Friday, December 11, 2015

Choice Versus Requirement and Public Reactions to Polytheists

There’s this weird difficulty for some people to resolve matters in their own minds regarding someone else who willingly chooses a different kind of life versus someone who has a requirement to live within particular restrictions, or both.

When the other person is required to live within certain requirements or restrictions, there is sometimes a sense that the "poor dear" is oppressed, troubled, misguided, or suffers from some health condition, and needs saving or protecting. Often people actually do want to be supportive and respectful in these matters, whether they understand the matters or not, and often without assuming that the other person needs “saving.” Thus either way most people have some kind of compassion, allowance, or space for people who have restrictions. At the very least, it is generally considered socially regressive not at least to appear to have compassion, allowance, or space. Think on Muslim women who cover their heads, think on Amish folk who live the way they do and wear what they wear, or a Buddhist monk with a shaved head and wearing particular robes. Or, barring religious issues and matters of clothing, think on a doctor who is always on call during holidays. Or think of someone who has a mild to moderate food intolerance. (Yes, there are still problems in dominant culture and social matters, in regards to being supportive and respectful of differences and restrictions, but even though we have a long way to go, we still have come a long way, and we must continue the struggle.) This compassion, or at least space, for people who live under certain kinds of restrictions often applies unevenly and is given more generously to peoples whose restrictions are better known in dominant culture.

However, when someone says that he chooses to live in a particular way, all of a sudden the gloves come off and others see it as an opportunity to criticize and even mistreat. Even if another person is assumed to make a personal choice which may or may not be based on a requirement, some folks see this as an opportunity for criticism and mistreatment. Newsflash, often someone else’s personal choices usually have nothing to do with intentionally wanting to cause the discomfort, inconvenience, scrutiny, or ire of others. And yet, choosing to live a different way is sometimes seen as doing just that. It’s sometimes assumed that the person willfully provokes criticism and puts oneself on display as some kind of Human Zoo creature. There’s the pseudo-defense of “But you choose this, so you must have chosen to be singled out, stared at, and treated like this! You knew what would happen. You knew how people would react. You’re still choosing to do it; you’re choosing to be different! My reactions are your fault! If you don’t like it, change back and ‘be normal.’” The criticizer in this instance assumes that someone else is responsible for his own self-discipline. Its rapey. (It’s not far from the "Hey, it's not my fault she dresses like this. She's asking for it!" pseudo-defense.)

People sometimes don’t seem to care or take into consideration that there may be a requirement that they don’t know about in what they had assumed was personal choice only. Sometimes they don't take into consideration that there may even be a core identity issue to someone who chooses to live this way because living another way feels insincere to them: in which case they choose to live they way they do, but there’s also an element of requirement there, not just choice. They must live this way in order for them to be truly the people that they are. And so long as those people are following laws, not hurting anyone, and are adults (and as long as they aren’t harming their children), it is nobody’s business. It shouldn’t matter if they “choose” or if they “are required”—or both at the same time! Asking that question is just nosy  especially when it is often asked in order to assess whether or not the asker has more leeway and social allowance for leveling criticisms, trivializing, devaluing, or committing malicious mischief, or worse—i.e. basically they want to know if they have dominant culture’s support for being jerks.

Consider the situation of a medical doctor who ends up on call often on the holidays. That’s not her fault: that’s something she must do and it is required by her work. But, she chose to be a doctor, so there is also an element of choice there. Being a healer is her life’s calling—a life calling is both an intrinsic matter required by one’s very nature, but it is also a matter of choice sometimes in how that calling is answered. Maybe she could have become an Ayurvedic practitioner, an acupuncturist, a sports therapist, a nutritionist, an orthodontist, a Reiki master, or something else. She chose to become a medical doctor, and it is likely that this choice relied on her opportunities, her likes and dislikes, her social groups, her predispositions, her culture, and myriads of other seen or unseen, known or unknown, conscious or unconscious factors, some of which she had control over, and some of which she does not.

So sometimes (often, even!) there is both an element of choice and an element of requirement going on at the same time. That’s really when peoples’ brains start to explode. No joke. It’s often a difficult conundrum for people to resolve in their own minds; it doesn’t have to be. But in the case of the doctor, this matter is more frequently seen and accepted in dominant culture, and is viewed as "normal" and "not different.” If she wears a lab coat outside of work, if she’s constantly pulling all-nighters, if she keeps missing family and social events, if she suddenly gets inexplicably called away often, if she accidentally gets a little bit graphic when talking about her work during dinner, no one really sees this as “weird,” and people aren’t likely to have a fear-of-the-unknown response around her. People are familiar with medical doctors in dominant culture and understand that sometimes they have requirements, needs, and behaviors which are different from people who are not doctors. Few people bother to ask nitpicking questions about matters of choice or requirement because they’re not seeking to discredit or devalue what she does, and few people give her a difficult time about her work—the role of doctor in dominant culture is already accepted and valued, or at the very least acknowledged as legitimate in some way. Thus the doctor gets a pass where a spirit-worker, an artist, a polytheistic priest, or whomever, might not get that pass.

