Category Archives: Philosophy

A good death

She was old, her time had certainly come. She died at home, quietly and in her own time, in the company of people who loved her. It was a good death. We did well.

I don’t think we talk enough about good deaths. We’re quick to offer condolences when people die, but we don’t congratulate them on having done a good job for their families, and loved ones, and I think we should. I’ve started doing it.

That’s led me to thinking a lot about what constitutes a good death. First and foremost it is the freedom to die on your own terms. That often means getting to do so at home and with the people you love. Not always though – best not to assume. When we’re talking about death, we should talk about whether people got to die in a manner that they would have found acceptable. It’s a good thing to ask – that you hope they had a good death on their own terms.

When a person gets to die is obviously a big issue. When accident and illness takes someone who is too young, it can be hard to accept that as a good death. It may in fact be a bloody awful death and need identifying on those terms. Not all deaths are good. To honour the good deaths we must also acknowledge the terrible ones. To suffer greatly, to experience humiliation to be undignified and denied what you want at the end of your life is to have a really bad death. To go suddenly but to leave well has some redeeming features.

What we’ve done in our lives to that point, no matter how old we are, will frame our deaths. To live well is a significant contributor to having a good death. To have lived fully, to have loved and done good things with whatever time you had, to have been loved, to have had rich experiences – no matter when you go, with this kind of life, you can die well.

She was nineteen, which is old for a cat. Some cats like to go off and hide, but she didn’t, she was very clear about wanting us with her. As she started to fade in the morning she was still calling out to us for fuss and responding to being stroked and cuddled. We stayed with her, taking it in turns to sit with her on our laps. James sang her the many songs he has mangled to turn into cat praise songs. She faded gently, and was in no pain so far as we could tell, for most of that process. When death came, it was quick and she was on Tom’s lap.

It’s the best we could have done for her. Tiggy had a happy 2 years with us, and a good death. We will all miss her greatly, but there is nothing to regret in all of this.


What is love?

It might be more obvious to talk about love in terms of emotion, but it’s a subject I think benefits from a more philosophical approach. What is love? A body chemistry event that gives us the desire to seek pleasure with another person. The chemical bonding effect that enables us to parent small children. It is easy to reduce love to evolutionary functions.

We tell stories in which love is rare and scarce and you are supposed to only really love the one person, forever. We can choose to love. We can choose who and what to invest in emotionally – people, places, creatures, ideas, objects… there are no limits on how diversely we can love or how much we can love. There are limits on the time we have to deploy, but that’s all.

Love as a feeling can just evaporate, especially if we treat it as something that happens by magic. When love is what we choose to do, it doesn’t mysteriously go away, because we do things that sustain it. The everyday choice to love brings feelings of love to a person in a way that they have a lot of control over.

The stories we tell about love tend to focus on events and drama. In practice, love has far more to do with the small, everyday choices. It’s what we do in our lives. It’s how we approach other people, or places, or beings. Love is taking your litter home and picking up someone else’s. Love is what we have when we take care of each other and make a point of being kind to each other. Love is the decision to invest time, care and energy somewhere – and that can include ourselves. There’s certainly nothing wrong with including our own bodies, lives and feelings in how we take care and put kindness into the world.

You don’t have to be able to love yourself to love others – that’s a lie that kicks people who are already down. But, one of the things you can do for the sake of love is model how you want people to live, and not beating yourself up can be a gift you give to others. If people care about you, then taking care of yourself is an act of kindness to them. When we make networks and communities of kindness and mutual support, we hold each other, lift each other and help each other.

Love in moments of drama can seem intense and important. Without the day to day stuff, it is more fantasy than reality.


The right to make mistakes

For me, there is a world of difference between carelessness and needful mistakes. To get something wrong because you weren’t paying attention, is negligent and people should be held to account for that kind of thing. However, an honest mistake is a different consideration. An honest mistake comes from acting on insufficient information, most usually, or as a consequence of not having fully developed some relevant skill.

