Tag Archives: god

Religion and the need for stability

Life is of course unpredictable, but there is something in many of us that craves stability. Some people thrive on challenge and change, but many do not. It’s easy to look at religion and the way in which we appeal for help or try to appease forces of nature, and see the desire for stability playing out. As we’ve become more able to control our environments and create stability for ourselves, we’ve changed from making sacrifices to the most dangerous aspects of nature, and grown religions that are more human-centric.

Religions are full of rules about what we can and can’t do. At some level, those rules are about keeping God happy because if you keep God happy you get stability. You don’t get floods, storms, volcanoes, plagues… The Old Testament is pretty clear that these are the consequences of an unhappy God. Being able to ascribe unpredicted things to the will of an angry God may itself give us more of a feeling of control.  Perhaps it is worse to imagine that terrible things happen for no reason at all and that the universe couldn’t give a shit.

We are comforted (some of us) by the idea that the universe gives a shit. The desire to see the world as both kind and meaningful can lead to staggering forms of cognitive dissonance. If the world is good, then terrible things are really good things in disguise. That which ruins our lives and tears us apart – literally and metaphorically, has to be recast as our benevolent teacher. I think choosing to learn can be a good and valid response to difficult things. However, the idea that we have been given the terrible things so that we can learn makes me really uneasy.  Sometimes it seems much kinder to say ‘shit happens’ and not to feel taught by it at all.

Change itself is neither automatically good, or bad. It can take us in either direction. However, change is exhausting when it is mostly what you experience. Even a great deal of good change can wipe you out. We need time to process change. We need to be able to make sense of it, and we need to feel we are riding the waves even if we have no say in where they are taking us. The more out of control you feel, the more tempting it may be to attribute the chaos to a will beyond your comprehension. Perhaps sometimes that helps. However, trusting that the chaos is taking you somewhere you need to go can itself be a dangerous choice, and one that encourages us not to think things through or take care of ourselves.

If you find yourself swept away by a river in full spate, do you trust the river’s intentions? Do you trust that the river God has a higher plan for you? Or do you try and get out of the river?


Atheists, God and asking the wrong questions

Not all atheists, obviously – but too many – obsess over God. They ask religious people what their proof for God is, the religious people invariably reply that they are happy with their personal proof that God(s) exists. The atheist says this evidence is inadequate. No one is changed as a result of this exchange, in fact it may serve to entrench people in their positions.

As a Maybeist I find myself well placed to annoy deists and atheists in equal measure. As someone whose primary spiritual focus is finding inspiration sacred, I don’t fit the assumptions many atheists and deists have about what belief even means.

My personal belief is that I couldn’t care less who anyone does or does not worship, or why. I am in no place to judge what they get out of it, although I remain concerned about the devaluing of women in many of the world religions, attitudes to LGBTQ folk, and attitudes towards the wellbeing of the planet – sexism, racism and ecocide are just as likely to come from believers as non believers, I suspect. However, these are all things that can be dealt with by considering the words and deeds of the (non)believer, with no reference to any external agency.

We need to hold each other responsible for what we do, and do not do as a consequence of our beliefs, politics and prejudices. At the same time, we could also try respecting each other for the good things we may be inspired to do by our various beliefs.

I, for example, find the atheist habit of making it all about proving the existence of God both boring and at best useless. It distracts from the issue of discussing what people do and holding people to account. On the other hand, I celebrate atheists who’ve stopped with this pointless game and are asking much more interesting questions about the role of religion, the political power of religion, the things people do with religions that need examining. I have huge respect for Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists.

We should be asking about the financial power of religions, about the prejudice religion can fuel. No religion should consider itself above the law or not obliged to hold up the rights and dignities of all humans. When we’re demanding proof of other people’s Gods, no matter how we frame it, we take attention away from what humans do in the name of their God – and those responses are diverse. Not all Muslims are terrorists. Not all Christians hate LGBTQ folk. Not all Satanists are evil – in fact from what I’ve seen, many are excellent examples of humanity when you look at what they actually do. It pays to ask better questions.

