Okay, I’ll Play Along…

The pagan blogosphere seems to have latched onto this nifty declaration of International Pagan Values Blogging Month. It’s given me a good excuse to put down some thoughts that I’ve been having trouble putting into words as of late.

The biggest problem with trying to define “pagan values” is that, as others have noted both in this blogathon and before, is that “neopaganism” doesn’t describe just one religion–it describes a plethora of them. As Sannion pointed out, a lot of the time “pagan” often ends up being interpreted (not overtly, generally) as “Wicca, or Wicca-flavored”. Not surprising, since so many of us cut our teeth on books by folks like Scott Cunningham, and many pagans never really define themselves beyond “generic Wicca-flavored pagan”. From my experience in the communities I’ve participated in (both in person and online), and in going to a wide variety of festivals the past few years, “generic Wicca-flavored pagans” outnumber any other single group of pagans. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just means that there’s no simple set of pagan values when you have that much variety.

The other issue is that values are ultimately subjective. Even among members of the same pagan religion, you may have a wide variety of values that individual people adhere to, whether due to the tenets of their faith, or other factors informing their everyday choices. And I do mean that last bit–values do not only have to come from religious sources, though the two may inform each other to the extent that they may seem inseparable.

One of the things I’ve been kicking around in my head as of late is the idea that we (not just pagans) create religion (and, by extension in many cases, values) out of whatever comforts us. We may not consciously realize we’re creating religion, and as most people view religions primarily in a literal sense, some may be offended by the idea that their experiences are anything other than direct contact with the Divine/spirits/other intermediaries. Still, people seem to match their religious beliefs pretty well; the structures within which they interact with the Powers That Be connect to things that give them some form of comfort and security. (And I’ll most likely write about this more later when I’ve brought together my thoughts on it more cohesively.)

I know exactly where my comfort in Nature comes from. I was a weird kid growing up. While all the other girls in my small town Catholic grade school class were playing with Barbies and putting on kiddie makeup and starting to get interested in clothes, I was grubbing around in the woods catching garter snakes. I didn’t really have friends, for the most part, and got picked on a lot. My family loved me like nobody’s business, but I think sometimes they just didn’t know what to make of me. My only sibling was significantly older than I was, so I ended up spending a lot of time alone.

Living in a small town, I was able to run around our yard, the neighbors’ yard, and the Big Hill across the street where the retirement home was. I even repeatedly sneaked off to the semi-wooded lot on the other side of the hill, even though I was supposed to. (After all, that’s where the best place to find garter snakes was!) So I spent long days in cool shade on mats of moss and grass and clover, under poplar trees and juniper bushes, watching Monarch butterflies come out of their chrysales, chasing (but never catching) cottontail rabbits. When I was indoors, I was reading voraciously, getting every book on animals from the library that I could lay hands on.

Nature was comforting to me. When people were confusing, or mean, or simply didn’t get that no, I wasn’t interested in doing things their way, I knew I could turn to the natural world and find a place where I wasn’t judged. Sure, the animals ran away when I came stomping through the woods, but they did that to every human, and even to each other to an extent. That’s just the way they were. They weren’t out with an agenda beyond day to day survival, and they didn’t single me out. And in turn, if I was quiet (and lucky) enough, I got to observe the denizens of the wild and witness their goings-on with wonder (though this was easier with plants, which tended to just stay put regardless of how much I looked at them). And yes, I did tell stories to myself about Nature; there was more to it than just what the books said. I never told anyone about these personal myths, but they sowed the seeds for meaning-making.

This continued well into my mid-teens. When my parents and I moved to a new home in the very early 1990s, there was one of the last farms to survive the sprawling of my town right behind our home, and I had a few acres of woods that weren’t immediately fenced in to explore. I grew very attached very quickly, especially because it was bigger, with a creek running through it (I’ve always been attracted to running water), and more variety in inhabitants and geography. Even as I entered into the awkwardness of junior high, I continued to find the most solace in those woods.

And then, one day…I came home on the school bus to find that my woods had been completely bulldozed to make way for a new housing subdivision. To say I was devastated, crushed, would come nowhere near describing how I felt. I honestly think that’s what touched off the depression I fought with for years afterward. I had lost my anchor, the place I went to when people simply didn’t understand. worse, I had lost a piece of my soul.

