Tag Archives: Community

What do you need?

Individualism encourages us to stay apart. If we’ve all got to stand firmly on our own two feet, then we stand alone. You can’t care about other people if you aren’t willing to need them, you can’t connect if you aren’t willing to be that vulnerable.

Need is the basis of connection. Humans are social creatures and most of us do need social affirmation and approval from other humans. Most of us want to be respected and thought well of, many of us do better when we feel useful and like we can make a meaningful contribution. If no one is willing to express need, then no one has much room to demonstrate kindness, generosity and compassion, either.

I remember being at primary school as a small child and sitting in Christian assemblies, listening to messages about how we were to help those worse off than ourselves. It struck me then that being a good Christian seemed to require there being people who were worse off than you. I also wondered how you were supposed to tell if you were the one in need of help, because that never came up. As a child, I could not work out how you were supposed to identify the needy or tell if your own needs were serious enough to deserve mentioning.

We all have needs. Existence creates need, from the most basic requirements for food and shelter through to more complex ones for self expression and recognition. What individualism means in practice is that people who have enough privilege to get their needs met are fine, and everyone else suffers. Meeting each other’s needs is how we build community and relationships. We connect with each other most around vulnerability, where trust and understanding are called for. We have the most scope to feel good in ourselves when we take care of each other.

I recall another primary school assembly story. A person was shown Hell, where everyone was hungry and miserable because the spoons were too long and they could not feed themselves. Then the same person saw Heaven, where there was exactly the same set up and people were cheerfully feeding each other. Here I am, decidedly Pagan but very much influenced by the messages in some of the Christian stories I was exposed to as a child.

How do you tell if you are the person in need? It’s not an easy question, but I think it helps if we see need as intrinsic to being human. We all have needs, and when we express them, we can get more done collectively. The need for meaning, respect and social status is not well met by the acquisition of more stuff, though. The need to feel important isn’t answered by having ever more cash. We get to feel powerful when we meet other people’s needs, take care of them and lift them out of suffering.

Focusing too much on individualism has those with privilege trying to meet their social needs through acquisition. Meanwhile those who have too little are unable to meet their own physical needs. We’d be happier individuals in a much more functional society and with a species that might be capable of survival if we stopped thinking of success as money and started thinking of success as being able to take care of each other.

Druidry and the open heart

Something the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids taught me was how to be more wholehearted and open hearted – the two very much go together. Druidry is a world-embracing, life-celebrating sort of path, and to do that, it is necessary to be emotionally open.

That doesn’t mean being obliged to go through life with your heart on your sleeve, totally vulnerable to everything and everyone. Boundaries can be good, helpful, needful things.

That said, as a younger human I was decidedly full on, and unboundaried. As a consequence, I was desperately vulnerable and took a lot of damage, to the point of becoming unable to meet the world in an open hearted, wholehearted sort of way. 

I have missed that version of me. I have missed my own courage and ridiculousness. I like me better when I’m throwing myself wholeheartedly into things, without fear of the consequences. This year I’ve started doing that again, I think in wiser ways.

The world is a big place, there are many souls in it, unthinkable amounts of possibility and more options than you can throw your ogham sticks at. Open hearted and wholehearted still gets a vote in where to direct that. It doesn’t have to mean being buffeted endlessly in any and all directions. It doesn’t mean having to welcome everyone who seems to be moving towards me. There are, after all, only so many hours in a day so it makes sense to pick the directions I’m going to hurl myself in.

I’m picking my directions, and I’m hurling myself. I’m open hearted enough at the moment to be able to love the brightening blue skies of spring and the abundance of wildflowers out there. I’m back to being able to take giddy joy in a song and to get excited about the idea of doing things. Having spent far too long feeling empty, I’m finding there is a capacity to pour something of myself into the world again. It no longer feels like bleeding out. It feels like becoming a spring, or a well and having a flow within me that I do not need to protect. 

The experience of flow is vital when it comes to being a spiritual person in the world. You can’t pour endlessly out of yourself with nothing coming back in. The quality of what you’re experiencing is, over the longer term, going to inform what you can do. None of us exist in isolation, and that web of connection Druids like to talk about is extremely relevant when it comes to us as individuals.  You can’t be a meaningful part of that web if you can’t show up and be open to it.

When we’re lifted, supported and nourished we can do more. When what’s around us is grim and exhausting, our own resources will be depleted by this. It’s worth looking at the kinds of psychological and emotional ecosystems we’re operating in. Where is it possible to build virtue cycles, so that good things can be built on top of each other? Where is it impossible to make any meaningful change? 

