Saturday, December 16, 2017

Two Way Traffic: Choices and Requirements in Restrictions

People often have a very difficult time resolving matters of choice and requirement in polytheistic relationships and in regards to restrictions some of us have in our Work. (Take a moment to consider whether or not you’re the Intended Audience for this post!)

When I speak of a restriction here, I am referring to a habit, a way of life, a custom that one engages in, whether that restriction is brought about by personal choice, or through an element of requirement (non-choice), or both.

In my perusal of social media, a flashback popped up to a post I’d written in 2015. The themes there are just as pertinent today as they ever were, and I have decided to revisit the subject. Many folks are confronted with their own fears of difference and the loss of their own personal liberties when they see someone else engaging in restrictions and religious customs. The fear response causes them to want to erase those differences so that they will not have to confront their fears around mistaking some folks’ religious customs as a mark of oppression. While some religious restrictions are used socially, by human beings, as tools of oppression, it is a great act of cultural erasure to assume that this is always the case in all circumstances—and that is a topic for a different day.

Sometimes a person who chooses and/or is required (or both!) to live in a way that is unfamiliar to dominant culture ends up being a catalyst which brings forth the others’ own fears. The fear-reaction of one person is not the fault of the other person who is different.  Enter the mobs bearing pitchforks and torches...or large signs...or public shaming on the internet in an effort to coerce someone to conform. (Note that these are all just tools—pitchforks, torches, signs, public shaming, and the internet; it is in their use that they can be forces for help or harm, or anything in between or otherwise. Also, conformity itself is not always a bad thing, but when it is used as a tool to destroy diversity, it certainly causes harm.) Until we consciously account as best we can for our fears and work through those fears, our choices in how to deal with those fears are exceedingly limited. We can end up being ticking time bombs around folks who committed no crime. Being different is not a crime. We may not have had a choice as to whether or not we feel fear--as human beings, we're born that way with a fight-or-flight program installed as a system standard, as a requirement, as an element of non-choice--but we can choose how we deal with it (or not). Those choices open up options and close down other avenues. And those choices most certainly affect other people even to the point of personal safety.

When a polytheist engages in a religious restriction, that restriction can often take the form of a custom or a way of life which is unfamiliar, different, to dominant culture. In regards to the restrictions I carry, I run into folks who will try to ferret out whether my restrictions are based on choice, or if they are based on requirement (non-choice). To probe for whether a restriction is based on choice or based on requirement is usually a means to see which tactic an uncomfortable person can use to manipulate the different person into conforming to dominant cultural standards—whether the uncomfortable person is conscious that they are doing this or not. Hey, look, another dichotomy which keeps you guessing: is a person is really conscious of the harm they're causing, or not. I'm not saying that all folks who try to probe you on these matters are being intentionally mean. I usually assume that folks mean well, but meaning well and acting well are two different things even if the person hasn't a mean bone in their body. I am, however, saying that the assumptions which underlay their questions can be problematic even if the person isn't trying to be problematic or willfully hurtful. They're usually not aware of their assumptions, and they're not aware of how problematic those assumptions are, but it helps if you are aware of these things.

If I say my restriction is required, the translation-filter in their brains may feed what I say through a garbled, broken misunderstanding based on assumptions, fear, and generations of bad patterns, and is rendered into “This person ‘thinks’ it’s a requirement, but I know it’s not!” and thus they may respond with variations on a theme: "Oh, you poor oppressed dear, let me save you from your misguidedness. To be free, you must be like me." Being coerced into conforming to a dominant cultural standard for the sake of someone else’s comfort…is not freedom. If I were to say that my restriction is a matter of personal choice, the variations on a theme go something like this: "You chose to live a different life, therefore you chose to be mistreated." And thus there is bullying to conform to a dominant cultural standard.

Either way results in the assault of someone's personal liberty in favor of someone else’s dubious comfort of dominant conformity activated by their own unexamined  fears. It shouldn’t matter if a person “chooses” or if they “are required”—or both at the same time! It ranks right up there with "Did you choose to be a polytheist?"  Just. No. Just Oh-hell-No with a side of Nope Sauce. There are so many wrong assumptions to unpack with just that simple misleading question, and it points back to (accidentally or intentionally or both) kicking foundation out from under someone’s identity, choices, lack of choices, responsibilities, personal liberties, wants, needs, relationships, and life experiences. It is a disregard of someone’s own personhood. Questions like that one dismiss that these matters are often the result of complex and nuanced factors operating together, not one or the other in a dichotomous, binary vacuum. (I’m pretty sure Dichotomous Vacuum should be a band name. But I digress.) So what, if a person does choose restrictions? So what, if a person doesn’t choose restrictions? So what, if the matter is right down the middle? Memo re: Someone Else’s Personhood Is Not Subject to Another Person's Scrutiny for the Sake of That Person's Comfort or Understanding.

