Beauty and Strength

Part 4 of a series of posts for the Pagan Values Event.

The overculture has a complex relationship with the values of beauty and strength. In some ways they might be considered incompatible. Beauty is both highly prized and severely devalued, associated with weakness, facility, or superficiality. To be concerned with beauty is considered not engaging with the “real” matters of life.

Beauty as applied to humans is also embedded in privilege and oppression. The ongoing legacy of White supremacy prizes White skin, hair, and features and denigrates skin of deeper shades, eyes of many shapes and colors, and hair of all types. This pattern occurs with implicit and explicit messages, and harms people of color on constant, ongoing, psychological and cultural fronts.  Our culture privileges certain types of bodies as beautiful, despite their inaccessibility for most of us. The results of doctoring images to remove “imperfections” and enhance beauty are well-known, such that we might measure our own beauty by a standard that is a literal illusion.

In spite of all this, I think there is value and need for beauty in our lives. Beauty has two facets, an aesthetic that pleases our senses, and an inner quality that radiates from an integrated self. Humans are sensory creatures. To truly savor something beautiful in all its visual, tactile, sensual glory feeds a deep need within us. The beauty of a sunset or sunrise, two gifts offered freely to us every single day of our lives, can inspire and uplift the spirit. Listening to music we find beautiful and touching, eating delicious food; these things give us a sense of well-being and joy of living, which makes our experience an act of love and pleasure. There is a tendency in our culture to devalue things that are not productive in a capitalist sense, not contributing toward some personal growth or economic benefit, without a tangible outcome. Beauty contributes to life quality. The value is an end of itself. We need no other reason to value beauty other than the enrichment it gives to our life.

A truly beautiful person, I think, emanates that beauty from a certain soundness, a wholeness of being. A person who is living according to her values, who is courageous in his life, who brings presence and meaning to every moment — those people radiate beauty. A person who adorns their body in a way pleasing to them, in accord with their unique sense of style and self-presentation, that person fascinates and captures the eye. A beautiful person is not seeking validation from outside, he finds the source and measure of beauty within himself. Approaching life in this way can help us to feel more comfortable in our bodies, whatever their shape; less hungry for validation; and paradoxically more likely to find our beauty reflected back.

The relationship between beauty and strength reminds me of Gwendolyn Brooks’s “First Fight. Then Fiddle.” This poem is complex and beautiful and speaks to the relationship between the call to “civilize a space / Wherein to play your violin with grace.” In one reading, the poem speaks to the strength required to master an art, to fight through obstacles and insecurities and hone one’s craft. Strength arises when we press our weakness against our resistance. To create beauty as an art, to sculpt a beautiful life, brings us into confrontation with everything that pulls us toward laziness, apathy, or obsession. Every time we press through this meeting of weakness and resistance, we find greater strength within. We realize we are capable of more.

Another reading speaks to a broader need for strength. Life calls upon us to endure and protect ourselves. Our little flame of passion, our inspiration, our first tiny breaths of air, each are dearly earned. To live the life that we desire demands that we cultivate strength. This can be a physical strength, but it is also a strength of the spirit and soul; the capacity to work through hardship; the ability to feel pain or distraction and continue on a course of action. No matter how privileged we are, something in us seeks development, and that development can be overwhelming and painful at times. This may be as simple as telling a particular person “no,” and sticking to it no matter what he does. This may be as complex as striking out and attempting to build something in our lives. This may be the strength to spend one more minute not having a cigarette, to walk away from the bar, to keep silence and stand back from the fight when it’s escalating beyond our control.

To avoid the anxiety and pain we might experience is to deprive ourselves of a meaningful and rich existence. This is not to say we should willfully suffer and exalt ourselves for suffering, but something in us responds to adversity and challenge. Beauty’s edge grows sharper when we’ve tasted adversity, failure, and victory. Each of us has adversity that can challenge us, tease out our weaknesses, and encourage us to become truly strong.

Power and Compassion

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

This quote is from Martin Luther King Jr., who was not Pagan yet speaks to the value pairing of power and compassion as voiced in The Charge of the Goddess. As a person raised in the Catholic tradition and taught by social justice advocates, the value of justice seems to me one expression of spiritual devotion, not necessarily bound by a particular creed but emerging from a deepening relationship with all-that-is.

