Today we continue our late autumn theme of “Death and Life” with a new contributor, Meg Pauken. Our next theme for early winter will be “Beginnings”. Send your writing and art to humanisticpaganism [at sign] gmail.com by December 21, 2013.
It’s unavoidable, the looking back to what was happening last year at this time.
The health of my parents had begun a very rapid decline. It was an intense, emotion-filled and exhausting time.
This morning, I thought about the gradual and then accelerating pace of the narrowing of their lives. First it was Mom forgetting things, then she no longer drove, and finally she walked only with a walker for support. Dad played his last game of golf. The summer condo became their home, and then they moved again to an even smaller apartment. They rid themselves of a lifetime of possessions. Dad took his last steps, unassisted, on February 10, 2012. His car was returned to the dealership last March. There came a point when they no longer left their apartment.
I was reminded of the death of a star: how it collapses in on itself. The energy of its core sucking everything nearby into itself; retracting, at first imperceptibly, then faster and faster until nothing of its previous fiery glory can be detected. All that remains is a black hole.
All that remains except for one thing: the light it gave off that is still traveling through the universe, illuminating far flung planets, being picked up by telescopes unknown.
What if we are like the stars? What if the energy we emit remains in the universe after we are gone, traveling far beyond the spheres we knew, continuing to provide warmth and light?
Our jokes and our stories will continue to be told. Our likeness will appear in later generations. The advice we gave will come to mind (and continue to be disregarded). The love we gave will still be felt. Our energy, our light, radiating on through time and space.
My parents’ words still echo in my head though their physical presence is gone. The habits they inculcated and the values they taught still linger: self-sufficiency, generosity, humor. I think of them often and I tell their stories to my children. The birds at the feeder remind me of them, as does a nice glass of wine. Their energy lingers in our lives, certainly.
So, what if? What if we are like the stars? What energy am I sending off into the universe?
This essay was first published on March 6, 2013 at Tales From the Sandwich Chronicles.
For discussion: What “light” do you most hope will radiate from your life after the death of your “star”?
Meg Pauken is a writer, former lawyer and mother of two living in rural northeastern Ohio, USA. Raised as a Roman Catholic, she is a Unitarian Universalist and has felt the call of paganism since her childhood. She blogs about family and spirituality at Tales from the Sandwich Chronicles.
This Wednesday, we hear from another of our new regular columnists, Maggie Jay Lee, Musings of a Pagan Mythicist: “Gnothi Seauton”.
Your help is needed! Please critique this entry from the HPedia: An encyclopedia of key concepts in Naturalistic Paganism. Please leave your constructive criticism in the comments below.
Innateness is a concept central to cognitive science. It refers to the predisposition of the brain toward certain cognitive tendencies. It does not mean “hard-wired” so much as “pre-wired.”
Jonathan Haidt quotes Gary Marcus on innateness:
The initial organization of the brain does not rely that much on experience… Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises… ‘Built-in’ does not mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance of experience.
The concept is relevant to naturalistic spirituality in that myth and ritual may well take advantage of innate mental tendencies, such as a susceptibility to supernormal stimuli.
See also “HADD”, “Modularity of Mind”, and “Supernormal stimuli.”
Check out other entries in our HPedia.
Today we hear from our other of our new regular columnists, Jon Cleland Host.
Evolutionary Parenting means raising children with an understanding of the evolutionary history that made them that both connects them to their evolutionary past and gives them a sense of purpose toward future generations. Evolutionary Parenting is not easy (heck, good parenting of any kind isn’t easy). Like so much in life, however, that extra intentional effort is very rewarding.
Right now, at the beginning of December, many of us are indeed spending effort – preparing for the holidays. But which holidays? From the many available, nearly all of us are celebrating the holiday our parents taught us, perhaps including minor tweaks from our lives or our spouses. That’s not a surprise, given that holidays are one of the most common ways that values are passed on to the next generation, answering our human need for both celebration and meaning.
Why “No Holidays” Is Not an Option
Our involvement in holidays, in terms of both time and money spent on the kids, is especially clear for many of us at this time of year – showing that we care about them. After all, it is where we spend our time and money that shows what we really care about. Children know this. They see us with more unvarnished honesty than we may realize, constantly learning from what we actually do, nearly heedless of what we say. Children see through hypocrisy like a picture window, especially as they get older.