Some of us polytheists may be drafted into a situation in regards to the deities, but ultimately, we have the choice whether to accept assignment or dodge that draft and bug off to Antigua and work as an underpaid Captain Jack Sparrow impersonator for the rest of our lives, or be a bassist for Dichotomous Vacuum, or both. Whichever way we choose, there will be matters which result from that choice, options which will open up, options which will close, and options which this choice neither opens nor closes. Some matters are mutually exclusive and some are not. These are matters of natural consequence, just as they would be for a person who is intrinsically a healer (mostly non-choice) and who exercised that call, that need, by becoming a doctor (mostly choice), and how she no longer has time to pursue serious study into auto mechanics: a natural consequence of her choice for becoming the kind of healer she decided to become. These matters cascade as a complex flow chart-web from how (or if) we choose to participate and what we decide to do or not do, or partially do, or do differently. 

As polytheists, we recognize that there are many individual deities with their own volitions, and most of us who recognize this matter have some kind of relationship(s) to some deity(s). Sometimes a relationship is there already (non-choice) but we can acknowledge it and decide to interact with it (choice). Sometimes a relationship with a deity comes into being over time, whether by a human person’s choice or not by a human person’s choice—as a result of a deity’s choice, or as a result of relationships a deity has which end up bearing on you, or as a result of a (human) group’s needs with or without the involvement of a deity, as a result of inheritance, as a result of the land on which you live…or…many, many other various situations and scenarios. Relationships usually come with a set of expectations on us (non-choice) we can decide if that’s something we’re willing to take on or not (choice). Some relationships can be initiated where there wasn’t one before (choice), and sometimes those too come with expectations or requirements to meet (non-choice).

Relationships come with responsibilities, expectations, hopes, rules of engagement, on the part of all parties involved, and they come with different levels of responsibilities for each person involved. This is the case whether you’re in a relationship with a deity, another human, or a housecat: every relationship is a dance amidst things you choose and things you do not choose. For instance, you may have chosen to have a housecat, but you didn’t choose to step barefoot in cat vomit in the middle of the night. Or you may have had an element of non-choice in the matter: your auntie in her will left you the responsibility of caring for kitty, so you have a choice whether to honor auntie or not. If there’s no one else to care for Mittens the Destroyer, and your only other option is to send kitty to a kill-shelter—and you won’t do that—you’re going to have to deal with shredded furniture and cat vomit…as well as the unplanned joys of purring, cuddles, and a new furry family member.

Dealing with these choices and non-choices are what make us responsible adults, responsible for the things we did choose, responsible for handling what we chose, responsible for working through the consequences, responsible as best we can be for dealing with the things we did not choose, and responsible for working through options which open up and options which close as a result of our choices, our requirements, and what’s in between.

How those relationships operate is up to the Beings and beings in those relationships to figure out together, and is a matter of co-creation and participation in varying amounts. When we engage in good relations, we choose to behave responsibly to the other party(s) in that relationship. If a relationship comes up or an offer of relationship is made, we can choose to acknowledge a relationship, be in the relationship, politely decline relationship, rudely decline a relationship, renegotiate it, make counter-offers, ask for guidance or clarification, put it on hold, ignore it, pass it off to another generation, leave it, pretend it doesn’t exist, call in a favor, issue a challenge, flip a coin, or anything in between and then some. Relationship almost always comes with responsibility (requirement / non-choice). Relationship and responsibility are often a package deal, even if the responsibilities and the level of responsibilities shift,  but how we exercise those responsibilities and how we co-create that relationship with other Being is up to us (choice) and we have every option under the sun which is ours to have within the limitations and scope of being human and in being the particular individual humans we are with our own particular individual, unique limitations.

For some of us, accepting religious restrictions is a requirement of the particular relationship we’re in with a particular deity (or groups of deities), or religious group, or profession, or ancestors, or land, or more. By example, a doctor knows that there are some requirements which come with her job like being on call, or working longer hours, or taking continuing education credits, or missing a nephew’s ballet recital. Sometimes we know ahead of time what we’re getting into, but sometimes we don’t know or can’t know. By contrast, some of us may take up a restriction more as a means of ongoing personal offering, as a votive to a deity. This does not make that choice any less valuable or legitimate, nor does it make that choice more valuable or more legitimate. It’s just different. If you engage in restrictions, whichever way and whatever way in between is a matter up to personal relationship and is not subject to someone else’s digging in order to tailor coercion and erasure tactics to target your situation and your personhood.