Increasingly, I’m looking for the spaces and relationships where it’s all about lifting each other. I’m identifying places where turning up wholehearted gets something done. Rather than hurling myself at situations that are like brick walls and rows of spikes, I’m hurling myself at spaces where if I play a tune, someone else might feel inspired to dance.

Dealing with shame

Shame is a really socially informed emotion. Clearly we have it to encourage us to align with our community groups, which for most of history we’ve depended on for survival. Also clearly there are a lot of modern humans who feel no shame for the harm and pain they cause. Alongside this there is the question of who we make ashamed, and what it costs to be part of a group.

If the shame is deserved because harm has been caused, then the answer is to do something restorative. We all make mistakes, that’s just human. We will all mess up and hurt other people, and feeling shame in face of that is a strong prompt to get in there and fix things. If we’re able to respond to our mistakes with restorative action it should be easy enough to draw a line under things and move on, learning from the shame but not feeling burdened by it.

If the shame is underserved because no harm has been done, then it can be hard to live with. I’m thinking about the many ways in which we make people feel ashamed of their bodies, their sexuality, their perfectly harmless lifestyle choices and so forth. Making people feel bad about innocent things will diminish them. It serves a social function, too. This kind of shame is all about who has the right and the power to express themselves and who is powerless and made to fit in.

It is hard to overcome shame on your own. This is fundamentally a social issue so the solutions need to be social as well. Unshaming someone can be a collective project. It’s why we need Pride events, to help counter a long history of encouraging queer people to be ashamed of ourselves. It’s why so many minority groups take up similar approaches – asserting the right to exist and to be as you are without having to feel badly about it is a work in progress for a lot of us.

Any time we affirm each other, we are potentially helping someone feel less ashamed of themselves. It’s really powerful to have spaces where we can treat each other as valid and good, rejecting the kinds of social judgements that wound so many people. Just being nice to each other about appearance gets a lot done – there’s so much body shaming out there, so much cruelty around the accident of how anyone looks, and all too often what we’re being judged against are photoshopped images and bodies that have been surgically modified. 

I don’t really know what’s going on with people who go in for shaming others. No doubt for some it is entertaining to cause pain, but I can only see that as itself coming from places of pain, shame and inadequacy. I think you’ve got to be in a pretty awful place to want to hurt someone, or make them feel ashamed of themselves over entirely harmless things. I wonder to what degree the urge to make others feel shame comes from having a great deal of internalised shame themselves. I think sometimes it comes from a desire to control others and make them smaller, which is something that comes from fear and insecurity. People often hate in others the things they can’t deal with in themselves, as with the cliche of the homophobic politician who turns out to be into gay porn and rent boys.

When you have a community you can trust, then there’s scope for affirmations to counter anything you’ve had treated as shameful. If you’re not hurting anyone else, then what you do is your own business and no one should feel entitled to tear you down over it.

Creating is vital

Creativity is something we all need. It’s not just about making art, and it certainly isn’t all about making art for money. Nurturing a garden is a creative thing. Parenting, being part of a community, even just socialising can call upon us to be creative. Anything we do in the course of the day can be approached creatively and enriched by that.

For most of human history, we’ve engaged with each other around the things we’ve made, individually or together. Making and sharing food is a really powerful thing. Making clothing, shelters and essential things is really bonding, and sharing in this way puts people into powerful and cooperative relationships with each other. 

For most of human history, music, stories, art and dance were things we did together. This is one of the major reasons I’m worried about how AI ‘art’ is going to impact on us all. I worry about the loss of paid work for creative professionals, and I think we’re all going to be considerably poorer if we don’t have access to new ideas from creative people. However, I think the cost around our understanding of what art is, is already much higher.

Art where you push a few buttons and a computer makes you a picture or writes you a story doesn’t allow you to meaningfully share yourself with other people. How interested would you be in the fiftieth poem your friend has got a computer to write for them? How exciting is it if your sister has made her 700th piece of AI art? Why would you even care? The first few might have the merit of novelty, but that’s all they really have. It’s not the same as going to an event and listening to a poem your friend has written. It’s not the same as watching your sister grow as an artist, image by image as she learns her craft.

Creativity should be something we do for ourselves, and to share with other people. I want everyone to have opportunities to do that. I feel strongly that we should be using the technology to free up time so that people can spend their lives doing whatever they find interesting and rewarding. What is going to happen to us, as humans if instead we use the computers to give ourselves less scope to create in meaningful ways? What if we undermine this whole aspect of what it means to be human so that a small number of people can make a profit out of it?