So, what then are we teaching them with our chosen holidays, which speak to our children more loudly than anything we tell them? What is all our holiday effort working to build? Because honesty is one of the most important aspects of good parenting, my wife and I carefully chose which holidays to celebrate, and how to celebrate them. Like a culture’s origin story, a culture’s holidays also must be both meaningful and real (or believable). Real, for a holiday, includes being both fun and factual. Holidays that aren’t fun backfire, leading to resentment that only teaches avoidance or antipathy towards the parents as well as whatever idea is otherwise intended. Conversely, a holiday that is fun, but has no basis in reality or fails to teach good values, is little more than rank consumerism, teaching children greed and gluttony. Does that sound like some holidays we have in America today? Is it a surprise that so many Americans have grown up to be greedy, gluttonous, and empty of deep values, having learned exactly what they were taught?
What can be done? Jettisoning all traditional holidays without replacing them is like having holidays that aren’t fun – especially when all your children’s friends are having a blast with those traditional holidays. Do we have any choice other than empty holidays based on consumerism and superstition?
The answer is yes. We do have another option, one which draws on the love, creativity, and effectiveness present in today’s parents – we can craft holidays that are meaningful, real and fun. How that’s done will vary from family to family, and so what follows are just the solutions that Heather and I have found to work well for our family. These may be a useful starting point, but ultimately it is up to each parent to find their family’s solution themselves. For many, some adjustments to their old holidays may be all that is needed, and any holiday solution must be sustainable in today’s modern culture. Too radical a departure will become an effort to maintain over the years, especially if they are celebrated on significantly different dates from traditional holidays, and are thus more likely to be abandoned over time. The rest of this already long blog post describes our family celebration.
The Cleland-Host Family Approach to Holidays Around the Winter Solstice
Obviously, our whole year of family holidays is beyond the scope of a blog post, so this will cover only the Winter Solstice, which is December 21st this year. In this darkest time of the year, the returning light and the hope that light brings has been enough to make this time sacred for literally millions of your Ancestors for thousands of years. Our modern understanding of the Universe gives us many other ideas to celebrate as well, and we have chosen stars (our Sun and other stars) as a central theme of our family Winter Solstice celebration. Included in that theme are also supernovae, the stardust that makes our world (and us), the winter season, and connection to all humans that comes from realizing that ancient people on all continents celebrated the Winter Solstice millennia ago. The Winter Solstice is, after all, the reason for the season – both meteorologically as well as culturally!
Holidays (and family cultures) must also have practices. Our traditions for the Winter Solstice are similar in many ways to practices our kids see their friends doing. They include a decorated Solstice Tree (with a star on top). Solstice lights are strung indoors and out (we point out to the kids that the different colors of the lights are like the different colors of the stars, and talk about star colors and types). Stockings are hung, as well as decorations with stars, evergreens, and snow. We open a door in an “Advent” calendar every day, counting down the days to Solstice with small surprises, and tell the stories of stardust and of Kabibonokka (the north wind) over eggnog and cookies made in the shapes of stars, snowflakes, and evergreens. See here for related resources.
This all of course culminates on the Winter Solstice itself. After weeks of anticipation, we eat a decorated ice cream Yule Log on the night before Solstice, pointing out that our bodies’ metabolism will be burning that Yule log all night. The next morning, the kids usually wake up before sunrise, and are allowed to go through their (now filled) Solstice stockings. Soon, we gather up the kids in the dark blue of morning, trekking out to see the Sun return, victorious after its long decline. The rising Sun is greeted with songs and poems, and then we take some time as a family to enjoy wherever we are — which is often the Lake Huron shoreline, as our home is in Midland, Michigan.
The kids are jumping with excitement by the time we return home, reminded that love from the Universe can make wonderful things happen. They rush out to our family’s sacred space, a stone circle in our wooded backyard, to find gifts for all. The gifts are brought into the house and opened one at a time, to start a sacred day with no work, instead having a party, visits with extended family, or other family time. If asked, we truthfully answer questions about how the gifts got out there, if those questions are supported by evidence and good reason. We never lie to the children, and they know that. When a child uses their own reason to discover that we put the gifts there, we point out that what we told them first was true, because we parents are part of the Universe, and that they are not allowed to tell their siblings, who must also figure it out themselves. So far, only our oldest child has figured it out, though his brother came very close last year, and I expect him to figure it out easily any day now.
How ever you choose to celebrate the season, our family extends the warmest wishes to you. Happy Holidays!
This article was first published at Evolutionary Christianity.