In regards to exercising religious restrictions and customs in polytheism, there is a spectrum here that ranges from Choice on one side to Requirement on the other:

Choice Requirement (Non-Choice) 

It’s just a jump to the left: 
A person, by way mostly of their own decision, who chooses to live a particular way, should not be subject to cultural browbeating and chest-beating to erase their choice and force them to conform. Just because a person could, theoretically, conform, shouldn't mean that they must or even should, and their choice shouldn't be treated as irrelevant or worthless. Though their behavior falls more towards the “choice” side of the spectrum, it does not mean that they are antisocial and hazardous, and it doesn't mean that it is an "open season" on mistreatment simply because they could, in theory, choose to be different. They may also encounter elements of non-choice, especially in regards to living with their vow in everyday life, and in regards to how others will react to it.

And then a step to the right: 
A person who lives far to the other end of the spectrum where they are required to live a particular way (because of genetics, “born this way,” familial situation, ancestral situation, or a situation of a series of life events which have eliminated other options, etc.) should not be subjected to forced conversions of cultural erasure. Remember Mittens the Destroyer? That was a non-choice, and one would generally not accuse auntie of abusing power, she was just looking out for her beloved feline companion. Though their behavior falls more towards the “requirement / non-choice” end of the spectrum, it doesn’t make those actions worthless, meaningless, or signs of personal weakness and feeblemindedness. And, there are still going to be elements of choice within the matters of non-choice. 

Put your hands on your hips, and bring your knees in tight: 
A person who is directly in the middle of that spectrum between choice and requirement damn well also should not have to put up with interrogation tactics designed to deceitfully dichotomize; tactics which discredit, demean, dehumanize, delete, in an attempt to destroy one’s personhood. No one should. 

This attempt at forced dichotomization erases nuance and complexity through its single-minded stereoscopic tunnel vision. The result is the destruction of diversity. This forced dichotomization is a means to extract the matter from its context, divest it of its meaning, and remove this unique, distinguishing element (if you engage in it) from your life and your personhood. Either way, when it is demanded of you to pick one end of the spectrum or the other, your exercise of restrictions and your personhood in this matter are being put at risk. It’s just a matter of helping the enemy choose the best weapon for attack—the enemy being best described here as a heady toxic brew of unquestioned assumptions, fear, erasure, coercion of dominant culture, destruction of your personhood, and an elimination of both your choices and your requirements at the same time. Being demanded to view your restrictions through a dichotomy of “either choice or non-choice” ends up locking you into s an endless, useless debate. You end up wearing yourself out by constantly wondering whether what you’re doing is choice or not choice, and whether either one is more legitimate than the other…when that’s not the point at all and you've gotten stuck in a frantic standstill unable to break out of that debate which only causes distraction, and which flattens the depths of your experiences into a poor two-dimensional substitute.

It’s not either-or. It’s both, at the same time, without diminishing the importance of either and without erasing either end of that spectrum. Even if you tend to be more on one end of a spectrum than the other, there are elements of both within the other, and where you are and how you act in these matters makes a good deal of difference to you and in your relationships. 

Wherever you are on this spectrum in regards to restrictions, or even if you’re not on it at all, it's totally ok! Chose this life, born this way, or both had to be this way and choose to be this's ok! Have zero restrictions? Yay! Have a lifetime of service in honor of your deities and a plethora of restrictions? Yay! Have some restrictions which apply only in certain contexts? Terrific! Have some restrictions which apply only for particular amounts of time? Peachy! Have anything in between? Great! Gone off to Antigua to join Dichotomous Vacuum as the Captain Jack-dressed bassist? Send me your next album and the t-shirt! If you exercise requirements in relationship to your deities, it’s ok whether it’s more a matter of choice, more a matter of non-choice, or anything in between. It's your business where you fall in that spectrum. It is not the business of someone else uncomfortable with your differences to ferret out where you are in that spectrum--a situation which can bring about (an often unconscious and often not deliberately mean-spirited) tailoring of dominant cultural coercion which erases your choices, your non-choices, and everything in between.

Image Credits: View west along old US Route 40 just west of Wells, Nevada. Photo taken by Famartin. Used through Creative Commons license.