A polytheanimist Thracian perspective on creating, rebuilding, and embodying ancestral religions as living traditions in the 21st century. Religion as life, life as spirit, spirit as being.
A Disparity of Value and the Virtue of Discord
Recently there has been a lot of discussion in pagan and polytheist writing and blogging of what one's religious "Work" should look like, where charity fits into things, and what "Mystery" is. These articles, blogs, and chattery entries included some rather interesting "challenges" leveled on various prominent Polytheists (who barked back appropriately..!), some important descriptions of what is and isn't Mystery, and so forth. As in most of the conflicts that arise in these discussions and in these various internet platforms, I find this one to be as useful and important as it is annoying and at times jaw-droppingly idiotic. As my interests at present are not in joining somebody else's battle -- the sides I would ally with have themselves reasonably well covered, I think -- nor casting a light of shame or condescension at those who I think are missing a great big point, I'm not going to link to the aforementioned discourses. Instead, I am going to use the overall conversation as a spring-board to kick into an examination of a thing that I think is at the crux of both sides of the issue. It is my belief that these conflicts, which I view as essential and also affirming of our collective religious developments attaining a certain structural integrity, demonstrate the central importance of the theme of comfort, and perceptions of comfort, versus its absence or apparent adversary -- discomfort -- and the places that they do or do not, should or should not, can and cannot sit in one's religious, spiritual, devotional, and social avenues.
Too often today, as most days in most ages I suppose, the teeming masses are drawn toward the comfortable and warm and complacent, rather than that "other stuff", which.. isn't. Now you might immediately think, knowing my stances on things like devotion, sacrifice, conflict and so forth that I am remarking on the now popularized debate between charity and piety, but in truth the issue runs far deeper than that. There is no great mystery (ha, see what I did there?) to humans seeking warm soft things instead of other essential things (such as piety, or rigorous honor, or soul-splitting self-evaluation and unending self-development and self-relation (as I discussed previously).
Important mid-20th-century behavioral psychologist and rigorous experimentalist, Harry Harlow, pioneered the studies of maternal deprivation in his experiments with rhesus monkeys at a now famous Primate Lab, which he operated near the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research interests came about in a period of much academic debate amongst the patriarchal minds who made up the "psychological elite" of the age, on the subject of the importance of mothers and maternal bond in the development of the human mind and personality from infancy into adulthood. Standing theories at the time included the denigration of maternal importance to merely "food dispensers" for their young, which Harlow disagreed with. To demonstrate his theories, he raised generations of rhesus monkeys absent their biological mothers, instead allowing them to be "raised" by stand-in mothers constructed from artificial materials. While the research has fascinating implications across the board with regard to the importance of mothers in the early understandings of developmental psychology, I will focus on one element of the findings here: the baby monkeys showed a preference for comfort over sustenance, choosing to cling desperately to an artificial mother made of warm terrycloth instead of the warmed wood-and-metal mother which dispensed food to them. Their preference demonstrates a need for both physical and emotional comfort in the developmental stages of cognitive and physical growth, arguably at a level prioritized above that of basic nutritional needs and food. (Nutrients vs Nurture, anyone?) For my purposes here, then, this is a rather profound statement of primates being hardwired (to a certain extent) to seek comfort, even when the alternative (discomfort, or even merely "lack of immediate comfort") can provide them the essential materials that they need to physically survive.
The relevant take-away? Harlow's studies seem to suggest that we're all pretty well predisposed to be a bunch of lazing couch-potatoes if given the option, seeking comfort over all other avenues of engagement. Obviously this is an important thing in our developmental process, and Harlow's studies proved this, with excessive dysfunction demonstrated in the primates who grew to adulthood without that comfort in their developing years, whose behavior patterns ranged from extreme withdrawal to neglect of their own children to outright murderous abuse and statistically anomalous sexual tendencies. However, another important part of the human developmental process is the path of individuation and full development of one's "adult self", wherein continued dependence on the "comfort of mother" (or a terrycloth stand-in) constitutes an imbalance and wandering from the realities of adult life (and the various roles, responsibilities and imperatives inherent within it).
This is not to say that the path of individuated adulthood is a path of necessary abandonment of comfort, but rather that a measured level of exposure to discomfort is required in our ongoing developmental processes. While seeking comfort before all other things may well be a natural and essential drive within humans, so are other things that we have long sought to remove from our civilized post-post-modern world, such as rape, murder, theft of essential resources, and so forth. (Yes, studies suggest that we are biologically hardwired for aggression and murder, as reflected in studies comparing human and chimpanzee murder statistics.)
