Tag Archives: Identity

Identity Crisis: Who Are You?

There has been a lot of fussing and fuming within the greater Pagan community, just lately, over Facebook’s policy regarding names.  The specific cause of this upset, is a recent change in that policy which has resulted in the closure of several accounts that did not utilize a legal or ‘true’ name, according to the Facebook terms of Service.

I’ve seen a number of people alleging that this policy amounts to discrimination against religious minorities, on the basis that many of those folks interact with each other, sometimes even publishing, using spiritual or ‘magical’ names that do not otherwise appear in their ‘mundane’ lives.

There are also those who only feel free to be themselves online, when using an assumed name, for fear that friends, family, and business associates will turn against them if the truth about their beliefs is revealed.

I feel like I have covered my feelings on these topics here before, and from a number of different perspectives.

For the most part, I wish people would just be upfront about who and what they are and let the chips fall where they may.  What little advantage we have as individuals, hiding in the shadows, teaching our children that it’s not okay to express our beliefs in mixed company, is far outweighed by what we have to gain, as a community, by letting the world see how many of us there really are, and that we are not the frightening creatures they have been led to believe in.

Whatever strides we have made, as a people, in the area of civil rights, or equal rights for women, or the newly won equality in marriage rights for homosexual couples, these things did not come to pass because people where skulking about, in superficial safety, using assumed names.

This not-so-sudden identity crisis certain folks are having, dovetails nicely into some thoughts I was trying to express here back in 2012, and which I feel could use repeating in the here and now…,

Who Are You?

It seems like a simple question, but try to answer it anyway.

Did you answer with your name?  Is that who you are?  Because with a few exceptions, that name was picked out for you and is the least likely thing to say anything about who you really are?

Are you defined by your familial relationships: parent, child, brother, cousin, aunt?  Or could it be that your friendships and romantic entanglements will sufficiently outline your identity?

Perhaps you are defined by your job?  Does what you do for a living explain you?  Or maybe it’s your hobbies and interests that we should be looking at, the things you do to escape from the day-to-day grind of existence.

Is it your political or religious affiliations that delineate you from those around you?  Are you a Libertarian or a Socialist?  Do you believe in the Hebrew God, the Resurrection of Jesus, the Blessed State of Nirvana, the Majesty of Zeus or do you eschew belief in that which you can not see and touch.  Are these beliefs enough to set you apart from your fellows?

Now let me ask you one more question.  Why is it important?

Why are we so fixated on our special and unique individuality?  We strive so hard to be different from everyone else, to have our own things and the freedom to decide every little thing for ourselves but what does it gain us in the grand scheme of things?

Advice from a Caterpillar

For most of human history the concept of personal identity was subordinate to the place we held in society and the universe around us.  Ancient societies were composed of collective groups which functioned as a whole.  Today we may call them tribes or clans but structurally they were groupings of people who functioned as an interconnected unit.  The individual was there to support the tribe.  He or she may have been a hunter or a shaman, warrior or storyteller.  The point is that each person had a role to play and each role was important because, for the tribe to function, everyone had to be doing his or her part.  Identity was a function of the place you held within the tribe.

Expanding this idea outward, the tribe as a whole, held a place and function within the natural world.  Most (what we arrogantly call) primitive societies understood themselves to be an important part of the physical and spiritual landscape around them.  It was important that the tribe fulfill its role in the proper time and manner, to guarantee its own survival and discharge its duties to the land.

The gods were known to be a tribe of their own, with power and responsibilities greater than those of mortal men.  The local tribe was a physical reflection of this divine configuration and each of these tribes (gods and men) depended upon the other to accomplish its goals.  As an individual, you knew that if you failed your tribe, you endangered not only the survival of the family unit but the natural and spiritual order as well.

Setting aside simple tribal society and looking at the far more expansive Roman Empire, we can see that there was little change to this way of thinking.  Although the shear size of Roman civilization reduced the importance of any particular tribe or family within the state, a Citizen of Rome was understood to be a functioning part of an ordered society.  The standing of a citizen within the social hierarchy was integral to the success of the greater society and a benefit to the gods themselves.  Citizenship gave the Roman many individual rights that other men and women did not enjoy, but these rights came with certain expectations and obligations that guaranteed security and well being for all.