The unavailable author

“The opinion of the author is neither available, nor desirable”. It’s a thought form that was drilled into me in my first term at university, all those long eons ago. I think something akin to it may have been said by a chap whose named could be Roland Barthes, but I might be wrong and I lack the will to google for insight. It’s the sort of statement that deserves to have its author’s name divorced from it, not least because it so often turns out true. What the author means and what the reader does are two wholly different things.

It’s not just a literature issue, either. It is an issue for anyone who sets out to write, blog, speak or teach. Your words, and their intended meaning, go on a journey. They pass through the filters of belief and assumption, the different associations other people have with words, and they land in some distant brain, not always in the form you intended. I’m pretty sure what Marx intended looked nothing like communist Russia or China. Mark Twain intended to protest against slavery, but modern readers find him racist. Pretty much every religious founder there has ever been was really clear about not wanting people to go out and kill other people in their name.

Even when the author is supposedly God, humans are entirely willing to infer what they want to find, to twist things where necessary and to generally fit the words to their plan. Even as clear a statement as ‘thou shalt not kill’ ascribed to God the Author somehow doesn’t result in people quitting on the whole killing other people thing, even when they claim to follow the book.

If being God doesn’t mean you get your authoring properly understood and respected, frankly the rest of us have got our work cut out.

I don’t really have an answer to this, but I think the issue could stand serious consideration. Humans throw words out into the world all the time with little consideration for the impact those words might have on others, and seldom much willingness to take responsibility when someone takes those words in a way we did not mean. We might not be able to steer exact interpretation, but more thought to the emotional impact could help. Are we feeding hatred and anger? Are we just wallowing in the bad stuff and facilitating emotional pornography? Or are we offering hope, ways forward, inspiration and opportunities to do better? I try and make sure I include some scope for usefully doing something, even when I’m angry or miserable. There are no doubt days when I fail in this.

Some of the responsibility lies with the reader. If we are to be better humans, learning to be more careful, precise and deliberate readers and writers, speakers and listeners would not be a terrible place to start.

Unquiet land

Perhaps naught in this life is real at all,
Deity sleeps and dreams that it is so
We may dare to imagine, cannot know
Are we wisps of fancy, destined to fall
If ever time the sleeper should awake?

Picture the dreaming god who is all things
Breathes deeply in the peace of utter rest,
Whose one exhale a flock of decades brings
Eternity yet marches on his chest,
But name him not lest naming make him stir.

When deity breathes in all must contract,
The many flowing back towards the source,
As tides of being turn to run their course
The disparate align and are compact.
Once more drawn tight in union of space.

And when the breathing out returns at last,
All things unmesh and fly upon their way,
The time for reconciliation past,
Unmaking comes in turn to have its day
While deity in slumber worries not.

So moves the current, thus washes the tide,
Or worlds and time, of all that yet might be,
For dreams of gods are vast and stretching wide
Unknowable in their enormity.
Who dares to picture this must rend their mind.

Come down into the slow dark earth to wait
Where centuries lie heavy in the soil
Time running thick and slow as midnight oil
Sticky the cloying touch of eager fate
Of all that is and was and yet could be.

For what has gone before must come again
The ebb and flow of tides eternally,
With time and landscape flowing like the sea
Nothing quite lost, nothing to quite remain
Waxes and wanes in neatest chaos dance.

Then set one human figure to this stage,
Bring the eternal to a moment’s eye
Small fragile one who does not yet know why
The world seems caught up in unnatural rage.
The breath is ended now, your tide has turned.

This is a thing from a project I’ve been playing with for a while. I needed to air a bit of it. It owes a debt to Dunsany, with the sleeping god.

Gods of our childhood

Exploring the ways in which people appeal to deity, it looks like for many, both contemporary and historical, gods are great uber-parents to be whimpered to when we want something sorting out. Some of the requests we offer up are petty, many are self serving. If we assume that life should not be crappy, should not cause us misery, should not deprive us of what we love or fail to give us what we desire, then going ‘oi, God, fix it!’ makes a degree of sense. One of the things atheists pick on theists for, is this constant running to mummy goddess and daddy god, for intervention that seldom comes, rather than facing our own challenges. Of course, not everyone relates to deity that way, but for today I want to ponder those who do.

