Category Archives: Philosophy

A Good Death

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been killing people on The Hopeless Maine blog as part of the kickstarter we’re doing. People who backed early get obituaries, as though they had been residents of the imaginary island, now deceased. It’s been an exercise in asking what would make for a good death. Most of us won’t read our obituaries in real life, so it’s interesting thinking about what a person might want from a fictional obituary. This may not be quite the same as what you’d want in a real one, but it does raise interesting questions.

Without a doubt, everyone wants to be remembered fondly and have some sense that someone, at least, is sorry they are gone. Whatever form a death takes, the feeling of a life lived well, and fully is important. That bit at least, we may get some kind of control over, whereas the time of our departure is beyond our control.

There’s a definite charm in dying as you lived, or in a way that has a poetic quality to it. This may well be more true of fictional deaths. A comedy death is more appealing in an imaginary setting perhaps, than a real one. There are no doubt people as well as me though, who get a kick out of uncomfortable humour and might enjoy the prospect of our final moments leaving people unsure whether to laugh or cry. I have a fondness for the preposterous, and departing in a way that would have people shaking their heads and laughing has definite appeal.

Good deaths are quick, and perhaps unexpected. I’m not going to write any scenarios in which people die slowly unless I can make that both painless and funny. Long, slow, painful deaths are awful, and take a toll on anyone who has to live through watching that. No one wants to watch someone they love suffering. Most of us don’t even want to watch people we despise suffering in that kind of way.

 

Advertisements

External authority and why I’m not a fan

One of the accusations levelled against Pagans and atheists alike is that we can’t have a moral compass because we don’t have a sacred text to refer back to.

In practice, the person without a sacred text can only use their reason and personal sense of fairness to make moral judgements. It means you know that you are responsible for what you do and say, what you think and how you come to conclusions. As far as I can see, this is the most honest and most responsible position to hold.

Of course a person can have a sacred book, use it for inspiration and take the same process of coming to reasoned positions. So long as the book isn’t considered the literal word of God and to be followed in all ways, a person can use it to help them navigate while still remaining consciously in charge of their own choices.

However, when a sacred book becomes a substitute for thinking, it becomes dangerous. Anything in a book is at risk of going out of date. What makes sense in one time and place may be far less sensible or fair in another. Dogmatic insistence on the primacy of an out of date book clearly isn’t going to work well.

I note that the people who seem most fanatical about sticking with the text are often the ones calling for the least kind outcomes. The sort of people who would make a child rape victim carry a baby to term, and oblige them to marry their attacker. The sort of people for whom being ‘immodest’ in dress (however they choose to measure that) is a greater spiritual offence than physically attacking someone. What I think happens here is that people outsource their morality so they don’t have to question the real implications of their apparently spiritual beliefs.

This kind of dogma is really convenient for anyone with a nasty agenda.

I don’t think the problem here is books – a decent human being can read a book and make informed decisions about what to work with and what to reject. We do this all the time with the stories of our Pagan ancestors. I’ve never seen a modern Pagan suggest that tricking someone into a bag and then beating them until they let you have things your way is a sensible way of getting things done, for example. If you know that a story is just a story, you can work with it in whatever way makes sense. It’s when you decide that the story has authority, and then, having given it authority, negate your own responsibility to be a decent person, that we get into trouble.

It’s not the presence or absence of a sacred book, or books, that gives people a moral compass. The morality does not lie in the book. It never has.


Getting back on the horse

My grandmother always said that if you fell off a horse, it was really important to get straight back on the horse as soon as possible or you’d lose your nerve.

(For anyone who read Family Traditions, this really is a thing she used to say and not something I have made up and attributed to her.)

It was an approach she applied to life in general. Fallen off something? Get back up and at it as quickly as you can. She was the sort of person who got things done by dint of sheer bloody-mindedness. She got back to things as fast as she could. When a stroke stopped her playing the piano, she got back to the piano. The falling off the horse thing wasn’t metaphorical for her either.

And she was right about the horse. The longer you leave it, the harder it becomes to get back on. The bigger a deal the fall becomes. The less time you give it, the less of an issue it is.