This all started to change as monotheist beliefs began to seep into the fabric of the Roman world.  As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, the goals of the individual citizen began to shift and the social fabric of society was turned on its head.  Instead of a family or a tribe of gods to emulate, there was now only a single deity to mimic.  The importance of having a place within the tribe was diminished as personal salvation became the ultimate spiritual goal.

In a world that was going to end at any moment, only to be replaced by an eternal existence without pain or hardship, the immediate needs of the tribe became less vital.  Our place in the now became an afterthought, replaced by our place in the world to come and a growing fixation on our own narrow wants.

Today we find ourselves living in the sum product of that revolution.  We are a rapacious consumer society where the primary focus of each individual appears to be on their own selfish ends.

Who are you?

Look at the world around you for a moment.  Pull your attention away from your computer screen, and your smart phone and all the little toys and games you use to distract you from the universe outside and ask yourself if you really like the world you see.  If the answer is “yes” well good for you!  I appreciate your reading this far and you are welcome to keep going, but this next bit really isn’t for you.

If, like me, you do not like a lot of what you see, then you have the answer to the question I’ve been asking.  The world is a mirror of the self.  Who we are is what we see out there looking back at us.  Ad if it’s not a very pretty sight, we have only ourselves to blame.

Now I don’t want you to get the wrong idea here!  I am not against individual rights and freedoms, both of which are things to be cherished and fought for.  This is about living our beliefs, not just for ourselves but for the world around us.

Every single thing we do contributes positively or negatively to that world.  From the products we buy to the food we eat and the way in which we get ourselves from point A to point B, it is all reflected in the universe around us.  The way we live our lives has a direct effect on people, places and events far beyond our vision.

Were your clothes stitched together in a sweatshop?  Is your lawn green at the expense of drinking water downstream?  Did your chicken sandwich fund a hate group?  Will the chemicals in those AA batteries you tossed into the trash leech into the soil?  Will children go without medical care because you don’t like the government taking your money?  Do you know the answers to those questions?  Do you care?

To know thyself is to know your influence on the world around you.

If you say that you support local businesses, maybe you should embody that support by frequenting them instead of Wal-Mart and Amazon.  If you like fresh foods, find a farmers market instead of buying food out of season that has been shipped halfway across the world and pumped full of preservatives.  And if you honor the gods and traditions of your ancestors, than you should do that too, boldly and with fervor!

“Be the change you want to make,” is not a cliché, it’s the reality of the world we live in and it always has been.

If you are thinking that one person can’t possibly make a difference, you are exactly right.  Yet, what one person can’t do, a community can.  We just have to make the effort to do it together.  We must expand our focus beyond our narrow little selves and re-join the tribe of humanity.  In short, lets start giving a damn about each other for a change!

The question is not who you are but who we can be.

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Filed under Culture, Modern Life, Philosophy, Religion, Traditions

Sticks and Stones – revisited

They say that the only sure things in this world are death and taxes.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I recently discovered that I could not file my return for last year.

Having gone through the yearly ritual of gathering the sacred paperwork and entering the numbers in their allotted places, I pressed the key that would send my documents winging their electronic way through the aether, when suddenly I was confounded by an error message.  Repeated attempts, garnered the same result, and it quickly became clear that the I would not be filing my taxes this day, because some enterprising citizen had already filed a return in my name.

Oh, happy day!

My regular readers may remember that I’d experienced some Identity Theft last year, when I discovered that someone had taken out a loan in my name.  In the months that have passed since, I’ve done everything that one is advised to do in these situations.  My accounts have been flagged by all the proper credit agencies.  A monthly analysis is performed, looking for any fraudulent activity or accounts.

Until now, it seemed like the business with the loan might turn out to be an isolated incident.

And now I’m filling out forms in the old-fashioned way and sending them off to Ye’ Old Internal Revenue Service, along with photocopies of those precious documents which prove that I am, who I say I am.  All this, in the hope that I’ll see my tax refund…, someday.

Dealing with this (again) has been most taxing (pun, most explicitly intended), and has been the preoccupation of my thoughts, these last few days.  And so, instead of writing a new blog this week, I have decided instead to simply repost the relevant portions of a previous post on this topic.

My apologies.

****

The Changeling

The Changeling

You wake to the crying of the babe.

The fire in the hearth, burning low now, casts familiar shadows about the room as you ease from your bed to check on the child.

A quick peek into the crib and all is well, and all is well.

The restless babe is quiet again, and the room seems safe to your sleep-fogged eyes.

You ease quietly back into bed and are asleep again before head meets pillow.