We come into this world powerless. It is down to others to feed us and keep us warm. We cry, and help comes to us. Or doesn’t. We may be comforted, bottoms cleaned, food provided, or we may be left to howl in the darkness. In later life, we won’t remember much of this, but I would be prepared to bet that our first impressions stay with us. That lingering desire for the parent god who takes away the bad smell and brings the milk and honey, is not so unnatural. How much of our development as spiritual people might hark back to our early childhoods? Some sense of whether or not our prayers for intervention will be answered by benevolent powers might owe a lot to time in the cradle. But, what of those who are neglected? Do they hunger for the parent god who never came, and seek another one in later life?

If this isn’t total madness, then I suspect the transition of growing out of powerlessness, and learning that parents cannot do everything, has got to be a critical part of the journey. On Monday we had a school trip. A handful of inappropriately dressed girls, struggling with the cold, were quite angry about having to wait outside. The expectation that someone should be there to fix it, right now, was evident. My own lad, in his wet weather gear, quiet, accepting, comfortable and a bit bemused by the girls. How much you expect to have to cope with for yourself, how much you assume you are entitled to have fixed, how stoical you are, and what you see as a big deal or no real problem, all shapes your relationship with reality. I would bet it also informs how you think about deity.

When we’re in crisis, the desire that something, someone, sweep in and rescue us, may be natural enough, but it isn’t always helpful. Often what we most need to do is figure out how to rescue ourselves. Life is so full of setbacks for so many people. Letting go of a sense of entitlement, or disbelief at reality, and working with what is, makes life a lot easier. When you are inclined to either deal with things or accept them, there’s not a great deal of reason to go bothering a deity about your problems. You might still talk to them, though, because there is more to faith than applying to the uber-parent to have your psychic nappy changed.

My belief, which to me seems ‘druid’ to me, is that it’s my job to sort out my problems. I have prayed, in crisis, I admit it. Usually what occurs to me is ‘just let me survive this’ or ‘I could do with some insight here’. I find it hard to imagine that any deity is going to swing into my life. But at the same time, there have been periods of such strange coincidence and unlikely connections that I’ve wondered if other hands were twitching the threads of reality a bit. Just because that might happen sometimes does not incline me to think I can have it for the asking. I’m definitely animist in outlook, I believe in the idea of spirits, presences, things that are here and not so tangible. I assume they have their own intentions and desires. If mine overlap, that may help me, if they don’t, it won’t. Pretty much the same as dealing with people, in fact. There could be kindness and compassion, but I’m not counting on it.

I remember being young enough to be making the transition from seeing my parents as omniscient and omnipotent, to having to deal with them being people, and sometimes wrong, and not always perfect. Initially, it came as a bit of a shock, but many things do when you’re that size. I think the longer you go with gods for parents, the longer you spend insulated from life, the bigger an adjustment it is when you have to start fending for yourself. Which is why I’m not attracted to the idea of gods as super-parents, making everything ok and smoothing the way for us. I want to stand on my own two feet when I can.

Godless Pagan Ethics

Pretty much everyone who criticises pagans, if they stop doing the ‘it’s just silly’ routine go onto ‘but you have no proper ethics’. This has everything to do with the assumptions that ‘proper’ religions come with a rule book, and not having a rule book obviously means that we don’t have any rules. I could get distracted here down a side track about the precise usefulness of rules that are 2000 years and more out of date. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s decking, his BMW or his mobile phone contract…. You have to do some wriggling to make those old rule books fit. There’s a basic assumption here, that the rule books of ‘proper’ religions were all dictated by God. Never mind that some of them aren’t compatible and it wouldn’t be PC to discuss that. All of them, written by God, therefore, ethically sound.

Now, whether or not you think God was there at the beginning, the rules were written down by people. Translated into new languages, by people. Interpreted, and applied, by people. That, by my reckoning, puts a great many people in the mix. My suspicion is, that people came up with the rules and wrote them down in the first place.

What happens if we accept the idea that all of the great religious books were written by people (maybe inspired by god)? People are flawed and make mistakes. Also, times change, and religious ideas can become less relevant. But if people wrote the rules, then people are individually and collectively responsible for what those rules do. Including killing people for ‘moral’ crimes, starting war, spreading hatred etc etc.