Next week, I am going back to Druid Camp. Just for the one day (Thursday). I’ll be doing a talk about Druidry and the Future, Tom will be doing a life drawing class. It is a large horse to get back on, and one I thought I’d accepted falling from. It was quite a nasty fall, with a lot of nasty fallout from said fall. I don’t know if I’m going to have to deal with any of that, but, only being there for a day, I can limit how much there is. It would be easier and more comfortable to just give up and stay away forever, but at the same time, I did nothing wrong and I paid heavily. I want to give things the chance to be different. I want to see the people I seldom see anywhere else. I have left it too long for this to be simple. And dammit, I do not want to be the sort of person who falls off a horse and loses their nerve and never does the things again.

Event details here – http://www.druidcamp.org.uk/


Standing and Not Falling – a review

Presented as a workbook for those wanting a spiritual detox ahead of working magic, Standing and Not Falling is a text you could work through over 13 moons. The idea is to deal with the kinds of things that might get in the way of a magical practice, and pave the way for a deeper and more effective kind of sorcery. For anyone interested in serious magic, this is well worth a go.

I didn’t read it or work with the book in that way. I pick up this kind of book because it is always useful to research for the fiction. I’ve learned a lot that I can no doubt apply in my speculative writing. What I didn’t realise when I started reading the book, is how valuable it is as a philosophical text.

Lee Morgan has a great deal to say about how we navigate inside our own minds, how we perceive the world and relate to it, and how our thinking shapes our experiences. There’s a lot here about being embodied, about animism and relationships based on animist philosophy. There’s great content about ancestry, our relationship with the land, and how we deal with mainstream culture – and for that matter, how it deals with us. There’s a great deal to chew on. Much of it aligns with my own thinking, so that was pleasingly affirming, but at the same time, it’s a very different perspective on those familiar issues and it opened up a great deal of new territory for me.

I recommend that Druids pick up Standing and Not Falling to read as a philosophical text. It has a great deal to offer on those terms. Anyone interested in the bard path will also be interested in how the book is written – the crafting of it, the way language is deployed, the poetic qualities the author brings – these are all worthy of your attention and may well be a source of inspiration.

I don’t feel qualified to comment on this as a magical text because it’s not my path. However, what I can say (having read a fair few magical books for research purposes) is that I’ve never seen anything like this before. There’s a world view here, and a way of relating to self, world and magic that, while it has some familiar elements, really isn’t like anything else I’ve run into. It’s well worth a look.

More about the book here – https://www.johnhuntpublishing.com/moon-books/our-books/standing-not-falling 


Dubious logic

Trigger warnings for abuse and gaslighting mechanics

I’ve had a few comments here recently that I haven’t let through because of the kind of faux-logic involved. It’s a system I refer to as x=y and that can contribute to gaslighting. It can sound persuasive and if you’re exposed to it in a close relationship with someone you trust, it can be incredibly damaging.

The ‘x’ in this equation is something you’ve done or said. It might be your clothing, that one time you cried, something you misunderstood. It may also be something you never did or said that is now being attributed to you. The ‘y’ is presented as the logical consequence of x. As a culture we do this around rape – what a woman was wearing equals her consent to anyone who wanted to do anything to her. New Age Culture does it a lot – success equals virtue, and alongside it, suffering equals lack of sufficient positivity, or bad karma. These kinds of false causalities make life harder for people who are already suffering.

Often with gaslighting it goes a step further so we find x=y and therefore it makes perfect sense if I do z to you. Z is presented as totally justified and the only reasonable response in the circumstance. Your clothes equal your consent so any reasonable person would rape you in the circumstances. It is a chilling line of logic.

What makes this so powerful is that human minds are persuaded by apparent causality. This is why we have superstitions. Our brains are willing to make connections where none exist. If someone else keeps making those connections and telling us about it, we may well start to internalise some of what we’re hearing. We believe that because we look the way we do it is inevitable that we will be harmed for it. We start to believe that use and abuse are normal, reasonable reactions to our faces, our bodies, our tears.