And all is quiet…,

…until the things in the rafters began to whisper and move.

…until winged shadows flutter from the dark corners like leaves on a breeze.

..until the murmur of coaxing, inhuman voices, drifts up from between the floorboards.

In the dim light of fading embers, long pale fingers reach out,

…and clutch,

…and are gone.

And if you know anything of faerie-lore, you know how this tale ends.

What the parents find in the cradle come morning, while it may look like their infant, is something altogether different.  The human child is gone, and will live the remainder of its days among the hidden folk.  Left in its place is a changeling, one of their own kind, grown old and feeble after a life of centuries beyond count, and magically disguised to resemble the vanished infant.

The legends speak of many different ways in which the duped parents might eventually reveal the truth and rid themselves of the cunning gremlin that had invaded their home.  But the missing child was almost always beyond recovery.

The only sure defense against the faeries, it was said, was to have the newborn baptized before they could come to claim it.  Now, it is important to remember that most of these traditions pre-date the arrival of Christianity, and this particular part of the legend, like most intersections of the newer faith and older custom, is a bit misleading.

It is not the act of baptism itself that protects a child from faerie abduction, although it may seem to.  Rather it is the act of granting the child a name, that does the trick.

Our ancestors understood that the world around them was shaped by language.  A child, unnamed, undefined as it were, did not yet fully occupy a place in our world, and was vulnerable.

True Names

For my more skeptical acquaintances, the belief that to know the ‘true’ name of a thing is to have absolute power over that thing, is pure foolishness and superstition.  And yet here we are, living in a world where that most ancient axiom of magic is proven, again and again, every single day.

A numerologist would tell us that our lives are guided by a collection of numbers.  An economist would say the same thing.  The two might argue about where the numbers come from, but the fundamental truth of the statement is unchanged.

The naming and numbering of things is the very foundation of our relationship to the world around us.  Everything that exists, every object, every idea, has a name of its own.  To know the name is to know the thing, and the better you know a thing, the more power you have over it.  What we think of as science, is simply a codified, ritualized system for the naming of things, and it has been around since our earliest progenitors began stacking one rock atop another.

In the old stories, to know the true name of a living being, no matter how great his power, was to have power over him.  The ancient Hebrews guarded the name of their god, because to speak it was to invoke his power, and to write it down was more dangerous still.  Likewise, the Druids passed their knowledge verbally, from one generation to the next, taking care to never write it down, lest the power to transform reality should fall into hands less responsible and learned, than their own.

The naming of things, the ability to understand and manipulate them as expressions and concepts that exist beyond mere physicality, is the greatest power we have as a species.  As smallest child learns that ancient truth while reading Rumplestilskin, so the most studied theologian must glean the same truth, hidden within his holy scriptures.

Et verbum caro factum est — And the word was made flesh.

We are the words, and the flesh, and the power.

And until we accept that truth, we are vulnerable!

Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names, they can undo us.

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Out from under the Umbrella

The rain falls with a steady hiss.  It makes distant objects and people indistinct, isolating us, driving us into our own little worlds that extend no further than the reach of our fingers.  The rain thunders around us, drowning out every other sound but its own relentless drumming.  The drops sting our skin where they strikes us, pelting down from on high, driving us to seek shelter wherever we may find it.

Once, a long time ago, I was just this weird kid who believed in the gods that everyone else had forgotten.

I did most of my growing up in a small rural town where difference was not readily tolerated.  The rain there, the disapproval and scorn for thoughts and feelings outside the norm, seemed constant and brutal.  Like any child caught in a downpour, I found myself running from place to place, seeking refuge from the torrent.

I might have found sanctuary in droning confidence of The Church.  The rites and rituals certainly carried a comforting familiarity with them.  Yet, as I huddled there with so many others, I chanced to look upward and noticed that the roof, a patchwork of borrowed traditions and beliefs, was leaking.  The rain still pattered down around us in those cloistered halls, and I knew I could not hide from the truth inside someone else’s lie.

And so I ran instead, to the Halls of Science.  If I was not allowed to believe in the Many, and could not convince myself to believe in the One, I would have to settle for None at all.  I closed the door against the questions of Why, and busied myself instead with the business of How.  But the rain, which I had thought so safely locked outside, came running in through the gaps under the door.  The more I tried to convince myself that the water wasn’t there, the more I slipped and fell on the cold wet floor of spiritual experience.

