Today is July Fourth, 2016: Independence Day in the United State of America. It is also the actual New Moon, but I’m doing something different. Now is the perfect time to talk about Statehood, Patriotism, and all that, but there are two problems: 1) the visible New Moon will be tomorrow night, so I will be posting again tomorrow on something a little less secular, and 2) enough has been written about statehood and patriotism so that I hardly need to talk about it here.
Three days ago the Wall Street Journal posted an article by Peggy Noonan about the world in crisis, “a world crying out for bigness, wisdom, steady hands and steady eyes. We could use a genius cluster” like the group of politicians at the end of World War II sporting the likes of Winston Churchill and president Roosevelt, but the point of the article is that politicians today have nothing like the vision or courage of the giants that once walked the Earth.
The nostalgia is a little sickening because it crosses the line between a yearning call for action based on admiration of our forebears and an eviscerating despondency founded on propagandistic hero-worship. That boundary is one that everyone today needs to be able to perceive with absolute clarity, especially contemporary pagans.
Now I’m not here just to criticize the culture of modern media. My purpose is to point out one antidote not only to that despondency but also to the fear, anger and despair that inevitably follows the intense feeling that something is broken in our world. In terms of American politics, our liberals propose varying degrees of political, social and economic reform in order to overcome the evils we have inherited from the past, while conservatives seek to restrain reform in order to protect the heritage of our past. Both feel that something is deeply wrong in our society, just as Marxists feel that our economic system is controlling just as anarchists feel that any kind of centralized government is enslaving, environmentalists feel that our modern industrial base is poisonous, and we don’t even have to stay in the cosmological realm. The Daesh have taken terrorism to a whole new level, while racism has opened a whole new rhetorical chapter and gun violence has sparked a whole new urgency in the push for reform — and this is just from a Stateside perspective! Don’t get me started on Brexit or non-Anglophonic countries! Sustained outrage will inevitably lead to emotional exhaustion, then to depression, and all with the Christians glibly quipping that it’s all as it should be because of original sin!
The world isn’t broken — let’s get that straight right away — and neither are we. For today, accept that people are doing what they are supposed to be doing; let go for a moment of the need to make all humanity conform to what you think they should be like. (I’ll treat that another time.) The question today is how do we respond to the fear and uncertainty that seems to be everywhere? If you’ve followed that most recent link you’ll have found some good general suggestions, but as pagans there are some very significant things that will not only further our sense of safety and well-being while also satisfying our pagan sensibilities. They easily arrange themselves along the four criteria I set out most recently as defining traditional paganism.
Polytheism: Know Your Gods
The most fundamental premise of almost every form of paganism is that phenomenal reality, i.e. what we see and touch, flows out of a divine reality with which we can interact even though it may not be overtly apparent to our everyday awareness. In this divine reality are the gods and goddesses, conceived and understood in various ways by various traditions. A further defining characteristic of paganism is that not everyone relates to this divine reality in the same way, and it is up to us as individuals to cultivate and nurture that relationship however we can do so.
This means that the first thing we can do to combat the despair that grows out of this feeling of living in a broken world is to know who our gods are and how we interact with them. My own proclivities prioritize knowledge but I don’t just mean knowing about a divinity by reading up on him or her in a book. When I use the term ‘know’ I invoke a fullness of knowledge that encompasses practice and immediate experience — the way you know a good friend and not just an acquaintance. Call that spirit guide. Commune with your ancestors. Even if you have to take it down to buying a ouija board, so what you must to make a genuine connection with the eternal.
I should probably also note that as pagans our gods are not always safe gods, so do your research first and be careful whom you call. If you decided to rewire your house you’d do the research and take precautions to ensure the electricity did not hurt yourself our your loved ones. Dealing with the divine is no different. Do your research and step gently.
Ritualism: Know Your Rhythm
Another premise of traditional paganism is that we may interact with eternal realities, often the same as divine realities, through temporal actions; put simply, ritual is a way of interacting with the boundless in finite terms. It’s not just magical or religious ritual, though. There are so many groups that hold ritual as a matter of course that it is easy to think of it just as a set of words and gestures in rote combination. Those opposed to the idea of ritual presume that it is nothing more than this rote combination coupled with a belief that these will produce unrelated results, but genuine ritual is something else entirely.
