade the rest of the tribe that the new shiny thing has value, and sometimes, this is the hardest bit of the whole journey. Can the tribe accommodate the hero’s experience? They probably can’t understand him, they may resist change, or resent his ideas.

I think it’s worth pondering the journey of those who remain. For a start, if no one stays put, there is no closing act of the hero coming home. There is no home to come back to. The tradition and resistance the hero might struggle with, is also the thing that will hold his innovation ready for some future hero to have a problem with it.

Those who remain may have made heroic journeys at some previous time. However, those who remain as a choice, who make their journey through the same landscape day by day, still make a journey and their role is an important one. To be honest, this is a role I identify with far more than that of the wandering hero. My inclination is to stay, to put down roots, craft community and have a space for the wanderers to come back to.

Staying does not oblige me to resent those who travel. I do not have to be jealous of their journeys, nor need I feel threatened by them. I can be open to the stories and insights they bring back, and I can listen and bear witness when they reach the end of a particular journey and need to unload. For me this is not a hypothetical thing. As we develop a tribe in the valleys of Stroud, I notice that many of my people are adventurers, going forth repeatedly into the world to make their journeys and coming back with tales to tell. Not usually the world altering revelations of the official hero’s journey, but change nonetheless.

Many good things happen when we can embrace the domestic side of this story. The tribe the wandering hero returns to need not be resentful and unable to understand. The tribe may be full of people who have also wandered, and so do in fact get what it means to go away and come back again. Being the tribe, being the bit that stays at home need not be equated with narrow mindedness or disinterest. We do not have to be the final challenge to be overcome on a hero’s journey. We can thus point the way to the possibility of heroic journeys that are not conflict orientated, and that do not have to be struggle at every turn.


Risk taking and safe spaces

All too often ‘safe’ is treated like some kind of pathetic, counterproductive retreat for the innately useless. Talent show TV programs bully and ridicule the ‘talent’ as entertainment, while people who ask for safe spaces can expect to be mocked.

What happens when you give a person a safe space? Based on experience of holding safe spaces for people, and the experience of being in places where I feel safe, the results are not what might be expected. Safety has never, in my experience, resulted in people being comfortably crap. What happens instead is that people who feel safe are empowered to take risks.

A safe space means a space where you will be treated with kindness and respect. It doesn’t mean being rewarded for messing up, but it does mean having messing up as a recognised part of being human, and striving. It’s very difficult to do anything new or groundbreaking without making mistakes. Knowing that if you try to reach high and fail, no one will kick you if you miss and fall, makes it easier to reach. People who keep reaching, achieve all kinds of things. People who are afraid to make mistakes will play it safe and will have far less scope to develop.

Recent years took a toll on my confidence. I’d largely stopped performing, I’d not MCed in ages. Getting out in public to perform and participate was not easy. If I’d been met with hostility, ridicule, or anything of that ilk, I would have stopped very quickly. Instead, I found warmth, friendship, permission and opportunity. I felt braver as a consequence. Last week I ventured to sing one of my own songs, and I’ve pushed repeatedly to do things that were outside the comfort zone. It’s been possible to face down my anxiety because I’ve been in the company of people I know are on my side.

Alongside that, I’ve watched others take risks and flourish, finding skills they hadn’t known they possessed. Safe space makes that possible.

As a culture, we’re addicted to competition, and to the humiliation of others. We’re collectively quick to pull down and stomp on those who, in reaching for something better, stumble a bit. It’s not a good way to get things done. A few laughs at each other’s expense, and that’s all the benefit to be had. When we support each other, the possible outcomes are far more exciting.


Alternatives to forgiveness

Forgiveness is often held as a spiritual value, and doing it is supposed to make us better people. There are times when I’d cheerfully go along with that – when what I’m dealing with is just human mess, and the kind of innocent failing that comes from being alive. To learn, we have to risk messing up. To try new things, or engage with new people, we have to risk mistakes. As I commented on recently, second chances are good, and precious things, in the right context.

There are people I won’t forgive. People who crossed lines into deliberate harm, and repeat offenders. Second chances are gifts, but once it’s third, fourth, fifth chances, I stop being cooperative. Sometimes not forgiving people is essential to holding boundaries and maintaining personal safety. Sometimes, there is no excuse, no explanation and no apology that can fix what has been done.

So, what to do when forgiveness isn’t an acceptable way forward? Hanging on to anger with someone can mean hurting yourself. It can mean becoming defined by the story of what they did – and the main effect of that is to give the person you can’t forgive even more power over your life. Squashing anger is a recipe for trouble. Denying it, even if we think that anger isn’t the sort of thing we should feel, is of no great help. First, there has to be a process. If may be rage, or grief, it may be like the stages of bereavement. Whatever you have to go through, do it. Deal with what happened and how you feel about it. This will take exactly as long as it takes.

