The Right Question

Who am I?

What kind of answer counts? Name? Job? Relationship status?

My name is an identifier, but not an identity. Jobs and relationships change.

Who answers? Me? My family? My friends?

The rune Sowelu represents wholeness. It speaks to becoming who you already are. But who is that? What is the essence of a person?

One way to approach this issue is the debate between essentialism versus existentialism. Is there an essence in place already, or does a person create an essence through their choices? As with so many important questions, this one skips over a preceding one: what is an essence of a person?

What does it matter if the essence is in place already or created after the fact, if we don’t know what it is?

For much of my life, the question of who I am has dominated my thinking. I have pestered others with it, hoping they might know. Hoping that they might have a connection to me that gives them that insight, and thus means that I belong somewhere.

“Is that the question? And if so, who answers? Who answers?” – Pearl Jam, “Alive”

For too long, I have tried to figure out who answers. I am starting to think that it isn’t the question. Who am I? The sum total of all my experiences, desires, beliefs, concerns, and more. And all of those can change. What sort of answer could capture that? What finite set of words could express that?

Who am I? That’s the wrong question, so every answer is also wrong. What’s the right question? Depends on who’s asking and why. 

The question I’ve been asking, for years, should have been: Where do I belong?

I’m still not sure I know the answer, but at least I know what the answer might look like.

Animals

I hope you will all forgive me a little self-indulgence. I have been thinking about death a little more than usual of late. It is distracting me and keeping me from my usual writing routine. (And several other routines, if I’m being honest.)

I have had a few animals die in my life, and each time it breaks my heart anew. I’ve thought a lot about why it affects me so much. Our animals depend on us. For everything. And when things go wrong, it’s not a simple matter to explain it to them. They struggle to let us know that they’re suffering, and we struggle to reassure them and to make decisions in their best interests.

It’s all a crap-shoot. All we can do is try our best to give them the best lives possible and hope that they feel secure. And when the time comes to say goodbye, all we can do is hope that we’ve made the best decision for them. None of it’s easy. And yet, life would feel so empty without them.

Calvin (from Calvin and Hobbes) once said “I’m crying because out there he’s gone, but he’s not gone inside me.” Our animals give us so much. All we can do is hope to be worthy of their love and affection.

Cut and Dry

Why am I always your scapegoat?

Wait, are we assuming you’re real, or not? My answer may change accordingly.

Curious. Just for fun, let us assume I am not real.

In that case, it is to satirize believers who claim that you are the source of good things but not the bad. A sort of dramatization of the problem of evil, if you will. Mixed with a healthy dose of pointing out the absurdity of the story.

Do you think you change any minds?

Probably not, if I’m being honest.

So why do it?

Blowing off steam, I guess. Against an institution that shaped me in so many ways, many of them negative. A way of working out some old issues.

Does it help? I mean, you have been doing it for all of these years. Have you gotten anywhere?

Perhaps not.

Maybe it is time for a new tack?

Maybe.

Okay, so what if we assume I’m real?

Then it is a direct attack on you.

 That doesn’t seem wise.

I have yet to be struck by lightning.

There is, however, the matter of your immortal soul.

A lot of bad things have happened; the pain and suffering have been immeasurable. If you’re willing to put up with all of that, I suspect you can handle a little criticism that no one pays any attention to. Furthermore, I don’t want to be on the good side of someone who allows all of the things that go on here.

But is it not possible that there are reasons for . . .

Stop. I’m not interested in that sort of speculation. There is no humanly recognizable reason to allow this much misery. If there is some reason, it has nothing to do with us.

That seems . . . uncertain? . . . at best. It certainly deserves more discussion.

Nevertheless.

So which is it? Do I exist, or not?

The jury is still out, though I suspect it’s a different option altogether. You do exist, but not like so many believe you do. Thus the real you isn’t my scapegoat at all. My target is those who mischaracterize you.

That seems like a dodge.

Does it? Maybe it does. Maybe I’m just avoiding taking a side. Still, the truth is almost never so cut and dry.

I Begin

All around there is darkness, no light anywhere and nothing beneath me. There is nothing to focus attention and nothing solid on which to find footing. I am falling. What waits at the bottom? Is there a bottom?

How much time has passed? How much time is left? I do not know the answer; we never do. Right now is when I am. The past is gone. The future is blank. What will I do right this moment?

I close my eyes. (Or were they already closed?) I listen to the air move past my ears, feel it touch my skin. I focus on my heartbeat, use it to steady myself. I am still falling, but more peacefully now.

I can’t ignore my situation, but I do not let it rule me. I am not the master, but neither am I the servant. What thoughts might I have, what worlds might I create as I plummet in the dark? I do not know; I will not know. Not until I think, not until I create. And so, in the darkness, I begin.