When people gather together, for a meal let’s say or even just a drink down the pub, and you get a sense of community and belonging — that’s ritual. When you have gone on a long trip, you think to buy your loved ones back home some gifts no matter how small, and when you get back there is that feeling of homecoming which then picks up its own momentum and turns the afternoon or evening into a special time where everyone grows closer together or more into who they are — that’s ritual. When you are going about your day and you have an inexplicable urge to do something completely uncharacteristic and out of the ordinary only to discover that circumstances self-arrange to your and others betterment — that is ritual.
Some examples of ritual that almost no one thinks of as religious ritual are: 1) that morning cup of coffee when it brings a sense of peace and wholeness for the coming day, 2) that romantic date that spins into an evening of magical serendipity, 3) Christmas — perhaps the most widely observed magical ritual that almost no one perceives as ritual and it’s almost 100% pagan — 4) going for a drink after work with friends, and 5) every national holiday like Independence day is a massive national ritual. Traditional paganism abandons the division between secular and religious ritual, because everything in your life is related somehow to divine realities whether or not that relationship is conscious. We make it conscious through ritual.
Now paganism presumes that everyone and every group has different rituals and that what works for one will not work for all, so it is imperative that you find what your specific rituals are. It’s not enough to come up with formulaic words and gestures without that sense of being part of something larger. Maybe it’s spending time reading and learning by yourself every day or once a week. Maybe it’s playing music with local musicians regularly. Maybe it’s family dinner at 6pm every night with prayers and blessings afterward. Maybe it’s all of these, and maybe it’s none. Whatever it is, you must find them.
Localism: Know Your Area
Our landscape is being increasingly impacted by digital communications, and it is a very common experience for people to feel closer with other people continents away than their next-door neighbors. Despite this, we as human beings are defined in many ways by our locality, and I believe the alienation that often comes with modern digital anonymity is largely to blame for many of our broader social ills. Many recommend doing nice things for other people when you’re feeling down, but properly you should do nice things for your neighbors because doing something nice for others way far away removes you from the tactile immediacy of seeing their smiles or losing a little time in chatting. Where I grew up in the South ‘the visit’ was still in full force, and there is no besting the connection you build as a community when you simply listen and converse with those who live near you.
It’s not just about your local community, though; it’s also about your local landscape. Get to know the history and ecology of your local area, what businesses and special spots there are. Find the out-of-the-way corners that are unique. I guarantee they exist even if you don’t believe they do, but it takes getting out and actually exploring with your own eyes to find them.
Tribalism: Know Your People
Tribalism gets a really bad reputation these days. There are several topics in our Western society that no one really thinks about but around which an enormous amount of social pressure revolves. There is so much pressure to think in terms of a single, common human race that to adhere to a localized social-identity is to be insular, suspicious, and bigoted. There are a great many subtle ways that this pressure is applied from clothes to language and food, but the greatest agent of this pressure is the accusation that tribalism leads inevitably to an us-vs.-them mentality. It doesn’t have to be that way, though, and the best way I can explain this is to talk about the experience of tribalism.
The notion of the tribe goes back to the early organization by common relatives, but the notion has had to change as the spiritual basis has shifted from genetic lineage (though this is still present) to a deeper connection. In other words, there is a feeling you get when you find yourself speaking with people who seem to get you. The laughs come more easily, the ideas flow more readily, you find you’re not guarding your words the way you normally would, and a glow seems to spill out over the whole situation: you are with your people. Even when you walk into a place where your people meet it feels like coming home.
This experience is real and should be considered one of the basic foundations of a standard of living. I would even argue that much of the angst over race, religion and social inequality is really coming out of a sense of alienation that grows when we are removed from those with whom we naturally agree. There is a deep satisfaction in finding your people that does not necessarily have to express itself as an us-vs.-them narrative, but that narrative pervades far more of our society than most think. Liberals vs. conservatives, republicans vs. democrats, black vs. white, native vs. colonizer, Star Wars vs. Star Trek, etc. etc. etc. ad magnum nauseum; they all fall into this belligerent attitude without actually falling into tribalism which would look far more like “us against the world” and not some particular group. The basic unit of the tribe is the family, and we do not presume that belonging to a family automatically places all families at odds with each other.
So here at the turning of the moon, invite your neighbors over. Talk to them about what’s going on in their lives and in your lives. Have those hamburgers and, if you’re in the States, enjoy the fireworks. Feel the goodness of what you have with those who appreciate it. Let go of that feeling that things are just plain wrong for a little, and if you can’t then look to see how you can side step that feeling by using the four points listed above. As always, do what works. I can all but guarantee that Good Things will happen.