Compassion is our capacity to feel empathy for others while remembering that we are separate. Both qualities are important to compassion. The extent to which I can empathize with my own feelings is the limit of my ability to empathize with others’. The ability to differentiate between my feelings and others’ affects my capacity to tolerate empathy and respond accurately.

Empathy leads to meaningful, intimate relationships with my self and others. Conflict, avoidance, and hurtful relationships often coincide with failure to empathize. A seeming contradiction: we are hard-wired for empathy. “Mirror neurons” in our brains cause us to sense an echo of the experiences we see. If someone is in pain, we feel it in ourselves, whether consciously or not. We are emotionally susceptible, often influenced by the strongest emotions in the room, especially when those feelings are not named. Naming is the cognitive process whereby we begin to differentiate our experience from others’.

The failure to accurately empathize and differentiate leads to problems. We start avoiding people who are angry or in pain when what they need most is connection. We let relationships fall apart. We allow widespread social ills to continue because we have numbed ourselves to suffering. We also rush to “fix” others’ problems just to stop their suffering so we can feel better. We don’t listen to what the other person really needs, and give them what we think we can, compounding the original suffering with feelings of being unheard, invisible, worthless.

Already we are looking at power with compassion. Power is our ability to act, to do. When compassion fails, we use or fail to use our power in ways that are hurtful. Intolerance for facing our feelings, or that of others, robs us of the ability to act. We would do almost anything, including nurture our own suffering and resentment, and not face the raw pain, anger, and disappointment of another.

To value power comes with taking responsibility for the conditions of my life and taking action. When I feel overwhelmed by anger or despair, when my needs aren’t being met, or when someone else’s bad mood is draining me, I can return to power by naming, saying these things out loud, to myself or to another person. When I see another suffering, I can abdicate power by looking away or blaming that person for what they’re living, or I can ask myself what power do I have in this moment to be of help? Better yet, I can ask the person who is suffering: What do you need?

Much suffering comes from power unchecked with compassion, and much suffering comes from feelings of powerlessness. When we feel trapped with no recourse, no escape, and no control, we are more likely to experience that state of “learned helplessness” that resembles depression. Anxiety, too, is another facet of powerlessness, in which we respond to our lack of control with rigidity and mental strategies to gain illusory control.

These states of being become ironic. When a person feels powerless, often they exert an inordinate amount of control over their environment. Think of a person who blows up about the slightest provocation or who convinces others to tend to their needs by constantly emphasizing their own fragility. This person is not lying. They have no power inside, no resources to manage their inner distress, and therefore must control their surroundings with whatever strategies they know. Disowning power in this way contributes to relationships fraught with unspoken assumptions, fears, and resentments. Accepting our power does not mean we can or will do everything by ourselves, but it means we can ask and negotiate to make sure our needs are met.

No matter what condition we are in, something is possible. When I feel powerless or overwhelmed, I ask myself, “What power do I have now?” Sometimes the answers surprise me. I may have the power to ask for more information, ask for help, to run away, to avoid or engage. I may find he power to accept the situation I’m in, paradoxically revealing a new way out.

Power begins in our bodies. I might be able to move a hand, to blink, feel or hear, I can listen or speak.  If anything, I may have the power to keep breathing. If I can breathe, I am alive, and something is possible.

This is part three of a series of posts for the Pagan Values Project and working with the values from the Charge of the Star Goddess.

Honor and Humility

Part two, continuing with the Pagan Values Project and working with the values from the Charge of the Star Goddess, let us look at honor and humility.

Honor and humility emerge from a common source and leading us to the middle way of being: both active and receptive, challenged and yielding. Humility is seeing myself with accurate self-knowledge, neither larger nor smaller than I am, from which comes honorable action.

Both virtues can become hardened extremes when disconnecting from each other. Personal honor can become a relentless, driving quest for perfection that crushes others in the way. Communal honor can result in heartless and violent actions, like cutting away or killing family members who have “disgraced the family’s honor.” Those in the lower hierarchies might be crushed by compulsory honor to someone who is dangerous. Humility, too, can become debasement. Our skills and talents languish because we’re too afraid to act above ourselves. We might be surrounded by people threatened by excellence or people who will not settle for things as they are. We might not believe in our own capacity to do, or we might believe we do not deserve love or rest. All that energy that could contribute to growth and development instead becomes toxic, leading to depression, apathy, or passive-aggression.