Sacred

Longest night of the year. A sacred time.

You don’t think anything is sacred.

Yes, I do. Humanity. This night, maybe more than any other, reminds us that we need one another. The darkness can only win if we try to face it alone. Humanity is sacred.

Humanity isn’t sacred. It is an insignificant blip in the universe. In the grand scheme of things, we just don’t matter.

I’m not talking about the universe, not saying it thinks us sacred. I’m talking about us. What do we hold dear? For my part, that’s humanity. It’s worthy of honor and respect. That is what we owe each other. And ourselves.

And God?

Who is more important? God? Or people? Listen closely to how someone answers; it will tell you everything you need to know about them. Does God need anything from us? If so, that’s not God. Who needs? Humans. We need others. God doesn’t need anything from us. Other human beings need help. And that’s where our focus should be. Winter reminds us how fragile we are. Look to your neighbor, to the stranger. That is where the sacred is. If we cannot see the sacred in each other, it doesn’t matter what else we call sacred.

Do you have any friends at all?

I have you.

I suppose that’s true. Happy solstice, then.

Happy solstice.

Rote Thankfulness

What are you thankful for?

I hate that question.

Why?

Because the answers always seem so rote. Family. Friends. Home. Health.

You aren’t thankful for those things?

I am, but that’s not the point. We have answers like that memorized. One day of the year, we give the most cursory thought to what we have before moving on to other concerns. We rarely stop to truly reflect on what we have to appreciate. Most of the year, we take things for granted. Then we set aside one day for token thankfulness.

Is that true for everyone? Or is that just your cynicism showing?

So it’s just me, projecting my own failing onto everyone else?

Is it?

I hate you.

Because I’m right?

… Maybe.

Set aside everyone else. What are you thankful for? And don’t give your rote answer. Don’t do the thing you hate. Really reflect. What are you thankful for?

That is a hard question.

Quit deflecting. What are you doing, right now?

Writing.

So?

I am thankful I can write?

Bragging, now?

No. I mean, I am thankful for the ability to hold a pen, the resources to own paper, the luxury of time. I am thankful I can write, whether or not I’m any good at it.

Okay. That’s a start. Anything else?

Ugh. I keep going back to negative things.

Look, it’s not a question of ignoring the bad. But you’ve got all year for that. Just a few moments for balance. You don’t need to pretend it’s all sunshine and roses. Just acknowledge some good.

I am thankful that there are other people who love and care for animals.

Really?

Yeah. It gives me hope. It connects me to other people, even if I don’t know them. I’m glad people feel something I do. And that animals are getting taken care of.

Okay, then.

For that matter, I am thankful for the internet, for showing me that there are others who share my values, my concern about the world. As much crap as there is, it’s good to know I’m not entirely alone.

You think it’s important to remember this more than one day a year?

Yes.

Do you think others might share that value?

… Yes.

Then – and I don’t mean to sound preachy – maybe dial back the cynicism a little?

… Yeah.

Winter Thoughts

It’s almost winter again. The stillness. The quiet. The cold. It is a time for introspection, a chance to review the year. Winter is an end, not merely a waypoint on the path to spring.

Some do not like the cold and the dark that dominate the season, yet it is part of the year, just as death is part of life. Winter serves as a reminder of the ephemeral nature of the world around us. It is a different kind of wonder that permeates the long night, and it should not be quickly dismissed.

Winter reminds us to turn inward, to pay attention to who and what is with us right now. The rest of the year we can spend outside, engaging the external world. For right now, we have time for ourselves and our ghosts.

Life has death. Day has night. Waking has sleep. And the year has winter. It is a holy time, a sacred time. It is the rest at the end of work. It is necessary for recuperating. We rush through it to our own detriment.

The snow blankets us with warmth. The stars and moon give us light. The wind carries secrets. If only we are willing to feel, to see, to hear. Winter is there, waiting for each of us. We may try to run from it, but we cannot run forever. And when we stop, she will be there, her arms wide, ready to welcome us to the quiet beauty she has prepared.

“for I do not know

if the ending will end,

or even if

I want it to”

Not Lost

All the trees looked the same.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Individually, each tree looked different from the next. Thin, younger trees. Large, older ones. Split trunks. Knots. In the context of the forest, however, they looked the same.

To put it another way, I was lost.

Okay, look, I’m trying to be a reliable narrator here, but it’s very easy to sacrifice accuracy for an economy of language. ‘Lost’ implies I was trying to get somewhere. I wasn’t. Or perhaps I should say, I was already there. Amongst the trees.

