These are dark times for anyone with any affection for the liberal values that underlie the best of this country all the way back to our Founders. From ‘patruots’ who understand this country’s principles as well as Fundamentalists and ISIL understand their holy books to supporters of markets who do not understand that capitalism undermines most of their virtues, to citizens unwilling to exercise the responsibilities of free men and women, it often seems as if this country has become too corrupt to recover the best of what it sometimes exhibited. It is from this perspective that I wrote this piece for Witches and Pagans, a piece that is ultimately very hopeful.
Finding Light in Darkness
Celebrating the turnings of the Wheel of the Year encourage us to meditate on the cycles of life. This year celebrating the Winter Solstice has proven is harder for me to enter wholeheartedly than often in the past. At the Solstice we celebrate light’s return, and with it the rebirth of life from the mystery of death. This year perhaps it is fitting that it falls on the dark of the moon. Yule honors the return of light while I am living in a society where the lights seem to be going out.
Ultimately my post will be positive, very much so. But let us not pretend it is easy to see any growing light beyond that of the sun itself.
A 12 year old is gunned down by Cleveland cops for playing with a toy gun in a playground, killed within a few seconds of their arrival. He had no chance to obey any commands. In a statement that could have come from the Gestapo, the representative of the Cleveland police union said the killing was justified. Cops shot down another Black man in cold blood while he held a toy gun in the Walmart that was selling them. There will be no legal consequences for his murderer.
When global warming and resulting climate change threatens enormous damage to humanity, and to the web of life as a whole, Americans elect the worst of science deniers to oversee the nation’s reaction. It is as if most Americans do not give a damn for their children’s future. It is hard to imagine a greater moral failing. But it is not alone.
Congress gives the worst of banks legislative gifts that even its most corrupt members would not not dare pass publicly. They hid it in a necessary budget bill. This is a complete breakdown of what representative government is supposed to do.
A high percentage of Americans find torture OK, even though torture was designed to get false confessions. Once we denounced these measures as despotic oppression by Soviet, Nazi, and Japanese militarists. We even hanged those we convicted of so treating our own soldiers. Now many Americans call the thugs responsible “patriots.”
When a population loses its moral compass, the country is doomed and as a nation we appear well on the way of deserving that fate. Where then is the light?
To answer that question I need to bring in another aspect of Wiccan practice.
The Goddess Comes
While my love of the natural world predisposed me to Pagan sympathies, I am a Pagan and a Wiccan today not because of anything I read or anyone I met. I am a Wiccan today because of my encounter with our Goddess at a MidSummer Sabbat in 1985. I had come as a guest, and after experiencing Pagan Standard Time, eventually just wanted the ritual to begin because I knew it would then end. Finally it did begin. When invoked She came, and nothing has been the same for me since.
What impressed me most about Her presence was her love. It was unconditional and universal.
Years later I was alone casting a Full Moon circle in my cabin. After I invoked Her again I felt Her presence. This was rare. I told her some day I hoped I’d be worthy of Her love.
“You’ve always been worthy of my love.”
My ego soared. I MUST be special! Then She finished . . .
“All beings are always worthy of my love.”
All beings. Dick Cheney, the cop who murdered the 12 year old, Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot. All beings.
What would I do with that? What could I do?
I could remember. I never forgot Her message, but She is a deity and I am a human. Loving people like that was far beyond my ability and it was delusional for me to pretend otherwise. Or to urge others to do what I certainly could not.
Of late, as the worst of human beings seem to be growing in power and influence, I have been thinking and meditating more about what She told me. I think my meditations are relevant for this unusually dark Solstice.
“All beings are worthy of my love,” or as the Charge of the Goddess tells us, “all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.” But if Her qualities are superhuman, what do these words mean for us?
We cannot love all beings unconditionally, as She does, because doing so requires us to know them inwardly. Love for another is seeing and treasuring their concrete inner beauty. And we are far too limited a being to do that for many. It is a big enough task to love those we know personally.
And yet virtually all of us humans have a quality that is connected to love if not quite being it. Aldo Leopold described it well:
For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last [Passenger] pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auck thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us.
Leopold made two important points here. First, not all human beings manifest their species’ most distinctive traits. To the Cro-Magnon, sailor, and ‘sportsman’ Leopold mentions I would add far too many economists and corporate CEOs. They are poor representatives of their species.