Shared art gives us access to beauty and joy. It is however more than that. Creativity is how we express to each other what it means to be human and how we make sense of our human experiences. When we can dance and paint, tell stories and share songs we’re sharing references for how to live and what life is for. Culture is built of our shared ideas about what matters, what’s good, meaningful and desirable. What happens to us as people if we stop doing that and have machines do it for us? There are already too many pressures on too many people making it harder to connect and share in this way.

I think there’s a lot at stake here for us as a species. I think our compassion, co-operation and relationships are greatly enhanced by sharing creatively with each other, and that if, culturally, we start thinking that art and stories are things we make by feeding a few keywords to a machine, we’re going to lose far, far more than we could ever gain.

Building a Community

There is more to a community than a bunch of people doing a thing. Workplaces are not usually also communities. These days, where you happen to live might well not give you any sense of community either. I think the key thing that gives us a feeling of community is the experience of being involved in each other’s lives. It doesn’t mean we have to live under scrutiny or in intense proximity or do all of our things with just the one group of people. However, when we do an array of things with the same people, and when there’s a feeling of connectedness, that can be really powerful.

I think I’m starting to see that happen around The Folk of Gloucester. There are people who are involved for love of history and the building. The desire to do something good for Gloucester as a place, and for the people of Gloucester, the desire to volunteer and to help in some way is a factor for many. There are a lot of folk drawn in by the steampunk events and the space to do steampunk stuff. There are other people drawn in by the folk side and the opportunity to do folk stuff. A number of us are looking at how to grow and expand all of that. There are a number of people connecting with each other in multiple ways.

More venues are becoming involved – in Gloucester and further afield, and the whole thing overlaps with Stroud steampunk shenanigans and also has connections into the wider steampunk community. There are a lot of Gloucester-connected folk involved with my online event at the weekend and there are all kinds of creative collaborations springing up because of our shared connections with the venue.

One of the reasons I think this is going to turn into something remarkable, is that so many people are moving towards this space with the clear intention of making something. Building connections, relating to each other in a range of ways, supporting each other in making good stuff happen… Something truly special is going on and I look forward to seeing what strange eggs it will hatch in the months (and maybe years) to come.

Confidence and Community

Nervous people are less likely to try things. People with low self esteem don’t take risks so easily and may not put themselves forward. Sometimes, what it takes to lift a person so that they’ll take a chance and have a go, is heartbreakingly little. 

I’ve seen this across all the spaces I’ve worked in. Giving people the smallest boosts to their confidence can have huge consequences. Just letting people hear that they’ree good enough, welcome, acceptable, that their contribution is valid can be enough to change what they’re able to do. For anyone leading a space, handing out praise is a powerful choice that invariably brings greater engagement and effort from people.

This is something we can all do. Taking a moment just to acknowledge what someone else did will help boost their confidence. ‘Thank you’ gets a lot done all by itself. Telling people what you liked about what they did will boost their self esteem. The more we build that for each other, the more can happen in a space – be that a moot, a learning circle, a closed ritual group or anything else of that ilk. It applies just as well outside Pagan spaces, too.

Giving positive feedback also has a really interesting impact on the person doing it. It’s a powerful thing, giving praise and encouragement to someone else. If you want to lift your own confidence, then offering encouragement to someone else is a really good way to do that. Of course it also tends to lead to positive interactions. People liking each other’s stuff is a good basis for friendship. If you’re a shy and socially nervous sort of creature and assume that the people who do stuff you love won’t care about your opinion… I can promise you that anyone who appears to be a functional human being responds with delight to being told someone liked their stuff. There are exceptions but they tend to be self-announcing and a bit of observation will flag them up.

When we support and encourage people, more happens. A ritual where very few people feel able to speak or take an active role is a much poorer thing than a ritual where everyone is engaged and feels able to give of themselves. It’s the same in social spaces and creative spaces. The more able people feel, the more good stuff happens. The things that we can do to be part of that are fairly small and startlingly effective. Finding the courage to approach someone and say that you liked what they did is so powerful.

On the creative side, the vast majority of people – even the ones you’ve heard of – are struggling to make things work financially. Second jobs and/or poverty are normal. Most creative folk aren’t in it for the wealth! Which means that positive feedback is precious, and can be the difference between someone keeping going and not keeping going. So if you ever have an opportunity to tell someone whose work you love that it means something to you, get in there. You could be the difference between them keeping going and giving up.

And just to reassure you, this isn’t a thinly veiled request for positive feedback. Those ‘likes’ people leave here on the blog posts day to day are always helpful for keeping me cheered and motivated. I’m currently in good spirits about my creative life, there are lots of good things going on. 