The forest really was beautiful. Quiet. Isolated. That was the point, to get away from everything, everyone. With all the distractions in the world, sometimes it is necessary to escape, to be alone with yourself. Breathing air that has been recently exhaled by trees. Feeling the bark. Spending time reminding yourself who you were, who you are.

So I wasn’t lost. I just didn’t know where I was. And that was alright.

Anima

She sat in front of me with her legs crossed, mirroring my pose. As I stared into her eyes, I knew it was me looking back.

“So . . .” I began, trying to break the stalemate of silence that had taken hold.

“So.” Her reply did not provide a way forward.

“What do I do? Do I ask you questions? I don’t know how this works.”

Her smile was enigmatic. I found myself wondering if I was really this infuriating.

“Go ahead, ask questions if you like.”

Just like that, any question I might have had fled from my mind.

“Hmm . . .”

“You invited me. Invented me. I assume you had some reason. What is it?”

I had no answer to that. The truth was that I didn’t remember inviting her. I had been meditating in my own eclectic way when she just appeared. None of this was expected.

“Oh. I see.”

“What? What do you see?”

“You did not consciously summon me.”

“Can you read my thoughts?”

“I am your thoughts. Some of them, anyway. I am a part of you.”

“So you’re a voice in my head?”

“I suppose that’s one way to view it. I am the personification of one of the voices in your head. All of whom, by the way, are you.”

As I was trying to process that, an obvious question occurred to me.

“Wait. If you’re me, why are you a woman?”

Her rather mild expression became a scowl.

“Don’t be naive. You know better than that. No one is all one thing or another. We all have many pieces, many aspects. You identify compassion and wisdom with a more feminine energy. It should be obvious, then, why those aspects of yourself would manifest this way.”

“I . . . I think I knew that.”

“Of course you did. Otherwise I wouldn’t have known it.”

“But if you only know what I do, how could you possibly help me find answers?”

“We often don’t remember, or don’t want to remember, things we know. Knowledge can be painful, frightening. Giving it to one part of ourselves for safe-keeping, can insulate us from it. In order to recover the knowledge, we need to confront the part of ourselves which harbors it. Besides, you seem to do better learning from a teacher.”

“This is . . . a lot.”

Her smile returned.

“And yet, none of this is really a surprise to you.”

“No. I don’t suppose it is.”

We looked at one another for a bit, the silence less awkward this time.

“If I didn’t consciously summon you, why are you here?”

“As I said, you must have a reason. Perhaps it would help to think of me as a sounding board, someone to bounce ideas off of. Talk to me like you might to a friend you might seek advice from.”

“And you’ll be here when I meditate?”

“I’m always here. If meditation helps you focus, use it. But there’s no need for rituals. Wherever you go, I go. I am you.”

“Okay,” I said, without much conviction.

“It will be.”

Mannaz and the Othering of God

Mannaz. The Divine Self. The aspect of the divine that resides within each of us. Split down the middle vertically, it contains Wunjo – Joy – on the left, and it’s mirror on the right. The Self is made of complexity.

When we other God – see God as external, as separate from ourselves – we deny our own divinity. We denigrate humanity and relegate the best parts of ourselves to something else.

Saint Augustine exemplifies this position very clearly. Human beings are so mired in sin and evil that we cannot choose the good without God’s grace. Unless God grants us a helping hand, we cannot even want to do good.

Thus if the Shadow is – according to Jung – those parts of ourselves that we deny in order to be acceptable to society, then the external God is where we place our highest ideals, the best parts of ourselves. Perhaps we do this because even though we deny our Shadow, we still feel the guilt and shame of it and refuse to believe we are good. Perhaps it is more superficial than that, that we are taught from a very early age that God is good, that all goodness comes from God, and that we are unworthy of God’s love (though God loves us anyway). Between the Shadow and God, it’s a wonder that there is anything left of us at all.

Gandhi explained that returning violence for violence was not human nature, but animal nature. Refusing to meet violence with violence did not make us divine; instead, it makes us more fully human. The import of this cannot be overstated. If we place nonviolence within the divine, and then treat the divine as other, we have an excuse to be violent. By othering the divine, we give ourselves license to live as less than. We are “only human,” after all, as though being only human is not, itself, a stunning thing.

When we acknowledge the divine within, we eliminate our excuses for not living as our best selves. We take full ownership and responsibility for our actions. What’s more, we must acknowledge the divine in others. When we see human beings as less than, when we other God, we license, not only our own shortfalls, but also mistreatment of others. If you are just human, my treatment of you is only important as far as it accords, or doesn’t, with God’s will. If you are divine – as am I – then I need no outside reason to justify showing you respect and kindness. You are important in your own being. If God is other, then you are insignificant.

Mannaz, then, is a reminder of who we are, not just ourselves, but everyone. We are, each of us, divine. We should act like it and treat others accordingly.