His other point was that our capacity to care without reference to another’s usefulness, is a uniquely human trait. Animals can love, but it seems to me they can love those with whom they have had a personal connection. Compared to ours their world is very concrete, and so is their ability to love. We share in that wonderful concreteness, and it is why relationships that may have started for other reasons can develop into love.
But at our best we can also care for others we have never met or ever will meet. There is no intrinsic end to that capacity. Care is the foundation upon which love without reference to what the beloved can do for us is possible. Without it the latter is impossible.
Consequently we can be compassionate even when we cannot love. We regret the loss of passenger pigeons, ivory billed woodpeckers, great auks, mammoths, and much more. We can honestly mourn the deaths of Jews, Gypsies, and others in the Holocaust, or the many other victims of Power throughout the ages, including young Black men and boys we have never met. Our hearts can go out not only to those needlessly killed, but also to their loved ones who suffer in their absence.
We can recognize that people we do not and never will know started life as babies and small children with their own dreams and hopes and fears. As with us, they were wounded, sometimes intentionally, more often unintentionally, and those wounds bred fear and anger, as our wounds have in us. Some wounds healed, and some left lasting scars. Some of their most fateful choices were influenced by those wounds and made in ignorance of where they would ultimately lead. Some led to dark places. I suspect we all have made such choices, even if they did not lead to quite as much darkness as those made by the Cheneys of the world.
Realizing this, we can try and be compassionate towards those we do not love. This is easier for the world’s Tamir Rices and John Crawfords than for the Dick Cheneys, but compassion does not involve accepting or excusing the actions of the worst. It involves recognizing that those who act in such ways made mistakes we ourselves conceivably might have made had we been born in their shoes. For we have made mistakes of our own, and some have shaped our lives in ways we never would have wanted. And if we were lucky, outside events prevented our worst choices from coming to fruition. Not all are lucky.
Compassion opens our heart as its absence hardens it. Hardness of heart creates barriers radiating far beyond those who triggered it. It constitutes one of our deepest wounds individually and now increasingly as a society. The more we can look upon even the worst of us with compassion, the more room we will have to love those more accessible to us.
But even if I am giving wise advice, does not this simply mean we live in a Hell and at best should be as loving and compassionate as we can be under the circumstances?
I do not think so.
The Wheel reconsidered
The Wheel teaches us that what exists is but a moment in a process of change. Any seeming point of stability is temporary. It has a beginning, a point of maximum manifestation, and it comes to an end. The present fertilizes the future just as its past made it possible. Think of a sunset, where the whole is so much more than the beauty of a single moment. That moment however beautiful must pass for the greater beauty to manifest. But it remains a part of the whole. And so it is with our world.
Nothing in our world is immortal. Including countries. Countries arise. If fortunate they flourish. Eventually they die. If they are powerful and without serious competition, they become corrupt and decadent before they do. Their hearts harden, and with their hearts, also their minds.
But their wheel normally turns more slowly than it does for a human life. Whatever the stages of the Wheel we are in our own life, we may also be experiencing the declining stages in our nation’s life. Or not. We do not know. But at the moment the signs are not good. The moral strength of our population is being tested with every test seeming to make the ethical position increasingly clear. And it is consistently rejected. Currently Americans are failing the test.
For us the decline of what we love is sad. We love a person, place, or other being, or even a country, and then it is gone. That others, just as lovable, will arise in time is small consolation for the very real losses we feel. Is life just a kaleidoscope of endless change, beautiful in the whole but filled to the brim with the loss of what we loved?
The Goddess again
The Gods are not beings of this world in the way that we are. That truth tells me love exists both within and beyond our embodied existence. And based on my experiences, it manifests more powerfully beyond than within our world. To the degree our hearts are open, to that degree we are in harmony with the greater reality She exhibited to me. We not only are blessed by it, we partake of it. I think if we take anything over to the other side when our time comes, (and I believe we do) we take what we have that is compatible with love.
Life on earth is not only a Wheel, it is a continuing opportunity to grow our hearts. The earth herself helps with Her indescribable beauty and presence. Those towards whom we care give us a chance to expand our compassion. And those we love give us a place to grow our hearts to embrace the inner beauty of beings as well as their external beauty.
In the growing darkness that might (or might not) be America’s final time as a country of promise, we can attend to our own smaller Wheel. And when we act with compassion and love we also influence the larger culture of which we are a part, and perhaps will play a role in its own rebirth. For we do not know whether the darkness of our times presages either the death of a nation or its rebirth.
And with this I have finally come to a place where I can wish us with all my heart the blessings of the season.