Holding Boundaries

I’ve been slow learning how to hold good boundaries. As a younger person I lacked for confidence, which leads to the urge to be a people pleaser in the hopes of being welcome and acceptable. The idea of needing to earn a place can make it hard to say ‘no’. However, as my life has filled up with kind and lovely people willing to accept me as I am, I’ve got better at recognising the more exploitative spaces and simply leaving them.

These days I don’t have a hard time recognising when strangers are out of order, and I don’t give people who try to violate my boundaries much room. Sometimes, however, holding boundaries is much harder than this. 

A boundary isn’t just a personal issue. We all need to set them where we need them, and most of the time a boundary should not be open to negotiation. Ideally, we should be trying to respect each other’s boundaries as a collective effort. However, this gets complicated when someone you care about is unable to hold good boundaries for themselves. It’s an issue sometimes in working relationship where those with power may routinely try to violate the boundaries of the people they have power over. It’s certainly something I’ve had to explore as a friend, as a lover and as a parent.

Boundaries are better held collectively. As with most things, when we stop treating it as an entirely personal issue and square up to it collectively, a lot can change. In the workplace, unions are the obvious answer to boundary violation and collective action can stop those kinds of abuses. A bit of worker solidarity can go a long way even without anything formal in place. 

It can be tempting to ignore boundary violations when they don’t affect you. Scapegoating, blaming and picking on people can provide a kind of social bonding for groups, where resisting that can line you up to be the next victim. Resisting can be difficult. I think in Pagan spaces we need to be alert to the people who use power to compromise others. There are too many stories already about people who have abused their power. Push back at the first signs of boundary violation and we are less likely to get people in positions of power who feel entitled to ignore other people’s boundaries.

We can and should hold each other to high standards. Not just around our behaviour, but also around our expectations. If we normalise boundary violation, we enable it. One of the things I learned the hard way some years ago, is that if I let people treat me unethically, I’m enabling unethical behaviour and if I can resist that, I prefer to. I think it’s important not to make people who are in difficulty responsible for solving problems, but at the same time what I choose for myself is to push back where I can.

We can lift and support each other by recognising where their boundaries are threatened or violated. Even if it doesn’t seem safe to push back, saying to the person being affected that what’s happening to them isn’t ok can be a great help. The kinds of people who like to violate boundaries tend also to blame their victims or come up with justifications, and that can really wear people down. Acknowledging that the problem is real is a meaningful act of support.

It’s important to resist having a culture where some people are let off the hook for acting inappropriately. No one is so important, or clever, or essential that we have to put up with them causing harm. Most people can be replaced, and anyone abusing a position of power really should be replaced. Don’t by into the stories that give anyone a free pass on mistreating others.

Knocking people down

There’s no surer sign that someone is in serious trouble than them constantly wanting to knock other people down. It’s also a really difficult thing to respond to in a helpful or positive way. Inevitably, people who deal with their own pain by trying to hurt and attack others, are not attractive. There’s not much motivation to move towards someone who is behaving in that way.

I’ve probably learned most about this through parenting. Small children crave attention, and will do anything to get it. Thus being shouted at, told off and punished will function as an emotional reward for anyone who is otherwise deprived of emotional rewards. Children who are praised, encouraged and given attention more kindly will focus on doing the things that lead to the praise. Give a child attention simply for existing and you’ll end up with a relaxed and confident person.

Adults want attention as much as children do, and social validation is a huge motivator for a lot of people. I wonder how often people who seek attention through spite are doing so because they are still playing out the patterns from emotionally neglectful childhoods. I wonder how much of it comes from not being able to seek attention in healthier ways, and what kinds of tragedies might be playing out in the lives of people who have no good ways of seeking attention.

I see a lot of this sort of thing on Twitter. I’m currently seeing an unusual spate of it in the blog comments – I’ve had quite a few lonely souls rock up lately. They are clearly people who are in pain and who only know how to try and knock other people down. I don’t honestly know what to do with any of them. This isn’t really the ideal space.

Everyone needs opportunities to be recognised and appreciated. Many of us seek that through paying work, through service and volunteering – which can be a decent enough answer. Feeling valued is vitally important for most people’s mental health. Praise and affirmation help people feel better about themselves, so creative outlets can also offer excellent opportunities for lifting and encouraging people. I used to spend more time running supportive spaces, and perhaps that’s something I should invest more time in. 