Without the freedom to make mistakes, it is difficult to learn anything. Only when we can make mistakes do we have room to explore and experiment. It’s not always obvious what will work, or what will suit us. Maybe you don’t know what kind of job you should have, or whether you should live in a yurt, or if you’ve found the perfect person to spend your life with. When we judge people harshly for making life choices and then regretting them, what we’re telling each other is that we shouldn’t take risks, move outside our comfort zones or do anything unfamiliar.

If you are drawn to the most obvious way of life and want the kind of job a five year old can understand, then it’s ok to go through life never making mistakes.  If your soul’s calling is a branch of the sciences that you didn’t even hear of until your thirties, how are you to know? If your yearnings are for something unusual, you may not have words for your desires, or any idea of what you crave until you encounter it in person. It is hard to make good life choices when you’ve never seen the thing that you will turn out to most want.

The narrower your life and experiences are, the less chance you will have at making good choices. The more diversely you experience, the more scope you will have for knowing what you want before you have to make firm decisions about it. If you live surrounded by people who are free to make mistakes and explore possibilities, you’ll know a lot more about your own options. If the people around you don’t feel allowed to make mistakes, you’ll see far fewer options playing out and you won’t know what might be available to you.

Too often, we frame integrity as consistency over time. We don’t allow ourselves to change in light of new information and experience. You can think you are one thing, or want one thing, and only find out that was a mediocre choice for you when you run into a real alternative. We also need the space to go off things. No one should be tied to their early choices. Consistency might make us more predictable and less work for each other, but freedom to change allows us to grow.  The choices we make when we are young may not be right for older versions of ourselves, and being able to let those go as mistakes and move on, is really helpful.

A mistake is not a failure. It’s a point a change, an insight and an opportunity. Mistakes can be where we learn most about who we are and what we want. Freedom  to admit when things didn’t work and to go on and make new and different mistakes, is truly liberating. I do not think our integrity lies in our consistency, but in our commitment to finding what we most need to be and how we should live. It shouldn’t come down to a handful of early choices. Life should be more of an adventure than that.


Wildness and culture

Often, the wilderness is represented as the enemy of, or the opposite of human civilization and culture.  This is, I think, one of the notions that underpins our dysfunctional western cultures and that can be blamed for a lot of our destructive thinking.

All too often, the desire for human civilization becomes the desire for power over the natural world. That in turn becomes an inclination to make everything unnatural – straighten out the rivers, plant the trees in rows, grow vast monocultures, and so forth. We cut the grass at the side of the road because we tell ourselves it looks tidier. What we’ve decided is ‘neat’ and therefore desirable, is stale and predictable.

When we make environments based on the desire to be tidy and in control, we make places that are harmful to humans. We don’t thrive in our austere urban spaces. Our mental health is improved by the presence of trees. We find solace in flowing water and flourishing plants.

Culture doesn’t thrive on sterility either. The best that we do as humans is more complex, and does not grow naturally in straight lines either. Poetry and art, music and extreme maths, philosophy and ethics, science and technology – our most creative thinking is not best served by our most sterile and limited impulses.

So, why do we do it? Why do we force our cities and lives into rigid forms that hurt us? Who benefits from having both people and the landscape under this kind of control? Most of us do not benefit. Most of us are made poorer by this process that has been with us for some hundreds of years.

Straight lines are efficient.  Tidy minds are less likely to have the inspiration for a revolution.

Our environments shape who we are. There is plenty of evidence now to make it clear that we are better, happier and healthier people when we live with trees. And yet we make tree-less environments that bring out the worst in us. And as those environments shape us we become the kind of people who live in empty, lifeless spaces and make straight lines out of our lives.

The wilderness was never the enemy of culture. Wildness is the rich soil in which human civilizations grow and flourish. I wonder how much our collective obsession with tidiness and control is a symptom of a dying civilization. We’ve been harming ourselves in this way for a long time now. Little wonder that so many of us have no idea how to live, and little desire to act in ways that would make life more viable.