Honor has a personal and communal meaning. In more collectively oriented cultures, the behavior of an individual reflects upon the honor of the group to which they belong. In current usage among modern Pagans, I understand honor as reflecting one’s personal state of integrity. We honor ourselves by following through on our commitments, being true to our word, and giving respect to our strengths and limitations. If I know that taking on another commitment amidst an already-crowded series of projects will cause me to burn out and fail all my commitments, then I honor myself by saying no. If  I value service, and my resistance to helping someone else comes from motivations that feel less than virtuous, then I honor myself by saying yes.

We lie to ourselves and each other, and following a path of honor includes learning to discern these lies and making choices toward truth. One way I lie to myself is by saying “I have to do these things.” I feel burdened by other peoples’ expectations and feel like I’m being jerked all over the place trying to fulfill them, because “I have to.” When we say “I have to,” often what we mean is that the consequences of not doing are far worse than doing. I did not have to go to work this week, but working supports so much else in my life that it is far better I go to work than not. Kindness to my parents is not compulsory, but I value their relationships.

When we “have to” do something, we unconsciously assign responsibility for our life to all these people for whom we must act. We dishonor our own ability to choose and accept consequences. To take responsibility and remember our own freedom, we can say, “I choose to.” This honors the self, and such honor unfolds into a greater sense of integrity. Perhaps taking the time to look at my choices and the consequences of not doing will help me see ways in which I’ve wasted my life energy. At times, when I say “I choose to do something” that I always thought I had to do, I will notice an almost physical discomfort with the statement. This inner response says I dishonor myself by choosing this path of action. Perhaps then I can choose to act differently, or not at all.

We do the same when we undermine our life power by saying, “I can’t,” “I can’t afford it,” “I don’t have time,” “I should,” “I shouldn’t.” All of these statements are ways of evading our own responsibility and capacity to choose. We suffer when we feel these obligations and responsibilities are running our lives for us, yet struggle to say “I won’t” or “That is not my priority, I choose to do something else with my time and money.” We notice those inner responses that tell us something is false, or we feel we are being rude. We are suddenly more accountable for our choices. This is a process and takes time to integrate.

Honor is also a way of relating to others that demonstrates my respect for worth. We honor each other by listening and challenging each other. We honor each other by encouraging growth and change without insisting upon that growth look the way we think it should. We honor each other by showing gratitude for what we have received. To give honor to another person comes from my sense of humility.

When I come from a place of humility, I see that I am owed nothing in life, and everything I have is either a gift or something I’ve earned. Either way, I am not this lone person, self-created, self-sustaining. I am a point in a web connecting many strands. To even be typing this on a computer, I benefit from centuries of scientific insight and progress, thinkers and teachers of the humanities who have encouraged reflection and self-expression, my teachers who encouraged me to learn to read and write, my parents who have nurtured and encouraged me, and so forth.

Humility is not minimizing what I have to offer and pretending I am worthless. Humility means stepping forward and saying I can help when I have a valuable skill. Humility also means stepping back and letting others with greater skill take charge. Humility is giving up my seat on the bus to someone who seems to need it more, and humility is also keeping my seat on the bus when I feel exhausted and am not sure I can stand to stand. Humility recognizes my humanness, those essential qualities I share with other humans. Though I may feel alien, superior in some skills and inferior in others, I am not separate from humanity, and every interaction has potential value if I open myself to it. Humility means that these words may touch the hearts and minds of others. If one person takes in this work and feels inspired to live according to the truth of their heart, this work has value and lives through their actions.

Humility recognizes my animal nature, the instinctive and moving body of flesh that has cravings and desires, that needs sunlight and rest, that is no greater or lesser in worth than the birds, trees, and microbes with which we share the world. Every species exists to actualize some evolutionary imperative, supported and antagonized by our environments. The air I breathe is an ongoing relationship between plants, animals, and microbes that cycle and feed each other. Humility recognizes materiality, that I am made from the same stuff as stars and galaxies, that my life only exists because of a frail membrane of atmosphere that shields me from the vacuum of space and harsh radiation of the sun, yet that same sun is the origin of my life’s energy. Humility is a recognition that I was born and I will die. Days, years, millennia from now, these words will be gone and my body dissolved back into particles, perhaps cycled through other forms of life and matter. What life I have now, in this moment, is miraculous.