Obviously I am an advocate for overcoming these archaic impulses, which predate modern humans and are a legacy of our genetic inheritance: I am a lifelong and vocal advocate of consent based cooperative engagements in pretty much all things, which are a set of inspired beliefs that have taken us as a species thousands of years to develop and begin to apply to our civilizations and social models in practice. Again, I am also not suggesting that the impulse toward comfort (or that comfort itself!) is a thing comparable to murder or assault, but instead that it is a destructive and imbalanced thing in our 21st century luxury state, wherein we expect to be comfortable at all times, and are socially encouraged to reject anything which in the process of relating to the world around us, or within us, or profoundly outside of us (as in the case of external gods, ancestors, and so forth) threatens our own perception of comfort (e.g. our glass bubbles and crystal castles). When our need for comfort overrides our need to shut the hell up and continue our own development (as individuals, as civilizations, as religions and spiritual traditions, and so forth), it is a disruptive and destructive rather than helpful thing. I suggest that in adults, the "comfort > everything" model of engagement is itself a thing reflecting both an inherent internalized insecurity and a fear of truly relating in a fully realized way (with ourselves, our peers, or even our gods). I view this as an inherently destructive, wrong-headed and socially-permitted mispursuit that will spell doom for pretty much everything, as this desire for comfort not only overrides basic instinct for sustenance, growth, knowledge, but also connection with the divine and with true exposure to and experience of the Mystery.
As suggested in the book Bonobo Handshake (by evolutionary anthropologist Vanessa Woods) it is our ability to navigate cognitively (through the use of self-awareness and self-control) our chemical and psychological impulses that makes us humans: "These physiological changes aren’t something bonobos or chimps can control. But as humans, we need to figure out the situations where we are more chimp than bonobo and correct for our behavior", Woods tells us. Just as most of us have a demonstrated ability to not murder people who have a nicer car than we do, or a warmer coat, or a more desirable mate, I believe that it is important that we explore ways in which suspending our own needs for comfort in order to engage with exposure to less comfortable (or less familiar, or affirming!) engagements, such as relating to or with ideas which may be counter to our own.
Whether we draw our strength and comfort at an identity level from our absolute service to the divinities and spirits we serve and piously praise, or in our gods-spurred service to community, I think that it is important also to recognize the value in the things which make us uncomfortable, to own that discomfort (rather than to blame others for drawing it up within us), and in that way learn to either build upon resources and skills we did not previously find place for within ourselves, or else value them in others (whose participation and proliferation in those pursuits frees us to do that which we are doing). We are not all meant to be the same, or engaged in identical jobs or tasks or even modes of relation, but we are all meant to engage in the same space and occasionally come up against each other conflictually, and in so doing find new ways of pioneering the continued development of our social and spiritual and devotional topographies. Unlike chimps and bonobos, humans have the capability or at least the potential to choose to correct impulse which is at its source purely chemical and an archaic throwback to the glory days of gatherer-hunter society, before iPhones and IKEA and internet forum trolling.
When these conflicts in our communities come up, I comment again and again at the value to be found in them. The key piece is not where you fall on a given issue (although, please, find out where you do, at least for your own benefit and that of your religious and social engagements in order to be more authentically and fully realized a form of yourself!) but rather that it is that these very differentiated stances actually bring authenticity and integrity to our religious movements. These discourses (gnosis and mysticism versus social engagement and advocacy, etc) are not new, in the realm of theological and religious debate; they are tried, true, and unending in terms of "resolution" or "rightness". They are to religious debate as "nurture versus nature" is to psychological debate! The fact that we are having them demonstrates once more that we have achieved that which we have sought to achieve: status in practice (rather than mere theory!) as a religious social entity and set of movements! Our theologies and social theories and institutional (gasp!) structures have reached such a place of firmness (or fluidity..?) that they can come into competition with one another in a way that actually constructively pushes, propels, and encourages further discourse and growth, rather than theological "shut-downs" and "walk-outs".
For this reason I extend my thanks to all those who've participated in these debates and disagreements, even those whose behaviors or comments I scorn, laugh at, or find offense in: your idiocy lends solidity to my devotion. Ignorant absolutism lends strength and resolution to more fluid and adaptive models of engagement. Rejection of new ideas clarifies the importance in reevaluating the foundations of the old or familiar, while rejection of the old in favor of neophylish pursuit of sparklies showcases brilliantly and obtrusively the importance of learning from our elders and building upon structures proven through the test of time to work effectively. I give thanks to all of those, friends and colleagues who have my support and agreement, intellectual or social or theological adversaries who have my begrudging respect as at least possessing the right to have ideas counter to my own, for collectively you affirm my belief in discord as the noblest of Virtues, and indeed disharmony as the most harmonious place for glorious union in the realms of divine reform and recalibration and rebuilding and clearing a path in this confused 21st century landscape for the footfalls of the gods ever here but now returning more strongly than in ages to our lives and practices and praises and pious devoted charities.
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