What I can say is that if you’ve got a project, a piece of writing, an idea… and you don’t have a platform you can use to put it out there, I’m always open to taking relevant guest blogs. If you feel like there’s no point being creative because it isn’t going anywhere, then I’d be glad to offer you some space where you might find an audience for your work. This is open to anyone reading.

Knocking other people down can feel powerful in the short term. However, it doesn’t answer any needs in a meaningful way and it does not lead to social recognition or feeling valued – it may well push the other way. If you need to be seen, to be heard, to feel valued and respected, then there’s far more to be achieved by putting something good into the world and asking people to respond to that. If you’re reading this and struggling, and in need of support and recognition, and if I can help with that by making this blog space available to you, then I’d be delighted to do that. Leave me a comment, or drop me an email – brynnethnimue at gmail dot com.

Creating Safety

If a community space is to be inclusive, it has to feel safe for everyone. Most of us do a decent enough job of making spaces that feel safe for people who are a lot like us. We start from what we know, which means our own requirements for feeling safe inform what we think everyone else will need.

The more privilege a person has, the less insight they are bound to have into what less privileged people might need. This can be a major barrier to creating safe space because it is so often the people with the most privilege, power and resources who get to define community spaces in the first place. You need resources to run anything, which automatically influences the whole situation.

Well meaning people can make a terrible mess of this sort of thing. The vast majority of humans start from the assumption that they are good and that what they do is also therefore good. Flagging up sexism, racism, ableism… does not reliably go down well with people who are sure that what they do is fine. It’s not uncommon to find the people who are in places of power acting as though they have been attacked when someone tries to flag up the shortcomings.

To make people feel safe, we have to be willing to listen to why they might feel unsafe in the first place. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable, because without being open to that discomfort we’ll hang on to our privileges and we won’t improve anything. We may have to lay down our prejudices and assumptions. So often, lack of safety starts with someone saying what they think of ‘that sort of person’ while oblivious to the presence of exactly that sort of person in the room. I’ve been the only pauper in the room when affluent people had things to say about the ignorant and ungrateful poor. I’ve been subject to casual sexism and to ableism. I know there’s plenty out there that’s far worse.

Anyone who has the power to create safe space, and chooses to perpetuate things that are unsafe, needs calling out on it. It helps a lot when the people who do this are the ones who have some privilege to work with. Please support your less privileged friends by listening when they raise issues and by not accepting the excuses of your more privileged friends. Or co-workers. Or family members.

If you hear something by way of feedback that makes you feel uncomfortable about your own behaviour, please take the time to at least think about it. No one enjoys being called out, but swallowing enough pride to be able to learn and do better is an honourable choice worthy of respect. Doubling down on your scope to make other people feel unsafe is never a good choice.

How to be good

My suspicion is that there are no intrinsically good people. Anyone, viewed from the right perspective will turn out to have things going on that are complicated. I’m not at all sure that selflessness is a fair measure of goodness, either. It’s through the offering of our needs to each other that we form the strongest and deepest relationships. Selfless people might find they can’t do that, which means they are, arguably, withholding things that might be essential to other people, and that’s problematic, too.

Most of us need to be needed. Selflessness therefore doesn’t enable us to meet each other’s needs.

I’m definitely not an intrinsically good person – it’s a necessary qualification for being a fiction author. You’ve got to have some capacity to imagine terrible things in order to write books. There’s a case for saying that many authors are terrible people who have chosen to use their powers for good.

I think that’s often the key thing. It’s not the raw clay of ourselves that matters most, but how we choose to use it. I can examine a situation and see what the most manipulative thing is that I could do to get my own way. I almost never pick that path. However, understanding how that would work can help me find a better way through. I spend a lot of time thinking about how best to give people options and to make sure I’m not being emotionally manipulative or putting undue pressure on anyone.

Being good as an abstract concept is hard to pin down. It might be more useful to think about who, or what we want to be good for. Being good for the shareholders usually means being bloody awful to the workers. A lot of interesting things happen when we explore the idea of how to be good for each other. That’s true when we’re dealing with people one to one. It also holds up in any kind of collective human space. When we undertake to be good for each other there’s a lot more room to also be messy, flawed and not some kind of saint. On those terms it makes no sense to martyr anyone.

At the same time, so much of contemporary eco-thinking is framed by the idea of being less bad and reducing harm. What happens when we ask instead how we might be good? How can we live in a way that supports life? How can we act to be regenerative, and to move beyond sustainability into actually making things better?

I think the idea of goodness is much more interesting when we stop trying to foster it as some sort of inner quality, and start asking what it could mean as a way to live and interact.