(Note: This is my contribution for the Pagan Value Blog Project 2013.)
Last week, the Wild Hunt blog featured a piece on “Pagans Doing Good. It started with a critique of paganism, the common complaint that there are no pagan hospitals or homeless shelters or major nonprofit groups. The writer, Heather Greene, then highlighted two activists who also happen to be pagan (and there are more where they came from!)
My only critique of this is that “service” isn’t limited to those who are able to devote their entire lives to activism. Most of us have households to support or families to raise or debts and bills to pay or any of a number of other obligations that we can’t just toss to the wayside to go be full-time activists. We do need these people; I admire devotion and I do admit I envy them a bit. But that is far from the end of pagan manifestations of service.
I am not, however, speaking about service to gods or spirits or other incorporeal beings. There’s a time and a place for such things, if you choose to enact them, but they are no substitute for physical-world action. A lot of it is what the measurable, objective effect of the action is. I can’t walk down the street with my primary totem, Gray Wolf, and say “This is my first and most cherished animal totem; I would like others to make offerings to hir to make hir stronger and give hir the reverence s/he is due” and expect everyone to agree with me. Many will disagree, in fact, and that’s okay. How I interact with a world that may or may not actually exist outside of my own psyche is my own to decide, and same for everyone else.
However, I can feed a stray, hungry dog on the street, and I can invite others do to so; even if they don’t have dog food with them, I can give them a bit to feed the dog so they can have the experience of helping another living being, something that may stick with them. I can take the dog to a shelter and say “Here, do you have room for this dog?” and the people there can either take the dog in and bathe it and give it a place to stay until it gets adopted, or they can refer me to another shelter. Or, if I have the room and resources, I can adopt the dog myself and change its life permanently for the better.
To be honest, if I am going to be able to only give time, effort, or resources to either of these causes, I’m going to help the starving dog. One of the central tenets of my personal approach to paganism is to default to putting this world first, because it’s the one I know for sure exists and that I can have a positive effect on. For centuries, a portion of people of many faiths have fallen into the trap of neglecting the physical world entirely in the hopes that their actions on behalf of the spiritual will gain them something in the end. And it can be easy to get so tangled up in spiritual pursuits that, while one may not willfully damage the world, one may still treat it with benign neglect and apathy.
Do I think everyone who is deeply spiritual abuses this world? Of course not. I know plenty of people who adhere to varying faiths and have devoted practices who also work to make this world a better place with concrete actions. But just as I don’t think prayer is a substitute for medical care in the case of a sick child, I also don’t think that rituals honoring animal totems are a replacement for habitat restoration, fighting for more humane conditions for farm animals, or giving what money you can afford to give to nonprofits that work to protect critically endangered species through legislation and other actions. (In my experience, the totems appreciate the efforts to help their physical children enough that yes, these things can substitute for celebratory rituals, but YMMV.)
So what are we going to do as pagans if we choose service to the world as a virtue to incorporate into our personal pagan paths? Here are a few thoughts:
–First, decide what matters most to you. What group of beings do you feel most needs your help, or that you are best-poised to help? Is the natural environment your cause, or civil rights, or government transparency? If the answer is “more than one/all of them”, which few are the highest priority for you?
–Next, determine what you can reasonably offer in terms of time, money, and other resources. It’s okay if you can’t quit your day job to go ride around on the Sea Shepherd and intercept whaling ships. (I can’t either, for what it’s worth.) Can you put aside a small amount of your paycheck each week to give to a nonprofit that is doing the sort of work you admire? Can your employer match your donations, for that matter? Let’s say you’re broke, jobless, and not physically well enough to go stomping around in the woods pulling out invasive species of plant or travel to a developing country to educate poor children. Can you send a letter or an email, or make a phone call, to an elected official or other decision-maker to let them know your thoughts on an important issue? If you at least have the time and energy and access for social media, can you tell other people about these things?
–Now, educate yourself on specific issues to the best of your ability. Be aware that often there are multiple competing ideas for the the best possible solution is; for example, on the topic of farm animals raised for meat, some people think the conditions they’re raised and slaughtered under need to be completely overhauled for more humane options, while others will only eat meat they themselves raised or hunted, and still others think nobody should eat meat ever for any reason at all. You’ll need to decide where you stand on an issue; take your time, and don’t be afraid to consider the gray areas as well as the black and white extremes.
–Once you’re ready to take action, don’t feel you have to do everything at once! Try out different things, and see what works best for you and the given issue you’re working on. You might find that you’re not a fan of going to big public hearings on potential laws, but you’re fine with making some phone calls from the privacy of your own home. Or you may not feel steady enough on your feet to make an entire garden out of your yard, but a few pea vines in a pot on your porch will work.
And if you still want to back these things up with spiritual activities like rituals and spells and the like, go for it! It certainly can’t hurt. If the powers that be help things along, so much the better.
What embodies the value of service for me, personally, is my environmental volunteering and donations, coupled with my current work as a qualified mental health professional working with addicts in the criminal justice system, contacting elected officials on a variety of levels, and talking to others about issues to let them know what’s going on. Of course, this is all my take on service and its place in paganism. What say you, dear readers?