At the very beginning of the year we heard the news that a particular species of Hawaiian tree snail died out when the last of its species, a member named George, passed away at age 14. The loss of a species – any species, no matter how apparently humble to tastes deliberately acculturated to charismatic megafauna – is something that should be deeply mourned. We are not isolated from other species, nor from other individual members of our own species, therefore the loss to the matrix we are inextricably part of is understood on personal, interpersonal, collective, and universal levels.
There was a facet to the intricate prism of life that was present, and then it was not. To all our knowledge, there is no replacing that facet. It does not exist anywhere else in any known or imagined corner of the universe. Our universe is thus less complex, and we have lost the ability to understand some aspect of it because we have lost this particular facet of it.
We can mourn and wring our hands about the folly that led to this loss, but what can this level of folly tell us about the foolishness of trying to deliberately keep one facet of universal experience out of another facet? Although polytheists are generally on board with the tenet that the Powers (divinities, spirits, ancestral entities, et al) are separate and distinctive in their personalities, several of our various traditions give us wisdom about how divine Powers in particular came forth. Perhaps They all rose from a unified field of divine awareness, or came to diverse awareness from an underlying principle or material, and started their myriad activities from there. Furthermore, our personal experiences interacting with Them is frequently such that They hunt in packs. To borrow a marketing jingle, you can’t worship just one.
They gods have families. They have friends. They have lovers. They have drinking buddies. They have roommates. They have associates. They have business partners. They have intra- and inter-pantheon connections that our mortal minds boggle at, and nonetheless the pattern plays out with hilarious – and telling! – regularity. The Powers come in packs. Polytheist Powers are not singular. Even if a worshiper might focus on a singular Power that hails from a polytheist context, we are deeply aware of Their connections.
As an example, in the Norse tradition many of the Powers we know things about, we know via their kennings. Kennings are poetic allusions that don’t always translate very tidily. One of Odin’s names found in Voluspa is Angan Friggjar; this is usually translated as “Delight of Frigg” (Frigga being a primary wife of Odin). Therefore, if we know anything about Odin, even if we worship Odin in a very singular manner, we are aware of Frigga as well.
Odin does not and cannot exist in a monotheist context. The existence of other Powers (so many others, with so many natures and personalities) are embedded into Him; acknowledging Him is acknowledging the complex spiritual-social universe He’s part of. Trying to blot out the Frigga facet, say, prevents you from understanding the part of Odin that connects to Her. And if your goal is to venerate, honor, acknowledge, or remember Odin in any kind of meaningful way, then that goal must include trying to know everything you can about Him. That means noticing and trying to understand something about Frigga. Via Frigga’s perspective, you will see Odin through a different perspective, and come to know something new about Him. Thus will your goal be furthered.
An interesting thing about Odin. He’s also called Vinr Lopts (“Friend of Lopt”), although the source for this kenning I could trace back only so far as a Latin dictionary of Icelandic skaldic poetry published in the early 19th century (precisely where this kenning is found in the source lore I’m not sure; perhaps someone can help me). If we’re going to know Odin comprehensively, then we have to be aware of and not shy away from that facet of His nature that has Loki’s name on it. Blotting out that facet robs us of full knowledge of Odin’s nature – and not just of Odin’s nature. Remember how polytheist Powers travel in packs?
In my publically-available writing and in my speaking engagements I’ve talked a lot about the need to trust our experiences, and also the need to think critically about our practice and our reactions to it. After all, the source lore that forms the historical context for our personal engagement with our polytheist traditions of choice, birth, and/or circumstance sets the stage for our experiences; not in all cases will source lore help us make sense of our experiences very adequately. Personal experience can be extremely messy and yes, at times excessively painful.
I don’t talk openly about the pain I’ve experienced in the course of my spiritual life because, well, it’s fucked up. In all the time that’s passed since various incidents have occurred, I still don’t know how to explain it. I certainly don’t know WHY these things happened. “Helping me be a better spirit-worker” seems a shit explanation. So does “Helping me be more open to the gods”. I’ve spent a lot of time delving deep into very complex traditions looking for satisfactory answers, and I’ve come up with fuck-all. I’ve just had to get used to living with the pain, the uncertainty, and the lack of satisfactory explanations. That’s not exactly satisfactory, either.
I don’t think blaming the gods for this is the right solution, and I don’t know why. I don’t think blaming the people who were standing around at the times these things happened is the right solution either, and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I have the mindset of “Y’all fuckers are in this with me and we burn or survive together.” Maybe it’s because I was subconsciously demanding that They fix what They broke, even if I wasn’t consciously assigning blame to (all) of Them. Maybe it’s because I didn’t see pain, even excessive pain, as the necessary end to a sacred relationship. (Maybe it’s because I’m fucking cracked.)
