I was started along this line of thought while reading Kent Nerburn’s powerful, moving, painful and hauntingly beautiful The Wolf at Twilight: An Indian Elder’s Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows. There are many levels to this book, perhaps more even than the author intended, for one that lies within the narrative throughout is the difficulty of people entering into and understanding other cultures from both sides. But for us Pagans it is particularly insightful in its depiction of the profound differences between a deeply Pagan view of life and the modern view. One of the most central of these distinctions is captured in the images of a line and a circle.
As we have all heard, the Abrahamic religious traditions introduced history as a fundamental part of their world view. Time had a beginning and an end. Particularly in the Christian view, existence is a story with drama and form that ends in a triumphant climax for the good guys and complete defeat for the bad guys. Our lives partake of this dynamic, with a choice to join the good guys or continue in alliance deliberate or otherwise with the bad guys. It is a profoundly isolating and individuating story, for we will attain salvation or damnation regardless of what happens to our loved ones. Each is ultimately for him or her self.
Pagan cosmologies are profoundly different and focus on the image of a circle or a cycle. Our Wheel of the Year image captures this image. We emphasize not what is most unique about an event but how it fits into a whole far greater than it is. The endless cycle of the seasons, the recurring phases of the moon, the rhythm of birth to death, the shift from night into day, and its return to night again, to be repeated as long as the earth shall last.
But it is hardly unique to us. Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux spiritual teacher, made the same point:
Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our teepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children. (chapter 17)
From this perspective we are who we are within a pattern that is universal and applies to all. We are still individuals, but we are individuals-in-relationship, each of us at any moment a node on the circle of our lives, but also a node within the circle of our community, within that of the year, and all the endless cycles that make up the great circle of existence. To view us as simply individuals is to view us as incomplete.
Dan, the Lakota elder who is the book’s major Indian protagonist, tells Nerburn
“If you see that everything has spirit and that everything is connected, you honor everything because you know that it has a part to play in creation.
“Now this is where the trail leads back to the children. The way we are living today is not good for them…
“Instead they [learn] to think of themselves as part of a straight line that runs from birth to death, and their task is to wait their turn until they reach the place in the line where they are strong and powerful. They are not taught that they have an important role to play just where they are, and it is they alone who can fulfill that role.
“Remember when I said that the children have pure hearts because they are closest to the Great Mystery? This is their gift, and that is their part – to remember the goodness of the Great Mystery and to reveal it to us. The rest of us get hard with life; the children remain soft with hope.
“Your way harms the child because it confuses being useful with being important. . . . But they are important . . . because of where they stand in the circle of life. Like the elders they are weak. But like the elders they ate closest to the Great Mystery. They allow us to see the meaning of creation . . . .
“If you see life as a straight line, where the young and old are weak and those in the middle are strong, and if you think that to be important is to be useful, you do not see the value in the young and the old. You see them as burdens, not as gifts, because life their hands to be of use to the community. . . .
“. . . we do not look at our children as full-growns waiting to be. We see them as special beings who bring us the freshness of wonder. They keep our hearts soft and our hands gentle. They keep us from only thinking about ourselves.”
Children have a particular connection with the old because, as Dan observes, “the elders are closest to them in the circle of life, not the farthest from them on the road from birth to death.” (302-4)
The profound spiritual sickness that infects our society comes in no small part from the linear blindness that afflicts modern America, where all who count are strong adults with not the slightest practical concern for the young, the old, or the network of relationships that maintain those strong adults.