And finally, as I left small-town life behind, I began to meet others who believed as I did.  Time passed, and the internet came along, opening all corners of the world for us, and more and more we spread the word about the shelter we had found beneath the Pagan Umbrella.

The Umbrella

The Pagan Umbrella has become one of the first things we explain when we speak to newcomers, or interested outsiders.  “Paganism is an umbrella that includes many different faiths and traditions,” we like to say, “now please, won’t you join us and come in out of the rain.”

And I did.

Of course I did.

It seemed like the smart thing to do.

Standing together under an umbrella has distinct advantages.

Together we stay dry, and warm, and safe.

Isn’t that what we have been told that we need, again and again?  A place of safety, away from the dangers of a society that does not approve?  A place where we can be what we want to be and say what we want to say, without judgement from outsiders?

There is a comfort and a power in numbers, and while standing together the strong can better safeguard the weak.  We have stood together for many years under that ever-expanding canvas, while the rain beat down around us.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it.  And a bit more fuzzy and romantic than the reality, I think.

The truth is never as pretty as we might like it to be, and if you crowd enough people into one small space, there is going to be conflict.  Usually, the arguments come from differences over just how big the Umbrella is, and who gets included within its reach.

But lately, my questions have begun to run deeper.

I’ve been wondering if maybe the Umbrella isn’t the worst possible metaphor we could have come up with?

What does an Umbrella do?

It shelters us from the elements, yes?

Great.

So here we are…,

However many thousands of us, crammed under a single Umbrella, unable to move in any decisive way unless the entire group wills it, unable to see where we might be headed if we did move, and unable to decide if we even approve of the company we find ourselves standing in.

So the only thing that the Umbrella is really good for…,

…is hiding.

And here we are, cowering in fear of the deluge of criticism and disapproval which we imagine society will rain down upon us.  We stand here, arguing about who gets to be under the Umbrella, and who doesn’t, all the while hiding our faces and our beliefs from those around us.

Oh sure, we talk about how we want to be accepted by the world around us.  We prattle on about how we want to make things better.  And we never bother to ask how we can hope to accomplish anything at all, if we’re so very afraid of getting a little wet in the process.

We’ve allowed Paganism to become a safe-house for the spiritually damaged instead making it a force for change in a world which almost all of us agree has gone terribly wrong.  We bring no honor to the gods by hiding ourselves away from the world.

I understand the impulse to seek shelter.  I remember well my own struggle to find a place of refuge.  I only wish that, instead of reinforcing the impression that we must hide ourselves away, our time under the Umbrella was used instead to build people up and send them out again into the rain, to face the challenges that rise before us.

We have cowered for long enough, don’t you think?

It is time to come out from under the Umbrella.

Come out and let the world see us for who we are!  Let it judge us!  Let it rain its objections down upon us!  Let us stand together, facing the storm, where everyone can see us and know who we are.

We will…, we must, shout and chant and pray and work our collective will upon this world.  Only then will the rain finally pass.  We will never see the sky, our children will never feel the sun on their cheeks, if we do not first stand and face the rain.

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Filed under Religion, Spiritual Journey

Who Are You?

It seems like a simple question, but I dare you to answer it.

Did you answer with your name?  Is that who you are?  Because with a few exceptions, that name was picked out for you and is the least likely thing to say anything about who you really are?

Are you defined by your familial relationships: parent, child, brother, cousin, aunt?  Or could it be that your friendships and romantic entanglements will sufficiently outline your identity?

Perhaps you are defined by your job?  Does what you do for a living explain you?  Or maybe it’s your hobbies and interests that we should be looking at, the things you do to escape from the day-to-day grind of existence.

Is it your political or religious affiliations that delineate you from those around you?  Are you a Libertarian or a Socialist?  Do you believe in the Hebrew God, the Resurrection of Jesus, the Blessed State of Nirvana, the Majesty of Zeus or do you eschew belief in that which you can not see and touch.  Are these beliefs enough to set you apart from your fellows?

Now let me ask you one more question.  Why is it important?

Why are we so fixated on our special and unique individuality?  We strive so hard to be different from everyone else, to have our own things and the freedom to decide every little thing for ourselves but what does it gain us in the grand scheme of things?

 

For most of human history the concept of personal identity was subordinate to the place we held in society and the universe around us.  Ancient societies were composed of collective groups which functioned as a whole.  Today we may call them tribes or clans but structurally they were groupings of people who functioned as an interconnected unit.  The individual was there to support the tribe.  He or she may have been a hunter or a shaman, warrior or storyteller.  The point is that each person had a role to play and each role was important because, for the tribe to function, everyone had to be doing his or her part.  Identity was a function of the place you held within the tribe.