Learning to Float

Sometimes life delivers such dramatic rites of passage that ahead of them, even if you know they are coming, it is hard to imagine who you will be on the far side.  Sometimes these things come along as a surprise, and the enormity of the threshold isn’t visible until you cross over it. Where these thresholds are can turn out to be very personal.

The good transformations can be just as startling and hard to process as the traumatic ones. It’s easy to forget this, and to end up flailing around a bit in the aftermath of good things.

My useful analogy for this is learning to float. Floating is very natural for the human body, we do it quite easily. But, if you’ve never let go and persuaded the water to hold your body up, floating is mystery. You don’t know how that feels until you do it. There is a line to cross between not floating, and floating.  I think floating in water is a really magical, wonderful thing, but I came to it late. I started learning to swim aged eleven and I was afraid of the water and it took a long time to learn to trust it to hold me.

Just because something is natural doesn’t mean we will find it easy and automatic. Our bodies are mostly predisposed towards movement and communication, but we still have to learn how to do those things.  We’ve evolved for sexual reproduction but dear Gods sex is complicated for many of us and does not come naturally and needs figuring out. And may be a lot like learning how to float.

If something is supposedly natural but does not come naturally to you, I invite you to remember learning to swim. And if you can’t swim, it still works because naturally floating hasn’t come naturally to you either. This is ok. I think mostly what it means is that a lot of people don’t notice their own learning processes so assume many things are easier than they really are.

It’s good to make room to honour the thresholds and the rights of passage. Our  conventions around rites of passage are perhaps too focused on pairing up, breeding and dying. Along the way there are many thresholds and life initiations, many opportunities for transformation and unimaginable change. The more attention we can pay to those, the better.


Druidry and time, continued

This is my second blog post contemplating a druidic relationship with time. The first one is here – druidlife.wordpress.com/2020/06/19/druidry-and-time/

About ten years ago I had a run of experiences that caused me to focus very much on day to day life. Things that mattered greatly to me seemed unviable, or that I was threatened with losing. It was a frightening time, but, all I could do was take it day by day. Although things were hard, that day by day focus on gratitude, appreciation and making the very best I could of what I did have got me through and taught me a lot.

All the important stuff eventually worked out in the way I needed it to, as an aside.

The legacy from that time remains with me.  It taught me a lot about how to think about life. It taught me how precious the small things are, and how you never get the time back and how important it is to celebrate and honour what you have right now.

This is more of a seize the day philosophy than a live in the moment approach. It was impossible to live in the moment with the future so uncertain and so fearful. But it was possible to dig into each day as much as I could, to relish the best bits and make the best of what I had. I never lost sight of the bigger picture, but I focused a lot on the details of everyday life. And I learned that most of the important stuff is made out of those details anyway.

Whether we accept it or not, our relationships with time bring us a lot of uncertainty. You never really know how long you will have with a person, in a place, a job or anything else. I’ve found along the way that I regret things I didn’t do far more than I regret the mistakes I made. Life doesn’t always give second chances, so when I can, I jump in with both feet.  It’s important to recognise the uncertainty, I think. Important not to put off opportunities that might never come again and to recognise how brief and fragile life is. And then to engage with it as much as possible on a day to day basis. Take it as it comes, love it in its smallest parts.

I’m a big fan of doing little or nothing. Time spent on not much can be time very well spent. The one to watch for is when you’re filling in the time, or worse yet, killing time, when you aren’t really engaged with what you are doing.

I don’t think there’s any specific philosophy about time that is more innately druidic than any other, only to value what we get, to make the most of it in whatever way makes most sense to you. Whatever your relationship with time is, make it conscious. Choose it. Live it. Even if you have a wider belief that gives you all the time in the universe, this moment is precious and will never come in quite the same way again,


Stories for us

I know this is a subject I’ve posted about before, but it is on my mind a lot at the moment. Stories are maps we hold to help us navigate. When you don’t have stories about the kind of person you are, then feelings of otherness and isolation are inevitable. For many of us, the only available stories are tragic.

