Tag Archives: existentialism

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.

Druidic Arts: Responsibility

Ironically this is probably the worst day I’ve had in the last few weeks for trying to write about responsibility as art. Things I do not want to be carrying are heavy on my shoulders this morning, along with the promise of future unwanted responsibility to come. However, the thing about responsibility as art, is very much about being in control of it. You are not an artist if something is being done to you. Art is all about being the one who does. Responsibility is a curious thing to consider as art because so often it falls upon us with all the grace and elegance of a piano falling out of the sky, and frequently feels about as joyful. But, it doesn’t have to be that way.

I learned from the existentialists the idea that we can only have freedom in so far as we are willing to take responsibility. I think this is true, and is usually useful. We can also be crushed by responsibility or rendered powerless when we are obliged to carry all of the blame but not allowed the power to act. That’s not true responsibility though, it’s a form of oppression pretending to be something else. True responsibility means not only being the person with whom the buck stops, but also means having the power to act and make change.

The first stage of the art involves recognising what we are responsible for, what we could be responsible for, and what we are told we are responsible for but seem not to have the power to fix. Seeking the power or putting down the burden is essential with that second category, although that can be a long, hard fight. Recognising that you have nominal, not actual responsibility can be freeing though. At the very least, it enables letting go at a personal level. You might still have to carry a thing, but you can stop feeling it as your own.

Recognising what we are not responsible for is also liberating. It’s very important in our dealings with other people especially, to know what is not ours to do, mend, or change. It’s easy to feel responsible when we are not, or to assume a responsibility that disempowers others. The letting go process as your child becomes an adult is an easy example. We cannot live their lives for them and they must be free to make their own mistakes. No one can be responsible for anyone else’s emotions and no one should be trying to take responsibility for making someone else change, or for living their life.

Knowing what we must carry as responsibility is a great help. We are ultimately responsible for everything we do and say, everything we think and feel. Even when provoked by others, even in blind rage, or utter despair, we still choose how to be, and cannot blame what we do on anyone else, or on drink, drugs or any other such excuse. We are also entirely responsible for things we decide not to do – the consequences of action not taken, help not offered, wrongs not tackled. That is a very uncomfortable thing to look at, and it takes time and practice to engage with the idea of that kind of responsibility. We will never see the consequences of everything we didn’t do, but looking for them helps, recognising that to do nothing is just as significant as to act. To do nothing can be to tacitly enable abuse, hold up tyranny, facilitate cruelty and crush others with our indifference.

The practicing artist of responsibility knows what they are doing. They are conscious of what they carry and what they set down, and they make those choices deliberately. I think this is about where I am at the moment, but external pressures mean I’m frequently in survival mode, and not able yet, to step up to the next level that I can see. I want to move from being a responsibility musician, to being a responsibility composer. I don’t want to just play the tunes of living responsibility, I want to consciously create acts of responsibility taking. This can include things like running events and teaching. It can also mean taking the fight to the source of the wrong rather than just fending off what comes to the doorstep. It means actively seeking out things that need someone to take responsibility for them, and picking them up, and carrying them. Or, writing them new music, if you will. The person who gets to this stage will do amazing things in the world. They will create responsibility operas and ballets of unthinkable newness. They will go where no one else has gone, and they will see what is needful, and know how to respond to it. A responsibility artist isn’t just reacting or replicating, they are making something new in the world.

I imagine, somewhere beyond there, a way of being where this becomes not a fearful thing, but a joyful process. That’s got to be worth aiming for.


According to existentialists (forgive me, I can’t name names and cite references) freedom and responsibility go together. You can only be free to the degree to which you take responsibility. I adopted this notion in my late teens and carried it for a long way. And took a lot of responsibility.

I’ve come to the conclusion, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Being responsible for self, enables freedom. But, we none of us exist in isolation, there is the issue of responsibility to others to explore. The more responsible we undertake to be for others, the more control we might have over them. As we take more responsibility so they can carry less. If we go too far, we risk depriving others of freedom. At which point we are no longer in an honourable relationship. At the same time, when we hold responsibility to others, for others, it does impact on freedom if we are determined to behave well.

When I was blogging over at The Pagan and The Pen I was very conscious that everything I wrote would impact on everyone else. It was a shared blog space, my opinions might be taken as representing the opinion of the site. Before that, in my days as a Druid Network Trustee, I was painfully aware that anything I put out in a public space could, potentially, have an impact on a whole organisation. That was very inhibiting.

It’s very difficult to learn without making mistakes, or at least having room and permission to make mistakes. It’s hard to grow, or develop, when you have to play safe, and there is no room to get it wrong. Too much responsibility makes it very hard to take risks, experiment, or do anything radically new. One of the things I love about being a solitary blogger, is that if I do something stupid, I’m not taking anyone else down with me. I still hold an awareness of responsibility not to bring paganism into disrepute, and a responsibility not to tell people bullshit, or encourage anyone to do anything likely to harm them. But there’s a lot more wriggle room, and I like that.

It is possible to be in a responsible relationship to others, and still test the boundaries, but everyone else has to know and accept. There are places where loose cannons and chaotes can be part of the team, but it’s unusual to find one. Sometimes in a ritual circle, if you have someone calm holding the centre, the chaotic folk have space to play.

I like my freedom. I can’t imagine ever voluntarily going back into a situation where duty restricted my own need to explore and express. It took me a while to realise just how important that is to me, but now I’ve got it, I won’t sacrifice it to someone else’s cause. What I have now, is responsibility on my own terms, where I decide what duty is owed, what risks are tolerable, and what behaviours are acceptable. I draw the lines for myself, and I have not given anyone else permission to tell me I cannot do a thing for fear that it might cause a problem. I’m not overwhelmed with the desire to cause problems, I trust my own judgement. I also know I will make mistakes, but it is good knowing I do that alone, on my own terms, without dragging anyone else down with me against their will. There is no one in my life in a position to withhold permission, refuse me the scope to explore, express or create in my own terms. I like that. Now I get to ponder what kinds of relationships I can have with numbers of people, or groups of people, whilst holding that precious autonomy for myself. I think if I am entirely honest about what I am, and what I am not, and avoid fixed roles, I should be able to hold this. It will be interesting to see what happens, as I move back towards being more socially engaged again.