Expanding this idea outward, the tribe as a whole, held a place and function within the natural world.  Most (what we arrogantly call) primitive societies understood themselves to be an important part of the physical and spiritual landscape around them.  It was important that the tribe fulfill its role in the proper time and manner, to guarantee its own survival and discharge its duties to the land.

The gods were known to be a tribe of their own, with power and responsibilities greater than those of mortal men.  The local tribe was a physical reflection of this divine configuration and each of these tribes (gods and men) depended upon the other to accomplish its goals.  As an individual, you knew that if you failed your tribe, you endangered not only the survival of the family unit but the natural and spiritual order as well.

Setting aside simple tribal society and looking at the far more expansive Roman Empire, we can see that there was little change to this way of thinking.  Although the shear size of Roman civilization reduced the importance of any particular tribe or family within the state, a Citizen of Rome was understood to be a functioning part of an ordered society.  The standing of a citizen within the social hierarchy was integral to the success of the greater society and a benefit to the gods themselves.  Citizenship gave the Roman many individual rights that other men and women did not enjoy, but these rights came with certain expectations and obligations that guaranteed security and well being for all.

This all started to change as monotheist beliefs began to seep into the fabric of the Roman world.  As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, the goals of the individual citizen began to shift and the social fabric of society was turned on it’s head.  Instead of a family or a tribe of gods to emulate, there was now only a single, rather self absorbed, deity to mimic.  The importance of having a place within the tribe was diminished as personal salvation became the ultimate spiritual goal.

In a world that was going to end at any moment, only to be replaced by an eternal existence without pain or hardship, the immediate needs of the tribe became less vital.  Our place in the now became an afterthought, replaced by our place in the world to come and a growing fixation on our own narrow wants.

Today we find ourselves living in the sum product of that revolution.  We are a rapacious consumer society where the primary focus of each individual appears to be on their own selfish ends.  We have been called “The Me Generation” but the truth is we are just the latest of a long line of “Me Generations” stretching back to that moment our ancestors decided to abandon the gods of their fathers in exchange for the empty promise of an everlasting life.

Who are you?

Look at the world around you for a moment.  Pull your attention away from your computer screen, and your smart phone and all the little toys and games you use to distract you from the universe outside and ask yourself if you really like the world you see.  If the answer is “yes” well good for you!  I appreciate your reading this far and you are welcome to keep going, but this next bit really isn’t for you.

If, like me, you do not like a lot of what you see, then you have the answer to the question I’ve been asking.  The world is a mirror to the self.  Who we are is what we see out there looking back at us.  It’s not a very pretty sight.

Now I don’t want you to get the wrong idea here!  This is not just a spiel about becoming involved in the political process or protesting injustice a’la the Occupy movement (although those are both great ways to contribute toward change).  I am not against individual rights and freedoms, both of which are things to be cherished and fought for.  This is about living your beliefs, not just for yourself but for the world around you.

Every single thing we do contributes positively or negatively to the world around us.  From the products we buy to the food we eat and the way in which we get ourselves from point A to point B, it is all reflected in the universe around us.  The way we live our lives has a direct effect on people, places and events far beyond our vision.

Were your clothes stitched together in a sweatshop?  Is your lawn green at the expense of drinking water downstream?  Did your chicken sandwich fund a hate group?  Will the chemicals in those AA batteries you tossed into the trash leech into the soil?  Will children go without medical care because you don’t like the government taking your money?  Do you know the answers to those questions?  Do you care?

To know thyself is to know your influence on the world around you.

If you say that you support local businesses, maybe you should embody that support by frequenting them instead of Wal-Mart and Amazon.  If you like fresh foods, find a farmers market instead of buying food out of season that has been shipped halfway across the world and pumped full of preservatives.

“Be the change you want to make,” is not a cliché, it’s the reality of the world we live in and it always has been.

If you are thinking that one person can’t possibly make a difference, you are exactly right.  Yet, what one person can’t do, a community can.  We just have to make the effort to do it together.  We must expand our focus beyond our narrow little selves and re-join the tribe of humanity.  In short, lets start giving a damn about each other for a change!

The question is not who you are but who we can be.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Modern Life, Politics, Traditions