There aren’t many good stories out there for polyamorous people. Most three (or more) sided relationship stories are rivalries, and do not end well for at least one person. Love triangles are usually stories about having to choose. Or one of the three people turning out not to be so good after all.

There are more good stories for queer people than there used to be. It is no longer the case that the only way you can have LGBT representation is if your queer characters die tragically. But still, there’s a lot of work to do here. We need more stories in which queer folk do stuff that isn’t about coming out or having a hard time for being queer.

The same issues exist for People of Colour – that good stories that go well and aren’t primarily about politics, struggle and race issues are not as numerous as they should be. Not even close. We need to stop restricting the kinds of stories Black and Ethnic Minority people are allowed to tell.

Then there are the characters who are outside of mainstream culture because they are clever, talented, gifted, brilliant, capable beyond what most people do. And outside of the super-hero genre, this doesn’t go well. The souls who are too good for this world who end up dead, or still alone while comparatively mediocre characters get to have a meaningful experience or a coming of age narrative. This makes me sad. I want to rescue all the manic pixie dream girls and give them stories that are about how they live out their awesomeness and are properly appreciated. I want the world to look at the people who are too good for this world and up its game so they do not have to be sacrificed.

I’d also like a new love story. I am tired of the earth-shattering life changing love affair that can only make sense if it lasts for a very short time frame. What we keep telling each other is that grand passions are not for the long haul. You can only have Romeo and Juliet levels of intensity if you only get a few days together and then you both die. It’s not true.

Obviously one of the answers is that I have to write these stories, and amplify other authors who are writing these stories. If you’re doing this kind of work and would like a signal boost from me, please let me know.


Adventures in identity

How do we explain ourselves to someone else? When do we feel  that’s necessary? I think the desire to be understood is a widespread thing and a basic human concern – many of us want the reassurance of making sense to someone else. It’s interesting to ask on what terms we do that. What are the most important things you want someone else to understand about you? How would you share that?

The capitalist colonialist structure in which many of us are caught tells us to express identity through branding. What we consume and how we display our consumption is presented as a way of expressing self. We are given a narrow bandwidth for potential identity, and we choose who we are and how we show that by paying for it.

We might share who we are by telling stories about ourselves. The urge to share stories is also a human one. But, the desire to tell another person who we are, to impose our story of self onto them is a complicated one. I’m always interested in the differences between people sharing stories about their experiences, and people who show up saying things like ‘I am this sort of person,’ not least because I so seldom agree with them!

The sharing of identity also functions to help us understand ourselves. There’s nothing like having someone else reflect back to you something of how they see you. The process of explaining ourselves to someone else can be a process of figuring out who we are, or who we want to be. Knowing how you wish to be seen can be quite telling, and the further it is from how you think you are, the more interesting it gets. Where the lines are between aspiration and untruth at this point, may be hard to define.

What does another person need to know about me in order to work with me, or co-operate with me in some way? What do I need other people to understand? Lockdown has meant I’ve not dealt much with people I do not know, but it’s also meant investing more time in online relationships, which in turn raises questions about what it is meaningful to share. Who am I? What of that can I meaningfully offer?

Mostly online I share what I’m interested in, because I find that works and is a good basis for interacting with people. I’ve experimented a bit with sharing my face, and other photos of me – which has been positive as an experience, but feels odd.

I’ve realised that I prefer to know people through what I can do with them.  At the moment my options are sorely limited on this score. But, I don’t think the best understanding of me is a story, or a set of assertions. I think it’s what can be known wordlessly by sharing the things I do. Sitting under the same tree. Wading into the same stream. Increasingly I don’t want to offer a narrative of who I am.  This is complicated online because blogs and social media alike encourage us to do exactly that, to tell ourselves to other people as carefully constructed stories.

When I get online to tell a story about myself, I can engage hundreds, potentially thousands of people with that story. When encountering me means walking through a wood with me or sitting on a hillside, I can only offer that to a very few people. I have to be very selective. I can only be properly real on a very small scale. I think that’s true of all of us, but it’s easy to lose sight of. Who we really are is not the drama of our biggest stories, it’s the moment to moment detail, the precise way in which we approach life.