Get to a point where you can put it down. This is not the same as forgiveness, because it in no way lets the other person off the hook or creates peace. If someone has, for example, tried to destroy your life, why would you want peace with them? What I need in that context – what I think most of us need – is safety and distance. In terms of the inner self, it means processing it so that I can get them out of my head, and not be occupied or troubled by what happened. In more extreme circumstances, counselling is appropriate for this.

There are people I will never forgive. But I very seldom think about them. I don’t engage with them, in life or in my head unless something triggers it. I don’t lug the rage and resentment round with me. I do still have my scars, which I will not do anything to negate or diminish. It’s the scars that we have to make peace with – learning to see them as things done to us, and not defining features of who we are. Forgive the body that carries the scars. Forgive the heart that was broken and the too trusting nature that let this happen. Forgive the naivety, the hope, the desperation, the gullibility, the not running away fast enough. The not knowing it was wrong, or how to defend your boundaries, or whatever it was. Forgive where you need to. Forgive the honest, well meant human mistakes – yours and other people’s.

Honest mistakes, and human failing deserve forgiveness. Deliberate cruelty, does not.

 


Second chances

Life cannot be depend upon to deliver us second chances. Moments pass. Things that we allow to slip through our fingers swim away, never to be seen again. People die, and we never said ‘I love you’. Sometimes an earthquake means there is no going back to the much loved place. Sometimes technology means the job no longer exists. Best to jump now, I always think. While you can, while it’s there to be jumped for. Tomorrow may be too late.

Sometimes life does deliver second chances, and these are rare and precious gifts. If you know you got it horribly wrong the first time, if you know what the mistake was, or why you hesitated, if there is regret… A second chance is a miracle.

To give a second chance is to practice benevolence and generosity. It is to forgive, and to hope for better, to trust, and to create opportunity. Get it wrong, and of course everything can go awry that went wrong before. But there are only so many opportunities to give second chances, as well. How much your own heart can endure will be one of the variables. How much the need for the second chance comes for the kind of human mess we’re all so perfectly capable of. Questions of need, of ability, of courage. Not to be snatched from you by those with a heady sense of entitlement, but to be given carefully.


Speaking your truth

We have a duty to speak our truth. It’s a thought I’ve run into from a number of sources – fabulous Kris Hughes has been talking about it, and it’s a key part of Cat Treadwell’s work.  Throw into the mix the Quaker virtue of speaking truth to power, and good old Iolo Morganwg with The Truth Against the World and it’s clear that truth, personal truth, has to matter to a Druid.

One of the things about personal truth is the implication that other people’s personal truths will be different, and just as valid. If our truth suddenly looks bigger and more important than other personal truths, we’re on the road to dogma, one true way and generally feeling a lot more important than is good for a person!

But what is personal truth? It might be a number of things – it could be the truth we experience in the moment, or the product of long hours of deep contemplation. It might be the code we live by, the way we make sense of things, our beliefs about the sacred, the divine, or what it means to be human. Our truth could be political, anarchic, all about activism. It could be driven by a sense of duty or a longing for freedom. It may come to us in a flash of inspiration, and our truth may be all about awen.

We have to do more than speak our truth in the sense of making big statements about it. We have to speak it every time we speak, and act with it every time we act. Or at least, try to. We’re all flawed and fallible, and capable of not fully manifesting the things we think matter most.

And when someone else’s truth seems to grate against our own, or threaten it, or compete or conflict or any of those other things we might feel unsettled by, that’s ok, and we need to be ok with it. Their truth is not our truth. Their path is not our path. Their difference is not a criticism of our truth, nor is it a threat to it.

What is my truth? It’s a question to ask, and ask again because the answer is bound to change. What is it in this moment, this day, this year? What have I learned that has changed my truth? Who am I becoming? Who do I want to become and what do I want my truth to be? Described like this it may sound a bit vague and woolly, but the answers are always going to be substantial and informative.

I write this at a time of both deliberate, and of unsought change. Change is thus part of my truth right now, and the scope for change and the need for it. I question my sense of self, and wonder how to know what the truth of me is. Is my truth what I think? Can I discover it in the words of the people who value me most, or the words of the people who like me least, or somewhere in between?

My truth is the joy I take pouring time and energy into good projects, supporting awesome people, seeing great things happen. My truth may be that writing non-fiction books doesn’t suit me very well. My truth is whatever’s inspiring me right now, it’s how I’m interacting with the people I love, and it is the deliberate choice to walk away from the people who bring me down and who don’t like what I do. My truth is that I need to be in spaces where I am valued, and where the work I am drawn to do has a place and is valued. My truth is that I’m more tired than is good for a person, and I need that to change. Many stories, pulled from the air today. Tomorrow, I would say something different.

What’s your truth, and what do you need to do to speak it into everything you say, and carry it into everything you do, and what happens if we do that?