Sometimes a person who is different and who chooses and/or is required to live in a way that is unfamiliar to dominant culture ends up being, through no fault of her own, a catalyst which brings forth the others’ own fears, their own fear of the unknown, their own threat-responses in regards to others’ differences, their own unresolved difficulties, assumptions, and their own identity issues. She is a dark mirror upon which others project their own broken pieces, and because they’ve not dealt with their own broken pieces, they assume that she is at fault for their unresolved turmoil and their resulting actions—an unresolved turmoil which is their own responsibility to work through and heal. If they had never seen her, they could bury these broken pieces of themselves down deep and ignore them, instead of taking a moment to reassess themselves and maybe heal those pieces through introspection and self-examination. Thus sometimes they blame her for their discomfort, fear, and anger, and sometimes they react in foul ways. This matter can apply somewhat broadly: in the moment I am considering how poorly treated Sarah Chrisman, a woman who lives as a modern Victorian, is when people take her presence as license to threaten her or grope her, touching her bum or lifting her skirt to have a look, and then they blame her for their actions or any resulting trouble. It is not ok for people to treat her like that, and it is not ok for them to have such little self-control. They have just as much a chance, and a responsibility, as anyone to heal themselves or to ask for help in healing themselves, but they choose not to. Instead blame her for their reactions….and thus they remain broken, committing similar acts again when someone else who is different crosses their paths.

Moving more specifically into the topic of polytheism--in an age and a dominant culture where people religion-shop, most people don't seem to understand the matter of being a polytheist. When a person realizes there are many gods, the matter of whether or not one “chooses” to be a polytheist is purely academic, and even dismissive; and it misses the point entirely.

We don’t “choose to believe” that there are many gods. There are many gods, and we acknowledge this. We don’t “choose” this life; it is our life. What some of us can choose is which deities we interact with—but some polytheists don’t have that option. What some of us can choose is how we interact with those deities, which formats we use, which lenses we look through, which groups, which rites, which customs, which traditions, which expressions, which religions, which relationships and agreements we take part in—but again, some polytheists don’t have those options. There are some things we have choices about and some things we do not. And some of us have requirements that we must fulfill in our agreements and relationships to the gods, or to our ancestors, or to our groups, or any combination thereof. (Those personal requirements can include anything from food prohibitions, abstaining from political matters, avoiding foul language, wearing or not wearing a covering on the head, wearing particular colors, shaving the head, never cutting the hair, avoiding contact with certain substances, waking at dawn for rites, and so on.)

These matters, and the nuances, the options, the requirements, and the places where options and requirements overlap, are not necessarily the business of others—they are the business of ourselves, our gods, our ancestors, and our kin, and our groups. Our requirements and choices have nothing to do with our intentionally wanting to cause the discomfort, inconvenience, scrutiny, fear, or ire of others. Most of us would wish these matters didn’t arouse others’ discomfort, inconvenience, scrutiny, fear, or ire. We don't do these things just to upset others; it's not even about them. We just want to get on with our Work and honoring our deities and ancestors. Again, asking questions to ferret out if a matter is requirement, or if it can be “dismissed” as personal choice,  is inexcusably nosy when the only reason for asking it is to assess whether or not one has a greater social license within dominant culture to be a jerk.

A polytheist shouldn’t feel as if she is put on trial to justify what are often private matters of requirements, choices, or the territory between the two, in order to make her differences look more legitimate and valid in the eyes of an already dismissive dominant culture bent on erasure in these matters. It is not her duty to make the other more comfortable, or to control or soothe the observer’s reactions; she is not responsible for someone else’s lack of self-discipline, self-assessment, and self-awareness, and self-control. And yet, many of us find ourselves in exactly these stressful situations, sometimes even unsafe situations, which require that we try, often at expense of ourselves, to help these people work through these matters for which they themselves should take personal responsibility. It’s not our job, but we get saddled with it because people haven’t done the work they need to heal these matters in their own lives. We end up being catalysts by which they have that opportunity for growth—unfortunately, they sometimes blame us for their own reactions. Any way it stands, our choices and requirements and the spaces between, are not a matters for others’ concern; but we find ourselves having to deal with others’ reactions anyway.

There is a tendency to treat choice with a certain disdain because if a person chooses something, it is thought that he can often be pressured to change his mind back into conforming to dominant culture’s norm. There is a tendency to treat requirement with less disdain because requirements are not as easily changed, a requirement recognizes that there is a hierarchy at work that the person with the requirement is under, and requirements are often seen as being automatically a little more legitimate (or at least more recognized) than personal choice. When a requirement is not well-known to the general public, that requirement is seen as having less legitimacy and there is the suspicion that it is a personal choice masquerading as a requirement that someone doesn’t want to take personal responsibility for, and thus some people have a tendency to treat those requirements, and the people who have them, with disdain. And when all else fails, many people will assume personal choice far more often than requirement, and will see this as a license to treat someone poorly in an attempt to get that person to conform to the familiar and seemingly-less-threatening standards of dominant culture.

These are problems and nuances that many of us must navigate daily.

Image Credits:
Photograph of Wholesale Brothers by Tomasz Moczek; photograph taken by Julo and photograph released into public domain by Julo.