I’m not saying what I did was right or even best. I can say that I’m in a better situation now, considerably. I can say that I’ve learned a lot. I don’t know if these statements are in anyway correlated. I do know that the gods I love have persisted with me, and I have persisted with Them (for the most part. One bailed on me, possibly because my work with Them was done, possibly because I fucking suck and deserve only to be abandoned; I don’t know). I can say for certain that I would understand less about my life and my experiences of embodied existence if I had continually and deliberately and selectively chosen to blot out facets of my interconnected experience, an on-going holographic swell that brings my awareness into closer and closer proximity with the staggering poignancy of sacred Personality. If I had deliberately chosen to blot out those facets – if I had sought extinction events based merely on my limited experience of personalized pain, who can say what knowledge I would have lost as a result? If we lose incalculable knowledge as a snail species exits our solar system, our galaxy, our universe, what is lost when a Power’s presence is lost to a human heart?
I’m not noble for having stuck with the gods (thus far), and someone is not automatically ignoble for choosing to build border walls to keep out divine experience based on the experience of past pain attributed (incorrectly or correctly) to one set of divine hands or another. The Buddhists measure sentience according an entity’s tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain; the avoidance of pain is in accordance with our nature as thinking, feeling, calculating beings. Sometimes, as someone wiser than me once put it, the prize is not worth the price. The gauzy promise of wisdom won as a result of coming out the other side of a gauntlet of painful experiences is simply not worth the heavy toll of trudging through the immediate and physically crushing pain being visited on the self by others. When those others are deities that (we imagine) should know better, we can’t help but feel resentful. When those others are humans that (we imagine) should have sympathy, we can’t help but feel deep, abiding bitterness and anger. You certainly can’t blame a person for feeling resentful, bitter, and angry – but you can perhaps question an ongoing opting-in to a bigotry.
For instance, we might entirely understand why a person (let’s call her Brenda) who lived in a neighborhood where, let’s say, all people between 40 and 60 tended to drink excessively on weekends. This person had suffered property damage, business loss, and perhaps even personal injury due to rowdy 40- and 50-somethings drinking heavily on weekends. This went on not just a handful of times, but several very pointed times over a concentrated period of years. Friends and family members outside of the area pointed out to Brenda that not everyone in this demographic drank heavily – well, some did, but not just on weekends. Or maybe they did drink on weekends, but not excessively. Or even if they did, they didn’t wander around hurting people and setting cars on fire. Or maybe a scant handful did, but they lived in other places and others in Brenda’s zip code didn’t deserve to be tarred with the same brush. Basically, Brenda was clearly having terrible experiences with a limited group of people who happened to share a constellation of similarities to other people within other overlapping groups.
We can certainly understand why Brenda is angry, and she starts refusing to live with or visit anyone age 40 – 60 and kinda doesn’t want to talk to anyone age 40 – 60 (unless she decides that they’re “one of the good ones”). However she is continually presented with a growing body of evidence *that not everyone in this age demographic behaves in the same manner*. She makes the decision to ignore this evidence, choosing instead to continually opt-into her bigotry on the basis of her past pain. Her vision is selective, seeing examples that reinforce her worldview; her hearing is selective, listening to voices that reinforce her opinion, and thus she chooses, over and over again, to never exorcise her past injuries with new experiences.
We all know a Brenda. Hell, we might be a Brenda in some ways. I know I have a Brenda inside me. I have to fight against a tendency to nurse my entitlement to staying hurt forever.
But what if I’m wrong? What if I draw the wrong conclusions about my pain and my entitlement to it? What if I end up shutting out the very source of knowledge that could end up helping me?
Along with the sad news of snail extinction, another interesting article made the social media rounds – this one on intellectual humility. Basically it was about academics learning how to admit that they could be wrong. Just as spiritual practitioners have to learn from our own experiences and gain the confidence required to trust ourselves in our practice, we also have to learn to be wrong. We have to leave mental and emotional space to change course without feeling like we’ve “done bad”. Although opting into bigotry and other known fallacies is never going to serve us in the long run, these are errors we can learn to see. Humility is required, and gods know that’s not an easy thing for anyone to develop. It’s possible, though. It’s always possible.
Thus will our own multifarious facets achieve greater clarity. Thus will self-knowledge flourish.