The recent blog comments were more along the lines of ‘if you believe this then you must also believe this really awful thing, so you can see what a terrible person you are’. The ‘x’ of my original statement becoming a ‘y’ of something being put onto me. It’s very easy to do and I’m not convinced everyone who uses this technique does so knowingly. I think sometimes it’s what happens when a person’s own reality is so badly damaged that their head is full of non-sequiturs. If you’ve internalised the dubious logic our culture holds then you might easily regurgitate that without knowing you’re doing it. Women who insist that modest dress will protect other women from rape are a case in point here.

Saying a thing is a logical progression does not make it a logical progression. Saying one thing means another does not make that true either.

Anything that makes a victim responsible for the actions of an abuser needs recognising as an abuse tactic and rejecting – which is not so easy to do in practice when you’re on the receiving end.

X=Y logic is not always worth arguing with. Sometimes it’s just about using up your time and energy and trying to tie you in knots with stupid hypothetical situations. Making you engage is a popular tactic with trolls, and that means sometimes the best thing to do is not engage. Sometimes the best thing to do is exit quickly and quietly. You are entitled to feel safe, and if a conversation doesn’t feel safe it’s often better to just get out of there if you can. If you are living with this kind of stuff, get help around how to leave safely – the risks of being killed or injured by an abuser are at their highest when people try to leave. X=Y logic all too often leads to ‘and this is why I have to hurt you.’


Interpreting meaning

Humans like reading meaning into things. It is an urge that has given us both divination and the scientific method. We want there to be meaning and we find it preferable to see the hands of judgemental and angry Gods in our misfortunes than to attribute it to random chance. This determination to find meaning can do us a great deal of harm if we imagine causal relationships where none exist. It can be particularly harmful when we apply it to each other.

We all read things in to each other’s words and actions. Not least, I think, because we’re looking for something that is about us. We want to be significant. There may be more attraction in thinking someone is cross with us than thinking they are tired, or have low blood sugar, or are constipated. It’s similar to the way we prefer to see the anger of gods than random happenstance. At least if people, or the gods are angry with us, we are involved in what’s going on. Being peripheral or irrelevant can feel very uncomfortable indeed.

We are all involved in the business of reading each other, because mostly we make less than perfect sense to each other. The exact ways we use words can vary. A term loaded with dire implication for one person can be empty of that for another. What we hear, what we understand, what was meant and what is admitted to, do not always neatly align. We read each other to try and find meaning or common ground or we hear what we want to hear and refuse all scope for reinterpretation or compromise.

We read each other visually, too. We read for gender and sexual identity, for power and status, for wealth, normality, sanity… We read for signs of membership to small and more secretive groupings. As Pagans we look for sacred symbols on clothes, jewellery and skin to help us find fellow travellers.

We read to validate ourselves. Sometimes, we read what we fear may be true because it is perversely more comforting than changing our stories about how the world works. We read each other for ego boosts and proof of our own excellence. How often we manage to communicate precisely what was meant and no more or less than that, is anyone’s guess.

When two people exchange ideas, two realities collide. It is as though we are each standing in a separate universe that works to different rules. We speak alien languages to each other and make hand gestures that seem obvious to us, and that tell entirely different stories to the other person. We give messages with our bodies, in eye contact, in touch that may be read in myriad unintended ways. But what else is there?


Dreaming reality

Everything human-made has been dreamed up by someone. Our cultures, societies, communities, urban spaces, our farming and our treatment of the landscape is all a consequence of someone’s dreaming. Sometimes we dream together and deliberately. Sometimes we dream many different things and what we get is a messy hotchpotch that isn’t quite what anyone wanted.

Our dreaming is not a neutral process. What we dream of, we may invest in, purchase, or vote for. The person or company that can offer us the things we dream of will be especially attractive to us. Giving people their dreams is tricky for anyone who is not a fairy godmother. It is simpler to persuade people to dream of certain things so that you already have the solutions in a warehouse ready to sell to them.

However, we can also dream of changing things. We can dream of planting trees and living in a low carbon economy. We can dream of social justice – as many people have for many hundreds of years. When the dream of social justice becomes more appealing than the dream of having power over others, there will be social justice. When dreams of compassion become more widespread than dreams of greed and ownership, compassion will become normal and greed will become rare. Everything we do starts with ideas, and those ideas can seed in us, barely noticed even as they are part of what shapes humanity’s relationship with the living Earth.