The age of a thing s not even proof that we, as modern humans, reliably think it’s a good idea. The UK traditionally went in for hanging, and now it doesn’t. Laws can change. Understandings of crime, compassion and the value of human life can change, and should. What makes sense in one context can be pure madness in another.

So yes, I’m a pagan, and I don’t have a rule book. I feel personally responsible for all the choices I make and all the things I do, and feel entirely unable to blame any of my actions on supernatural beings. The gods have NEVER made me do anything. I also don’t have a rule book that I can quote to feel morally justified about killing people, depriving them of their land, their dignity, their human rights. I don’t feel the kind of moral superiority that makes me inclined to be hugely judgemental of people I don’t know, but who have apparently messed up. Compassion matters to me more than rules. And when I think about it, all those neighbour loving, shirt giving recommendations in the Bible seem to get overlooked in certain quarters.

To be pagan is not to be without ethics, it is to know that you, and only you are responsible for the ethical choices you make. No hiding behind a book. No waving your bloodstained hands in feigned innocence, saying ‘it is god’s will, we have to’. No neatly doging the requirement to think about what I do, and who I judge, and no assuming that any law is morally, unassailably right and leaving it alone. I care about what is good, what is needful, what makes the world a better place, and  do not think the ‘ethics’ of the market place or the ‘values’ of consumerism serve us very well at all by that measure.

I don’t even think it matters where ideas come from, how old they are, or who came up with them. What matters is what an idea does, what is achieves in the world, who it helps, who it harms. “By their fruit shall ye know them,” yes? Ask what good it is, and if the answer is ‘no good at all’ then consider that it might be derived from human fear and human failing, and not any kind of deity at all. What is human, can be changed by humans, and we owe it to ourselves to really consider the implications of that.

Tales of spirit and afterlife

One of my core beliefs is that we cannot know what comes after this life. We can guess, and we can make up stories but the uncertainty is intrinsic to the human condition, and I am sceptical about any claims to knowing. However, ideas about the afterlife shape what many people do in this one, and it’s nice to have some kind of working model to pin current existence to. Up until recently I had a very simple working model – accepting the state of not knowing, I would assume there was nothing beyond my own biology and no afterlife, and live accordingly. So while I’m a spiritual person, I have adopted a more atheistic mindset for how I approach life. It’s a good, pragmatic approach, but it lacked spirit and I’ve never been wholly easy with it.

What I’m going to share today is the new story about the afterlife that I’ve been working on, and have decided to adopt. It owes a bit to Phillip Pullman, there’s nothing especially original here.

If we took my computer apart, we would not find the internet inside it. We would not find the means to create and store the entire internet either. If the internet was an unproven, theoretical idea and we thought maybe it didn’t exist, we might find my computer passably supported this. And at time of writing, I’m not online. The quest for internet, from the boat, is frequently an act of faith and devotion! Now, there is no cluster of cells in the brain that can happily be designated as the soul. We’re not even entirely clear on how consciousness works. Hopefully you see where I’m going with this. What if consciousness and soul are to the body what internet is to the computer? Or the television and radio signals are to those devices? Without getting bogged down in the metaphor, there is room in a rational reality for things that make a thing go, but do not live inside it.

Now, what if soul is not a single, indestructible lump of stuff? What if it has more in common with the rest of physical reality, such that it can disintegrate, and change? So when we get to the end of our lives, our continuation as a coherent spiritual identity might depend on a number of things – strength of soul and personality, having the kind of self that is able to survive (what would than mean?) being happy enough with oneself to want to continue, intact, into another form. A person could choose to merge into the whole, Nirvana style. They could choose to disintegrate from self loathing. They could choose to reincarnate. They could be too weak to do anything but disintegrate.

I like this for a number of reasons. All those people who think they were Napoleon in a former life get to be sort of right, they have a bit of something that once was, and those kinds of famous, high impact spirits are likely to be more visible even if you only get a shard. There is no requirement for an external judge in this story, we do it to ourselves, we get to choose. There is continuation of spirit, but not necessarily continuation of conscious awareness, which would explain why some of us remember bits of past life and some do not. There is room to find more than one person in life for whom you feel deep soul resonance, because there may be many souls with whom you have some sparks in common. There may be scope (I nod to Pullman here) for those who are very close to become part of the same entity after death. This story holds room for change, chaos and uncertainty, but also for continuity, it’s not offering any kind of clear certainty, but lots of possibility. There is scope for inherent justice within it, because to get to choose what happens to you after life, you will need the kind of soul whole enough, aware enough, strong enough to do that. What people will get at the end would depend a great deal on what they have done along the way.