In addition to writing the Starstuff, Contemplating column here at HumanisticPaganism, Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (seewww.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.
Next Sunday, we hear from a new contributor, Meg Pauken:”What if?”
Today we continue our late autumn theme of “Death and Life” with a new contributor, Genevieve Wood. Our next theme for early winter will be “Beginnings”. Send your writing and art to humanisticpaganism [at sign] gmail.com by December 21, 2013.
To look life in the face.
Always to look life in the face
And to know it for what it is.
At last to know it.
To love it for what it is,
And then, to put it away.
– The Hours (film)
We are born to die
We are born, only to die, only to cease to exist as we are. Knowledge of that ending, of a time to come without us, is terrifying to many people. So we search for immortality, guarantees, anything to predict what will come when, and how to plan for or against it. But our daily life offers no guarantees, no promises of the future except that it will come. Promises of the future can only come from faith.
How we handle the knowledge of mortality defines us in many ways. We spend our lives striving for immortality, hoping for survival against all reality. Yet in truth many of us desire certainty even more than immortality, desire to know the date and time of our death, and to know how it will happen and how to pass painlessly and with grace. Such knowledge cannot exist, of course, because even if we knew our own body’s original time limit, we constantly do things to change that and shorten and lengthen our timeframe.
This uncertainty and brevity of life, far from the apparent curse people see it as, is actually a great blessing in disguise. Only because we do not know the time of our death can we risk it, always in the hopes that it won’t be this time, won’t be us. We strive and struggle against the unknown, to learn, and grow, and become better than we were. This drive for immortality, not in the body, but in the minds of others, drives both the best and the worst of human behavior. We seek the immortality of opinion, of remembrance, and that seeking can guide us in many directions of life.
The Divine lives and dies in us
We exist, and strive, for a reason. As part of the Divine, we are separately-willed individuals that work to improve ourselves and the Universe around us when we are at our best. These drives to strive, to grow, to change and improve ourselves and others, push us only because we have a time limit, because we cannot put these desires off indefinitely, but must work at them from a young age if we hope to achieve them.
All words, however, are cold comfort when faced with mortality and the mortality of our loved ones. The Divine can seem cold and uncaring compared to personal pain and hardship. Yet, the Divine suffers, as we do, with each death, and rejoices with us in each life. Our Flame is that of the Divine, never lost or forgotten, even when we leave our bodies and cease to be separate, and are again one with the Universe.
The loss of ourselves, of our individuality, is scary to many people. We value our identities, our separateness from each other, even as we bemoan it. Anything that threatens our separateness, our knowledge of self, is a potential threat even as it is a potential gift. And so we fear death, knowing that we will no longer be ourselves when we do not wear our bodies, and fearing what we might be without them. We try to find ways to save our individuality even beyond death, beyond all knowledge into the realm of hope and faith.
But the Universe does not conform to our will and desires, much as we wish it did. Our lives end, but we are never forgotten or lost, but instead returned to the greater Universe.
Questions: What do you do in response to the fear of death? Does it help? Hurt? What blessing has mortality brought to your life? How can you live without certainty? Would life be better if we knew of how we would die?
Genevieve Wood is the founder of FlameKeeping, a pantheistic philosophy of life. In her day life she is a stay at home mother and a knitter. FlameKeeping was founded due to a lack of philosophical structures in pagan religions. The idea of FlameKeeping is that everyone and everything is part of the Divine Universe. We need to work together to improve that divine, building and co-creating the universe through our lives. We are not passive participants, we are active shapers in the future and must live as such. More information can be found at www.flamekeeping.org and in her book Kindling Our Stars, available at Lulu.com and Amazon.com.
This Wednesday, we will hear from our another of our columnists, Jon Cleland Host, Starstuff, Contemplating: “Evolutionary Parenting”. Don’t miss it!
This month we conclude our late autumn theme of “Death and Life”, and with the Winter Solstice on December 21, we start a our early winter theme: “Beginnings”.