When I discovered paganism at the age of 17, a few years later, I immediately latched onto the nature-based aspects of it, especially animal magic and totemism. Neopaganism gave me a structure to try to rebuild the rapport I had had with Nature that had been so shockingly destroyed. In the few years between the destruction of “my” woods and discovering paganism, I had reacted so badly to the trauma that I distanced myself from nature as much as I could, and lost that innocent connection I’d had for so long. Even now I find myself having to fight seeing Nature in too many abstractions, trying to keep from mistaking the map for the territory. And yet, the older I get and the more of that initial connection I rebuild, the more comforted I am, and the more depth my relationship to Nature gains. Granted, I have a much healthier social life than I did when I was younger, but that hasn’t caused my comfort in Nature to cease.

So what’s the point to this long, rambly narrative? Where do values come in? First, I wanted to illustrate how our values–including those that are formed through religious experience–may very well be tightly linked to what comforts us. But second, and perhaps more importantly, I wanted to show where my own values come from. Because, as I mentioned, I can’t blog about “pagan values”. They simply can’t exist in a universal form, not even those based on the assumption that pagan = reveres Nature. While I can argue up and down, for example, that you can’t separate an Earth or Harvest deity from the actual, physical Earth, there are numerous pagans who will deny that their paganism is Nature-based, instead saying that their religion is “based on the worship of the Gods” (never mind that their gods are personifications of natural phenomena), or some other explanation. (My rant about the artificial dichotomy of “natural” vs. “not natural” will have to wait.) It’s not that there aren’t other pagans whose values resemble mine; it’s that these values cannot be universally described as “pagan values”. But I can confidently extrapolate on my own!

If you look through the posts in this blog, it’s pretty easy to see where my values are. While I may not always be capable of acting in the most harmonious ways when it comes to valuing being a part of an interconnected set of natural systems involving numerous beings on all levels of existence and evolution, my values most definitely do direct the decisions I make–even if that means keeping certain ones in mind for later when they’re more feasible. Now, I am not a philosopher; while I’ve done a little reading up on the differences between values, ethics and morals in order to prepare for this post, the differences are still kind of fuzzy for me. So here are the essentials, and I apologize if these aren’t properly explained as “values”:

–Nature is sacred. Not just in an abstracted, symbolic, archetypal way, but in its very immediate physical reality, from the rich dirt that I work composted cow manure into every year before gardening, to the Columbia River Gorge where some of my favorite wild places are, to the countless microflora in my body, living in symbiosis with me (most of the time). It is sacred not only for its meaning, but for the very fact that without it, I die.

–The above assertion is not antithetical to scientific knowledge. When I say my prayers in the morning and evening and honor the Earth, the Sky, the Sun, the Moon, and others, I am not only saying these things to anthropomorphized symbols. I am saying them to the Earth that is the basis of my life-support system, and the Sky that contains the necessary atmosphere to create climates and weather patterns. When I journey and speak with totems and other spiritual beings, I am not only speaking to spirits, but to embodiments of entire species and natural phenomena that exist in a very physical way.

–The assertion directly above this one is not antithetical to the existence of a meaning-making system composed of my personal mythology, as well as the elements of greater cultural mythologies that interweave with it. When I say my prayers, I do not only say them to the physical manifestations of natural phenomena. I am saying them to the archetypal energies that have been built up around them through countless years of human attention and belief, as well as through the strength of my own connection and the meaning-making activities I have partaken in my entire life. When I journey to the totems and others, I do not only limit my knowledge of them to natural history, but also interact with totems-as-archetypes, vastly complex symbols that resonate with my psyche on multiple levels.

I endeavor to live in such a way as to honor all the above assertions equally. However, I do this with the understanding that ideals and reality may not always mesh well, particularly in the physical realm. For instance, I would love to be able to have a greywater system, and a yarden (yes, an entire yard converted to veggies and fruit!), and a number of other things that require me to not be a renter. Unfortunately, we’re still several years off from being able to buy a house. While I know that going vegetarian is better for the environment, I simply do not thrive well without meat (and yes, I’m currently going through medical professionals to see about this, just to see what’s up).

But there are decisions I can make, and have made, that are in line with my values. I am in grad school to get a degree in counseling psychology, and my emphasis (though not exclusively) is on ecopsychology, as well as narrative therapy and other tools for aiding others in meaning-making activities (and, of course, better mental health!). While I’m not yet a subsistence gardener, I’m doing my best to learn better skills as I go along. A lot of my day-to-day purchases have environmental impact in mind; I’m a frequent shopper at Goodwill and other thrift stores, and haven’t bought anything from a mall or a Wal-mart in years. These things are as much a part of my values, and really, my spirituality as a pagan, as any rituals, journeying, and other activities I do.

Paganism, for me, is not limited to the overtly spiritual practices, and neither are the values I associate with my paganism. If I do not do my best to integrate what I believe into what I do to the extent that is currently possible, then why do I believe it?