While this story does not require the presence of a judgemental deity, it also doesn’t preclude the idea of deity, and I like that too. After all, what does happen to a really enlightened, really powerful soul that has been through various incarnations? There’s room to birth gods here.

I know it’s a story. I might be right, I might not, and I hold that uncertainty very carefully. I like this story because it has scope to be useful, and it gives me a new way of looking at the world. I’ve spent a decade or so with the ‘no afterlife’ story informing what I do, and that was interesting, but it’s time to experiment with a new perspective and see what I can learn by holding it. No doubt at some point along the way I will feel the urge to fettle it. I may even abandon it entirely in favour of something else. This is an idea I am increasingly comfortable with. Our relationship with reality must grow and change as we do. All good relationships grow and change if we stay in them. Absence of change is not a hallmark of fidelity, it’s a very slow way of smothering something to death.

Those whom the gods most love

Heather left a powerful comment on my Downtrodden blog, about spiritual attitudes to poverty. I’ve been reflecting on that, and wanted to follow on from there. I’ve never been one for the New Age theories of like attracts like, or that misfortune is the paying off of karmic debts for some awfulness we did in a past life. Equally I have never seen wealth and affluence as proof of being in a deity’s good books. Until recently I hadn’t examined why I hold such beliefs, but on reflection I think it has everything to do with the Celtic element of my Druidry.

Skipping over how truly ancient any of the Celtic myths are, I would say it’s fair to describe them all as a bit mournful. Very few Celtic myths end happily ever after. Many end with the death of the ‘hero’. Tragedy is a pervasive theme. I think about Rhiannon, deprived of her child, blamed, humiliated and suffering. I think about the torments Branwen suffers, and all those doomed lovers, people destroyed by geas… Celtic myth is not resplendent with happily ever after, and this is a big part of what I grew up on. But then, the more I think about it, the less able I am to find stories where the righteous do not suffer. In most traditions, religious stories are all about being tested. From Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son, onwards, the Old Testament makes it very clear they have a God who tests his followers.

What makes a hero, or a legend? Once upon a time, there was a man who the gods loved. They did everything imaginable to make life easy for him. He never had to work because money grew on a tree in his garden. He had a wonderful wife who recognised all the qualities in him that the gods loved, and did not want him solely for the money tree, and who bore him lots of charming, beautiful and well behaved children. Life was perfect for them in every way. It’s not a very good story, really. It’s dull, and you’re waiting for the moment when it all goes crushingly wrong, because that’s what happens in stories. It also raised a point. What are the qualities, in this deity-blessed man, that make him so appealing to the deities? If they do everything, and he does nothing, all they’ve got to go on is who he imagines he is. This man is untested. He is not a hero. He has never done anything of note, and he never will.

Compare this with the story of a woman who starts out badly – her parents are poor, maybe she’s blind, maybe she has some virtue – a good heart, a quick mind, a pretty face. To take care of her aging parents, she sets out into the world and faces terrible adversity. Bears chase her. Bandits steal her only possessions. She shares her last crust with a swan who turns out to be a fairy who can tell her how to find a fortune if only she will undertake to do three impossible things first. Not only is this more like a story, but at a symbolic level, it is more like real life.