This Month at HP
Dec 1 “Death and Life” by Genevieve Wood
Dec 4 Starstuff, Contemplating: “Evolutionary Parenting and the Holidays” by Jon Cleland Host
Dec 8 ”What if?” by Meg Pauken
Dec 11 Musings of a Pagan Mythicist: “Gnothi Seauton” by Maggie Jay Lee
Dec 15 Mid-Month Meditation: “The Role of Death in the Circle of Life” by Molly
Dec 18 A Pedagogy of Gaia: “Solstice connections” by Bart Everson
Dec 21 “An Ending, A Beginning” by Meg Pauken
Dec 22 New HP theme: “Beginnings”
Dec 22 Interview with B.T. Newberg
Dec 25 “Yes, Virginia, I’m a Pagan Atheist” by Rhett Aultman
Dec 29 “How I became a Naturalist”, A conversation between DT Strain and B.T. Newberg
Dec 31 Cosmic Calendar Special
Humanistic Paganism Calendar for December
Dec 25 Newton’s birthday
Your help is needed! Please critique this entry from the HPedia: An encyclopedia of key concepts in Naturalistic Paganism. Please leave your constructive criticism in the comments below.
Bias is a key concept not only in popular discourse but also in scientific, since the latter takes measures to reduce bias as much as humanly possible.
- an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially : a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment : prejudice
- deviation of the expected value of a statistical estimate from the quantity it estimates: systematic error introduced into sampling or testing by selecting or encouraging one outcome or answer over others
Research in cognitive psychology has yielded a vast list of cognitive biases. Many of these appear to be inherent to the way the human mind often intuitively thinks about things using heuristics, or practical shortcuts. These get the job done quickly and efficiently for most practical purposes, but are not always the most accurate. Evolution favors whatever styles of thought produce the most practical results for fitness, even if they don’t necessarily yield the most factually accurate representations of the world (see “Practical reality vs. factual reality”).
Biases can generally be overcome by training and reflection. However, people often revert back to heuristics when asked to think “on the fly.” Considerable research has shown that religious people’s statements tend to accurately reflect their tradition’s theology when given time to think, but contradict it when pressed for time, resulting in a phenomenon called theological incorrectness (see Slone).
The phenomenon is not limited to religion. The same proves true for college physics students asked to solve physics problems under differential time constraints, and the tendency persists even among experts working in their field of expertise (see McCauley).
These findings highlight the importance of scientific method. While individual scientists are no less prone to bias than the average person, methods such as double-blind trials, replication of results, and peer critique systematically seek out and reduce bias as much as humanly possible.
This also illuminates a key difference between scientific and magico-religious thinking. Believers in the latter cannot be discounted due to a supposed lack of intelligence, expertise, or rationality. On the contrary, many such folk are highly intelligent, educated, and thoughtful. The difference, it seems, is method. Scientific method systematically endeavors to reduce or eliminate bias, while magico-religious methods are frequently less systematic about it. Some even embrace an ambiguity where bias may thrive (see Luhrmann).
A bias particularly relevant to spirituality is false consensus bias. Harvey Whitehouse writes in Aeon magazine:
The very fact that ceremonial actions are not intelligible in practical terms means that we can endow them with many possible functions and meanings. Furthermore, if we don’t know very much about what others are thinking, we tend to believe that what is personally meaningful about the experience of joining in is shared by everyone else. This is the ‘false consensus bias’, well-documented in social psychology.
See also “Ambiguity.”
Check out other entries in our HPedia.
Today we hear from our first of several regular columnists, Glen Gordon.
The Song of the Deer
I’ve encountered a phenomenon which is difficult to describe. It is the gifting of song from the land and the other-than-humans I share it with. The only way I can describe it is a bubbling of sound that comes from the one-soul, and moves through the natural living world, and at moments burst through me in a way that I cannot ignore. These are ceremonial songs I have learned from my relationship with the land and greater ecological community. Most do not have words, though some have one or two English words in them. I only remember them when they need singing. This is the story of how one of those songs was gifted to me.
I was driving home from visiting family and traveling through western Montana during a cloudy autumn day. I had been on the road for two or three hours in silence. I spent the time contemplating the landscape as I drove. It always tells me a different story. I spotted a deer jump across the road a few yards in front of me. Mesmerized, my eyes followed him as he crossed two double lanes of US interstate and made it to the knoll on the other side.
As I watched the deer gallop along the roadside, I heard a thud from the empty passenger side. I turned in time to witness the rear of a second deer impact my side door and its head pressing against the windshield. The car swerved, almost crossing lanes. I wanted to stop, but glimpsed a big SUV breathing down my neck behind me, which would have rear ended me if I made an abrupt stop. I began crying in frustration, my heart pounding, my hands shaking. I looked behind me, desperate to see him scurry off, shaken but unharmed — no luck.