Money and philosophy

There would be a simple way to have all non-essential workers stay home without over-burdening the companies they work for. That same method would enable self employed workers to stay home, too. It would make it reasonable to ask for rent holidays. It would put money into the economy where it would do most good. Small business people would have a chance to re-boot in the future. That solution, is universal basic income. Giving everyone a viable amount to live on is also the least bureaucratic way, and thus the quickest, of rolling out an intervention.

However, giving people money in this way challenges the capitalist philosophy of what money means. We are used to measuring human worth by income. Those who earn most are considered to be worth most. We are encouraged to look up to them respect them, see them as valuable. At the same time we’ve called low paid people unskilled and considered them as having little value. If you pay everyone the same, it’s like we’re all worth the same as human beings. It’s a radical shift in thinking.

As the virus impacts on us, we’ve gone from seeing many low paid jobs as low worth, to recognising that these people are the heart of our infrastructure and the backbone of our societies. Money, it turns out, was not a good measure of the value of people working in supply chains and retail, bin collectors, cleaners, carers… their worth to the rest of us is far higher than their paychecks suggest.

As isolation kicks in, we may be more in need of our entertainers and creators. Especially the ones willing to interact with us, teach us and support people in being creative to stay sane. In their absence, we might notice the things that were valuable to us – venues, gigs, events, festivals… Most of the people working in these industries are not wealthy.

What do we deserve? What resources should we have access to? When the not-so-free market dominates, our scope to access everything is based mostly on our buying power. Our buying power is based on what our work is worth to the market, not what it is worth to other humans. Unpaid domestic work is totally undervalued, but right now, people cleaning things are keeping their families safe and well. Such work has always been valuable, but the value has been invisible.

What if we deserve to have our basic needs met because we exist, not because a specific level of profit can be extracted from our labours? What if the people who make money out of money while doing no one any good are not entitled to more benefits than most other people? What if we deemed making profit by exploiting others to be a disgusting activity, not one that should bring benefits? What if worth was measured in terms of actual worth, not earning potential? Meanwhile, the massively affluent ditch their workers with no pay and demand government bailouts.

Universal basic income gives everyone the same fundamental worth and the same basic entitlement to have needs met. Practically speaking it could be a magic bullet for solving a great many of our problems right now. Philosophically speaking, it would radically change our cultures for the better.


Lessons from Old Cats

For a while now, I’ve been taking in old cats – one at a time. Old cats are not easily homed – they come with short life expectancies, likelihood of expensive vets bills, and distress. If your old cat has spent its life with one family or human, the loss of them will likely grieve them. An old cat who has been rescued will likely have been through some shit and may have issues. Old cats, much like old dogs are slow to learn new tricks.

There can be no messing about when taking in an old cat. You know they might only have a year or two with you. So you have to be willing to love them as wholeheartedly as you would a young cat who might be with you a decade or more. You have to love from a basis of knowing you will lose them and that the more you love them the more that will hurt. But, they need you, and they need to be cared for and they need it to be ok that they will shortly break your heart.

They teach patience and compassion. They teach it as their minds and bodies fail. They teach it with their incontinence, their deterioration, their fragility and vulnerability. They teach you to think about what your own body might be like as it ages, and they help you face up to that.

Old cats brings lessons in ruthless pragmatism. They are going to die, sooner rather than later. There is nowhere to hide from this. You will have to make decisions about when to go to the vet, and when to let go and have nature take its course. They cannot live forever. They cannot always be fixed. They teach a person how to examine their own selfish urges to hang on, and how to think better about suffering and quality of life.

They teach acceptance, and trust. They bring you their fragile bodies, and their purrs, and their need for care. The ones who have been mistreated may show you their fear and you get to work with that and maybe win them round and perhaps you can teach them that the world isn’t such a terrible place after all. And whatever life has done to this point, a few good years, or even just a few good days, are still well worth having.