We make the human aspects of our world out of our dreams. We start with ideas, and we build and change in line with them. We get caught up in the dreams of others. Nothing that humans do or make is inevitable. There were always multitudinous other options we could have taken. Unfortunately we have habits of telling our history stories in ways that help us believe there was no other way. There was always another way. There were always people dreaming differently and imagining something else – good dreams and nightmares alike.

Climate change exists because of our dreams of having lots of energy to use. We dream of travelling quickly from one place to another, quickly replacing throwaway fashion to be up to date. We dream of easy food in simple containers, we dream of brands and buy their plastic bottles. We do not dream of the sea when we throw our rubbish into watercourses. We dream of holidays in the sun, and so we embrace air travel. To change our collective behaviour we have to change our individual dreams and our ideas about what to value and aspire to.

When you get down to it, dreams are powerful, but they’re also incredibly ephemeral. Of all the things we might try to change, they may be the easiest to tackle, and some of the most effective. What we imagine has the power to change our lives. It costs nothing to imagine differently. It requires little effort. It may not even require much persuasion.

There will be more thoughts around how we do this in the next week or so.


Grief and religion

One of the things that religions have in common is that they offer answers to human suffering. It may be in the form of strategies to relieve that suffering by living in certain ways. It may be through stories of divine oversight, grand plans, or afterlife recompense. This is one of the ways in which I’ve always found organised religions problematic. Not least because so often, those consolations don’t turn out to be that helpful for people experiencing grief and trauma.

When you have to ask why your God wasn’t there for you and why terrible things were allowed to happen, you either undermine your faith or start having to believe that terrible things are somehow part of a grand plan for your own good. It’s a bigger issue for omnipotent Gods who are supposed to be benevolent.

We suffer in so far as we care. Love and grief are two sides of the same coin. Everything in our world is finite, and will end, or die and if we care about that, or about ourselves we are bound to be hurt by this. To care is to be vulnerable to loss.

In my late teens, I first encountered existentialist thinking, which responds to the grief of life and the apparent meaninglessness by owning it. We may have to make our own meaning. There may be no other meaning. It was the first approach I’d found that genuinely comforted me and it did so because it let me own what I was experiencing. This may be all we have. There may be no grand plan. Everyone dies. If you care, it hurts.

Rather than follow a path that has anything to offer by way of more conventional comfort, I’ve lived with this on my own terms. I see loss and grief as part of life. I see them as intrinsic parts of my caring and loving. I’ve not sought a path that would free me from pain, rather, I’ve tried to embrace it as part of what it means to be human. I find more comfort in the idea that there isn’t a plan, that terrible things happen for no real reason at all sometimes, and that we certainly do not get what we deserve. I think it’s kinder not to assume we get what we deserve.

When we try to protect ourselves from pain, we may close our hearts to what’s around us. We may delude ourselves. We may not do today the things we will no longer have chance to do tomorrow. When you live knowing that everything and everyone is going to die and you let that colour your world view, it becomes more necessary to live fully. It becomes more important to tell people you love them. It becomes more important to try and sort things out here and now, and get them right in the first place.

I’m never very sure what I believe when it comes to deity and afterlife. What I am sure is that it works better for me to live as though there is nothing else but this life and this body I have to experience it with. To love as much as I can and to accept what that means and to embrace grief as an aspect of love makes the most sense to me.


What is compassion?

Compassion, as a spiritual virtue, is something I’ve only ever aspired to, and not with much hope of being able to achieve it. As a spiritual concept, it comes up in many religions – Hindu, Jain and Buddhist thinking explores compassion as something to practice, while Judaism, Christianity and Islam tend to see it as the territory of God. Either way, it’s not easy work.

Compassion comes from the person feeling it. There are no transactions here, no earning the right to be treated compassionately. To be truly compassionate is not to judge. I tend to judge. It means what I do is better framed as kindness, or sympathy because it is partial and I know I cannot extend it to everyone. How you manifest your compassion may well depend on judgement, but the initial recognition of a fellow suffering human does not.