Amidst my panic and dread that I killed the deer, a flash of imagery and sensation overcome me and I pulled off to the side of the road several yards from where I hit the deer. There was no exit or other way to cross the lane and head back to the site. My mind filled with a vision of seeing the world as a deer, feeling the world as deer, smelling the world as deer (there is no other way to describe it). I felt the impulse of four legs darting underneath me, and saw another deer ahead of me. Then an unsuspected blur streaked in front and I felt the pain of impact. I was myself again and sitting on the ground next to the passenger side door which has a deer-sized imprint. To this day, I can’t look at that door without thinking of that flash of being a deer.
I was shaken, as tears swelled in my eyes and I felt the fur that stuck in the crack between the door and rest of the car’s body. (In some places the fur stayed for a year.) I trembled as I touched the bristly fur, and an unexpected sound came from my mouth. A simple string of vowel sounds in different combinations. My voice trembled as the sounds grew stronger in my abdomen and moved through my throat and escaped my mouth. The singing intensified as I got into my car and continued driving. It felt important to me that I not stop the song. It weaved in and out in different arrangements of the same sounds. The tempo would speed up and slow down at intervals and filled up the space of the car. I sang for at least 3 hours before entering the nearest town on the route. My eyes watered and my body was moved by these sounds that moved through me but came from outside of me.
The song has come to me several times since. Once, the song came to me when my favorite professor had passed away. I had given an All Souls Day sermon at my Unitarian Universalist church. I spoke about land trauma and how it connects with human trauma, something we had spoken about in his office before. He would have appreciated the sentiment of the service, which I had dedicated to him. During this service, I asked the congregation to take stones we had collected from a nearby stream and think about someone who had passed, or someone close to them who was suffering, or their own traumas, or the traumas of the land, and come up and place the stones in a bowl of dirt and, if so moved, say a few words. I invited the congregation to join me a few hours after the service to bury the rocks near the foundation of the church.
I returned to the church later to see if anyone would show to bury the rocks. One person showed up. We continued the ceremony by burying the rocks, which the community had placed in the bowl, near the foundation behind the church. The stone I had chosen was dedicated to my professor. He had such faith in my ability and had encouraged me to continue to grad school. I don’t remember what I said as we placed the stones in the ground. Such is the way improvisational ceremony works for me. But at one point, I remember singing the same song from when I hit the deer.
The third time the song came to me was during a road trip to the city. A friend’s dog companion had to be put to sleep due to cancer. We stopped in the small Washington town where the two of them had spent a lot of time together. The three of us humans and two dogs walked into the vet for the euthanasia appointment. We comforted my friend who was in tears as he carried the dog into the room and placed her on the table. The dog had been nervous before, but as she sat there she looked at me for a, long time. I had only met the dog a couple of time, but it felt like she was telling me that I knew what to do. I looked back perplexed, then politely excused myself from the room.
I walked outside along the bank of an irrigation ditch and the song come bursting through me again. I sang for a few moments until the song went away on its own. I returned as the vet prepared the syringe. After my friend’s goodbye, the dog turned to me again and looked at me as if to thank me. The vet completed the procedure and we stood in tears as we watched the last few moments of this magnificent animal (who was husky-wolf mix). When we collected ourselves, we returned to my friend’s mobile home where we cried some more. I asked if it would be alright if I sang the song. In tears he thanked me. The song moved through me again and time froze, allowing us to gather ourselves before we continued to the city.
The song has since come to me on other occasions, like when a feline companion of a close friend passed away and when my grandfather passed.
Glen Gordon was introduced to Paganism by friends while living overseas in Europe during the late 90′s. He underwent both Wiccan and Neodruidic training during his formative years, but had not self-identified as a Pagan when his path diverged into land-centered spiritual naturalism ten years ago. His focus has been on cultivating beneficial relationships with the natural living world surrounding him wherever he lives. During this time, he discovered Unitarian Universalism and has been active in his local congregations for many years. Since 2007, he has worked on varied projects regarding BioRegional Animism, including this five minute video, the words of which came from a short UU sermon he gave. He has spoken on the topic of ecology and the land on a few occasions for his local congregation and facilitated a now-disbanded group of UU Pagans and spiritual naturalists. In the past, he maintained the blog, Postpagan, and is excited to share some of that material at HumanisticPaganism. Currently, you can find Glen writing occasionally for No Unsacred Places and helping achieve Green sanctuary status for his beloved UU community, where he helps create and lead ecological aware earth- and land-focused ceremonies for the solstices and equinoxes.
Next Sunday we hear from a new contributor, Genevieve Wood: “Death and Life”.