In practice, being dishonourable, selfish, greedy and ambitious is more likely to pave the way to affluence than being generous and kind. A compassionate person won’t use their energy praying for a new car, they’ll be praying for the starving, for the homeless, and will spend their time trying to help others. Only someone who sees it as their god given right to strive after wealth above all else, will live that way. However, very few people like the idea that they might be morally bankrupt. So, by assuming money, ease and success to be signs of divine favour, they neatly get round the ethical issues. I must be fine, see how much the gods love me, see how much money I have…

If the stories are anything to go by, the gods are anything but kind to those they love most. You do not get to be a hero unless there are monsters to fight. Saints are given opportunity to die for their faith. Heroes die in battle. Mythical women die for love, or protecting their children, or defending their virtue. In face of adversity, the people who spawn legends, shine. We might take Nelson Mandela and Ghandi as more contemporary and famous examples here. The martyred icons of protest, the heroes of bloodless revolution, the ones who stand up to injustice. They are on the news every day. You can bet they aren’t praying for a pay rise. Those whom the gods love most, they challenge, sometimes to breaking point. But then, it’s only when you break a person that you see what’s inside them. Often it’s the cracks that let the light through. Often it is the wrongs, or the pain suffered that motivates a person to do amazing things. A person can have a life of ease and comfort, or they can have a life of trial and heroism, but not both. For me, one of the essential messages of the Celtic myths, is that I would seek out the latter if it did not come to me anyway.

Everything is sacred

Today I am writing in response to Solitary Druid’s most excellent post here – http://phoenixgrove.wordpress.com/2012/04/08/what-is-sacred/ (you don’t need to have read it to follow mine, but trust me, it’s well worth doing so.)

I embrace the idea that everything is sacred, that sacredness is inherent in all things. And, mindful of the blog I alluded to, I also recognise that for human functionality, this is a non-starter. I might hold it as an intellectual premise, but in practice how I treat a cat poo in the litter tray is not how I would treat a mouse that turned up there. Part of this is because of difference – the poo has no needs that I know of, whereas I need to get rid of the smell. The mouse if alive, needs to leave swiftly and gently. So even if everything is sacred, its uniqueness requires us, if we care for it, to treat it in a relevant way.

There are times when we have to choose priority. We can’t do everything, relate to everything, save everything. Our energy and time are finite and every moment of living involves an almost unthinkable amount of choice as we pilot our way through potentially infinite options. So we respond to the things that move us, that we are inspired by, or care about and give them priority over those that aren’t so emotive. We save the cute fluffy mammal and leave the remarkable insect to die. We give money to orphans with large eyes, not homeless guys with drink and drug problems – or however it falls out in our unique experience. There is no way of not doing this.

We can, however, take out little bits of time along the way to think about our priorities and relationships. If, for example, I have been excluding my own rubbish from the ‘sacred’ category, I miss its relationship both with the raw material it came from and the land it will be off to fill. I might still find it hard to see god in a paper bag, but I can think about my own relationship with the tree that went to make the paper, and the land it could be going to fill (both easily sacred), and I can opt to recycle it instead. Sometimes the best approach to ‘everything is sacred’ is not to try and grasp the inherent deity in things we can see no use or value for, but to put them back into a bigger picture. They come from somewhere, they go somewhere, it is all nature. Holding the bigger picture in mind, full time is impossible, but pausing to contemplate bits of the bigger picture, and trying to put small, apparently unimportant things into context, changes perspectives.

I am not going to see goddesses in a cat poo. But I do see a reflection of the cat’s life cycle, and a reminder of my own. I do see the challenge of waste disposal, and all the headache-inducing questions of sustainability and impact. Odds are in a few hours time, I will have forgotten the poo, and will be instead looking at the clouds, striking up a conversation with a seagull, contemplating my ancestors or going wherever today takes me. Until Mr Cat makes another offering.

The plus side of an ‘everything is sacred’ perspective, is that it makes everything worth contemplating. As I said last week, feeling druidic is easy when you’re somewhere like Avebury, and its harder wok in a supermarket, or a traffic queue. But starting from the premise that there could be sacredness here to find, is a good way of getting past the sense of isolation from beauty and wonder that urban living can bring. I’ve spent times in depressing urban places, and I used to find it very hard. The prompt from another druid to keep looking for spirits of place, and to assume a presence of the sacred, took me some time to get to grips with, but has radically altered how I feel about being in cities. Nature is everywhere. It’s with us every time we draw breath, or empty our bladders, and it’s worth keeping sight of that.