I would like to be able to see everyone as containing a sacred spark, as equally worthy, as all deserving love and compassion. I’ve thought about what kinds of qualities I would need to develop to move towards this state of being. It calls for a vast capacity to love and accept and to recognise our shared condition even in people who do the worst things. I feel very strongly that as soon as we’re talking about the limits of compassion, we aren’t actually talking about compassion any more.

As someone who isn’t compassionate, I am able and inclined to get angry about how I see this term used in some quarters. It is a popular word with people who wish to be seen as spiritual. Too easily, it becomes a demand for other people to appease them. Why are you not treating me with more compassion? It’s an easy knockback if, for example, you’ve just been called out for something. It tends to be people with privilege in the first place who feel entitled to demand compassion from others. It also tends to be people with privilege who practice compassion towards themselves – especially when someone has asked them to do something difficult, uncomfortable or otherwise unappealing to them. I can’t help you right now, I am practicing compassion towards myself.

Compassion towards self is such an attractive mask to slide over the face of total selfishness. It’s the mask that proclaims virtue while hiding the least attractive and least spiritual motives. These are people I usually fail to find compassion for.

I think compassion is something to aspire to. In the meantime, empathy is a good thing to try and develop. Sympathy can run too close to pity, but when we empathise we start to see how we could have ended up in the same place. How easy it is to fall through the gaps, or be led astray, or let the least helpful part of yourself grab the steering wheel. When we can see that we all have the scope to do both wonderful and terrible things, it is easier, I suspect, to cultivate compassion. Those times when we can’t do it will be able to teach us a lot about who and how we are, and what we fear in ourselves. It’s not people who have evolved beyond their worst impulses who may be best able to practice compassion. It may well be the people who have faced their own darkness so that they do not have to fear it in others. I’m not at all sure, but I think it’s worth pondering.


Believe in truth

This is the next instalment in my series of blogs where I pick up ideas about fighting fascism from Molly Scott Cato.

This is a tricky one in the current environment – believe in truth. With so many sources offering opinions as facts, rubbishing experts, buying ‘experts’ to promote their agenda, offering counter facts that aren’t true – it’s not easy to pick out the truth from the lies, or from the confusion.

Believing in truth is a belief position. Previously we looked at asking for evidence – which is about establishing what the truth is most likely to be. This is a different, and more philosophical process. It asks us to get over post-modernism, and step away from the idea that truth is always subjective, partial, contextual. Sometimes these ideas are useful and relevant, but they are also easily manipulated to serve a right wing agenda.

Belief itself is a state that is easily manipulated. We also all know that data can be innocently misunderstood, experts can be wrong because they haven’t seen all the data yet, and so forth. The very best information we can get falls short of the truth.

One of the things that abusers do – it’s called gaslighting – is to provide the victim with conflicting information with the intention of driving them mad. Right now in British politics, Jeremy Corbyn is being presented by the media as weak and ineffectual, but also as a powerful leader with dangerous ideas. Migrants apparently come over here to simultaneously take all our jobs while scrounging off our benefits system – we’ve seen a lot of that one. The EU is simultaneously totally evil, but should kindly find a solution to our brexit problems. Clearly both cannot be true. People with terminal illness are declared fit for work. When you’re thinking about truth, this is an area to pay particular attention to.

A person who is interested in truth will be open to new information. They won’t however, swing back and forth between conflicting ideas and at every turn expect you to believe the idea they’re putting forth. Taking a step back and trying to look at the overall pattern will give you a better sense of what you are dealing with.

In face of constant gaslighting, it may be a better bet to pick a view and stick to it, just so that you can function and keep moving. In face of gaslighting, it’s not enough to believe in your truth – you will need to remind yourself of it and revisit the evidence so that the misinformation does not undermine you. Given the scale of the gaslighting, you will also need to share that evidence with other people who will likely also be struggling to navigate and stay sane.

Even if you’re not sure what the truth is, if you believe in the idea that there is truth, and the evidence (somewhere!) to make it clear, then you have some resilience against the madness people feel when they are given conflicting information and told that it is all true.