I am not a fan of dichotomies; I much prefer continua, Venn diagrams, and big, messy, organic tangles. Our world is a world not of black and white, but of a series of gray areas and vibrant colors. Sure, having a nice, neat “either/or” perspective makes it easier to think. You can set yourself up as the good guy, and the other perspective is the bad guy, and life is ever so simple!
It’s also intellectually lazy. And it’s irritating. One of the many reasons I am no longer Christian is because I got tired of the right/wrong, good/evil, wonderful Christians/nasty ol’ everybody else dichotomies. While I didn’t choose to go to paganism because of a lack of dichotomies, I must admit the greater proliferation of the “gray areas” mindset among the pagans I met was a nice perk.
However, there are a few dichotomies I’ve seen crop up every so often in discussions in the pagan realm that set my teeth on edge. One of them has to do with the false dichotomy of “nature/spirituality/magic vs. technology”. The Wild Hunt recently featured discussion on a proclamation by a well-known occult publisher about their exodus from Facebook. It’s not their leaving Facebook that I take issue with; after all, I was pretty annoyed that the media giant wants businesses to pay for their statuses to show up in people’s feeds along with everything else. I don’t blame them for their decision, and I wish them well.
What got me was the snarky sour grapes attitude toward all technology in the publisher’s original statement, with such choice phrases as “We are fortunate to say that many of the best practitioners we know have no online profile, and would suggest that those who are most vocal online should perhaps have their claims taken with a pinch of salt” and “The internet is making you stupider, stupid”. Some of the comments in the Wild Hunt discussion were of a similar us vs. them (and we’re better) bent. This sets up that dichotomy of “real serious occult practitioners who are too busy being real serious occult practitioners to have a Facebook account” vs. “wannabe practitioners who spend too much time online and are just in it for the image and trappings and ruining their magic by posting altar pictures to Pinterest”. All this assumes that the more time a person spends online, the worse a practitioner they must be, because obviously “real practitioners” don’t have time for Facebook and other distractions. (One might wonder whether they also don’t have time for television, or reading novels and other fiction, and other frivolous pleasures.)
But I’ve seen it go the other way, too. I’ve seen people swear up and down that nature doesn’t need to be preserved because we don’t need it, that all we need to do is plug ourselves into a virtual reality and all our psychological and spiritual needs will be cared for, and eventually we won’t even need the physical world. I’ve seen paganism and other nature-based spiritualities degraded as “backwards” and “primitive” and “not in touch with the modern world”, while “cutting edge” occultists play dick-fencing by seeing who can quote the most obscure countercultural figures on internet forums, and how many occult symbols they can create while on some manmade hallucinogen or another.
Neither of these extremes is the norm, of course, though they’re fodder for convenient straw men for each side of the nature/tech divide to attack and thereby feel superior. In reality, most people, whether esotericists or not, have their own comfortable balance between old tech and new tech. The pagan Luddites, and the internet addicts, are extreme minorities that make for good worst-case-scenarios but do not typify all/most pagans or all/most social media users.
I have found great value in both the physical and the virtual. I was primarily raised in a small town and was the weird kid who grubbed around in the woods catching garter snakes. I still love being outdoors, and my spirituality centers around the wilderness and the wild world we live in. But I also am a big geek, and have been ever since I met my first band o’ gaming, cosplaying, anime-watching computer nerd friends as a teen in the 90s. I’m not as heavily embedded in the newest tech as some, but I’m still pretty well plugged into the internet on a variety of levels.
I needed both of those to become the practitioner I am today. All my experiences outdoors have been formative, from my first forays in the bushes in the front yard, to my most recent hike. Being in the wild helped me to not only appreciate myself as a human animal, but to see why people do things like greet the directions and believe there are spirits in waters and trees and birds. When I first was able to do ritual outdoors instead of in my room, it made sense in the same way the first time I did cutting drills with a real sword instead of a practice waster—I experienced what the tools and movements were actually created for, whether live steel or wild setting. For me, personally, practicing outdoors was (and is) what my paganism was all about.
But I also can never express how much the internet also formed me. Before I really found people in everyday life who grokked the things I did, I had the internet to discover that I wasn’t alone in being pagan, queer, progressive, and otherwise “weird’. In a time and place where I was largely socially isolated, the chat rooms and websites I visited were lifelines. And I was able to access a lot more information on paganism than was available in the few old books on witchcraft in the local library, and the New Age fluff at the health food store. Over the years the internet opened me up to more and more concepts and practices that I never would have discovered otherwise.
Today, both are still crucial to my life and practice; the balance shifts over time, but both remain. I am able to work from home, completely self-employed as an author and artist, because of the internet. Between my website, my Etsy shop, and my various social media accounts (to include, yes, that terror that is Facebook), I can support myself and my household, and I can afford the time and gas money to go hiking on a weekly basis. I’m also able to keep in touch with people in the various places I’ve lived over the years as I’ve moved from city to city, and I’m able to talk with other practitioners of various arts and spiritualities around the world, people I might not otherwise have talked to. But my practice is hollow and empty if I don’t get outside and interact with the animals, plants, and other natural phenomena, urban and wild alike. It isn’t enough to talk about nature; I need to be in nature (and as we’ve found, I suffer if I am separated from it too long).
Everyone has to find their own balance, to be sure. Some people are miserable even in a city as small and close-in as Portland, and need more wilderness than I do; others work with the spirits of advanced technology, and can’t practice without at least a laptop and a solid internet connection. But to degrade someone else’s balance as wrong, and to make broad, negative assumptions about it because it’s not the same as your balance, I feel is short-sighted. It also suggests a fundamental insecurity in one’s practice, needing to attack the differences in others’ paths to bolster one’s confidence in one’s own practice. (And really, where do such serious practitioners find the time to worry so much about other people’s practices, anyway?)
Okay, yes, it is good to keep tabs on what others are doing, just for curiosity’s sake if nothing else. But we are not so divided as some may claim. There is not a dichotomy between nature/spirit and technology; there is only each person finding their personal balance among a wide variety of factors and influences in a world that, even as it relies more on technology, still maintains its fundamental physical, biological, chemical nature.