The quest for beauty and meaning, for sacredness amongst the worst messes of short term human ‘creativity’ can take a person strange places. Many of the good things are accidental, the wildlife that has moved in, the unintentional art. Where there is grim building and low aspiration, a place can feel soulless. Recognising that it does have soul, changes how we relate to it, what we do with it, and ideally in the end, it changes the place. Once you start treating everything, and everyone as though there is a dash of sacredness there, the odds are you’re going to show it/them more care and respect, and real changes will occur.

Pondering this yesterday I came to the conclusion that sacredness and relationship go together. Without relationship, ideas of sacredness are meaningless. It’s not the intellectual premise that matters, it’s how we live it, and that’s about what we do with everything we encounter.
Also, I now wonder if my cat is psychic. As I was typing away about cat poo, he thoughtfully undertook to provide me with one! If god is in that smell, it’s going to be a while before I can experience ecstatic relationship. But then, I’m only human.

Your ineffable predestination

Not so long back, Autumn Barlow guest blogged here about the idea of whether things are Meant to Be. I’ve finally got round to formulating a response, so here we go. I don’t personally believe in predestination. I do not think there are any gods, fates or forces directing our lives and setting us up for certain experiences. Nor do I believe that before this life we all got together in heaven, or some other place, and planned how we wanted it to go and what we wanted to learn. I think that life is improvisation. I also know that I do not know how reality works, and that my theories are best guesses. I therefore want the most useful theory I can find. I cannot know if I am right, but ‘useful’ is something I can measure.

However, the idea of an ineffable plan can be comforting in hard times. When all you get are setbacks, the idea that it means something, or is taking you in an important direction might turn meaningless pain into a bearable sense of significance. The only trouble is, if the plan is either that of a deity, or your higher self in another realm, you have no personal control. You can only endure and follow the path that you were fated to take. I don’t find that helps me make the best choices, and that’s why I reject it as a world view.

Sometimes there seems to be nothing to do but endure, suffer, and try to survive. Sometimes it feels like the only available life lesson is ‘you do not get to win’. But there are always other ways of thinking about what happens. We might not be able to change our circumstances, but we can change how we think about them, and that can, in turn, change everything.

On Monday I was starting to feel like I would inevitably be crushed by forces I cannot control. By yesterday morning I had reasoned out that there must be ways of not being crushed. By the afternoon I had come to realise that I do indeed have very little power because responsibility lies elsewhere. I went on to recognise that I can choose to trust the person who does have responsibility for dealing with things. This is someone who has not previously had to step up and shoulder such a huge load, but that doesn’t mean they can’t, or won’t. By this morning I had come to the conclusion that maybe this other person needs the opportunity to grow that will inevitably come as a consequence of stepping up. My role is no longer to be on the front line. I’m now at the support end, providing backup, information, resources and trusting someone else to take the lead. I feel fine about this.

A week ago, in a wholly different scenario, I found a sudden weight of responsibility descending upon me. A vast amount of work loomed as a consequence, and work that I had no idea how to do. The prospect alone could have put me down, could have convinced me that I was beaten, or caused me to relinquish autonomy to someone else as a way through. On that occasion, thinking it through, I realised that I was indeed the one who had to step up to make changes, and that I could do it. Now well under way in that process, the responsibility I took starts to feel like freedom.

In both situations I could have accepted the idea that I am fated to be crushed. Having two, or three, or four hard things fall one after the other (midweek we learned a lot about mechanical repairs) the scope for taking it personally is huge. I could decide that the gods have it in for me and mean to break me. I could conclude that my defeat is inevitable and that I might as well just lie down and wait to die. This would be a story, not a truth, and would only become real through my embracing of it and my acting it out.

Another day, another challenge. I do look for meaning, but am increasingly determined that the meaning I need to seek is about how to make the best of it. Often, there is some kind of good to extract from even the worst setbacks. Often there are ways of moving forwards even when at first it does not feel that way. The only grand plan I think is going to matter is the one I construct inside my head. If anything can be described as ‘meant to be’ it will be because things have happened as I meant them. Or as someone else human and present meant them. As I keep saying to my child, there are often no ‘wrong’ answers when it comes to life, there are only the answers we choose for ourselves. Keeping in sight the ways in which we can choose is a big part of taking responsibility, and finding freedom. It’s only when we convince ourselves that we have no choices, and no power, that we’re really in trouble.