Category Archives: Philosophy

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.

The treacherous desire for simple answers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contemplating hate

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

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

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

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

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