Mirth and Reverence

June is Pagan Values Month and I want to spend some effort articulating how my vision is shaped by values that come from a Pagan perspective.

In the Charge of the Goddess, a text that influences many Goddess-oriented and modern witchcraft traditions,  Doreen Valiente wrote:

Let my worship be within the heart that rejoiceth, for behold: all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals. And therefore let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence within you.

These two sentences articulate a clear, expansive, and complex vision of values. One might base an entire life’s practice attempting to embody these words. What I want to focus on in particular are the pairings of the second sentence. Each value pair may balance, deepen, or refine each other.

Starting from the last: mirth and reverence. These values feel antagonistic. In our public debates, religious communities seem to take increasingly hard-line stances against anything that appears critical or mocking of their faiths. Some traditions, overtly or covertly, frown upon any expression of joy or humor, suppressing the Holy Trickster and making it a demon, or agent of unholy chaos.

Meanwhile we have comedians, movies, TV shows, and everyday folks who insist on unfettered freedom to insult, ridicule, and offend whomever. Anyone who might criticize this comedy is often dismissed as humorless and needing to relax, unable to take a joke, or infringing on the person’s freedom of speech, often with a rigidity that reveals the own comedian’s tendency to take themselves too seriously.

When I notice polarization or extremes in a culture, I perceive each in reaction to the other. Each side has something of value to offer the wider conversation, and that value is often lost in the rigidity and tension that occurs as a result of polarization.

Reverence demonstrates deep and solemn respect. Reverence comes from my ability to set aside my ego and personality and consider something of great importance and deep mystery, something so profound and sacred that it is worthy of care and protection. This reverence is my connection to a larger sense of meaning in which I exist, in which I as a seeker can taste but never fully apprehend. Reverence is often articulated through a religious framework, but I have heard agnostics and atheists discuss their sense of wonder at nature, the universe, and science with a language of reverence. We do not need a God or Gods to be reverent, but many of us find we speak the truth of our experience when we speak of deities.

The worthiness of care and protection feels salient. From a wholly rational perspective, we may struggle to understand why some groups would suffer hardship or death to protect things that they consider sacred. We may ourselves fail to understand why we cannot simply throw away reminders of the past. The reasons are often irrational, which does not mean meaningless. Meaning arises from our reverence of these irrational impulses. We may preserve or restore the beauty of the natural world because its existence fills us with wonder, or we consider it the living body of the Goddess, or because we believe God calls us to be nature’s steward. Each view seems to share a perspective that nature has a right to exist for itself, because of some intrinsic quality, not because of what it does for us.

The humor I find least humorous and most offensive (particularly because it is the least humorous) often lacks any quality of reverence. In our culture, we use the word “irreverent” as a high compliment to artists and comedians, but irreverence only has meaning where reverence exists. So many racist, sexist, homophobic, and classist “jokes” have at their core an essential emptiness or hatred for the objects of the joke. I grew up as a White man often read as straight in a Midwestern state, and have heard many of these. The worst of these jokes are simply reiterations of tired stereotypes or not-so-veiled justifications of abuse, torture, and murder.

There are jokes, however, that cleverly skewer these stereotypes, or skewer the culture and structures of all the oppressive “isms.” There are jokes that are funny when told within the community, by someone who knows the community, but are not funny when someone outside the community tells them. I do not see this as hypocritical or hypersensitivity, since I see this in every group. (See the comments to any feminist blog posting that criticizes men or patriarchy, or any blog criticizing Whiteness and white supremacy, to see the sensitivity of White men.) The difference, I think, is one of reverence. If I know you see me as a human being and can joke with love, then I will feel more easy about laughing with you. If either of those things is already in question, then one is naturally going to be on defense.

Within our communities and traditions, however, we can find more freedom if we let a little more mirth into our lives. Some people seem to fear that any joke will shatter the fragile trappings of favor and fortune, and lose the joy in living. Mirth makes our worship vibrant, mirth gets the blood flowing in our lives, mirth makes an unbearable situation a source of unexpected delight. There’s no humor so redemptive as dark humor.

ETA: I think this post by Patton Oswalt is exemplary of the dialogue between mirth and reverence.