Tag Archives: identity

Personhood

I remember when I was about 16, being told that no one would want me because I was fat. It didn’t matter, apparently, that I was clever, passably talented at a number of things, hard working, loyal, good natured… I was fat. (Actually, I was curvy and buxom and not unattractive, looking back.)

My whole notion of what constituted properly feminine depended on being small and delicate. I was tall, solidly built, ample of hips and bust. I was not the kind of waif I felt I was supposed to be and I’d been hearing a lot about how I needed to be thin. I felt increasingly that love was conditional on thinness, and that was hideous all by itself. And also not true. Even when I was at my largest, post child, I had more propositions than I knew what to do with. Apparently there are plenty of men who like women, who actually look like women. I learned, eventually that hips and breasts are far more feminine than the stick thin boy figure I’d been taught to aspire to.

But there was another message in there, alongside the ‘too fat’ issue. What mattered was not my exam results, my ability as a musician, how hard I worked, what mattered was whether a man was going to find me sexually attractive. Not my mind, or my soul, but my body. I’ve heard other stories from older women, told not to bother at school because they’re only going to get married and have kids. Women for whom success is entirely about the calibre of man you have. His income and status define you. And the thought form is out there that men don’t really find clever attractive. What they want is pretty, and biddable. And I swallowed it, like so many other women before me. It didn’t matter what else I was doing, if I wasn’t making a man happy, I was failing.

Along the way, I met pagan women. Women of all shapes and sizes, strong, and feminine and not seeing the two as incompatible. Earth mothers and fertility goddesses, nymphs, waifs and pixies. All different, all themselves, all expressing their own unique femininity. I met quite a few gay women as well, for whom pleasing a man had long since been rejected as any kind of aspiration. I met women who celebrate their femininity, and who embrace traditional female skills and crafts, not as subservience, but with delight. Women who cook and knit as art forms. Women who are present as mothers but also have lives, jobs, a sense of individual self, and men who co-operate with them.

I also met the pagan men. The ones who see themselves as equal to their womenfolk, proud of them and of themselves. The men so confident in their masculinity that they don’t need a woman who is more like a house pet to make them feel good. Men who understand fatherhood and responsibility, and who don’t see women as lesser. And all the ones who were interested in me not just because they liked my curves, but because they liked my music, my humour, my way of doing things. Men who liked my company and related to me as a person.

I want to celebrate people, in all their diversity. I want to honour the places where we are strong and the heartrending beauty that comes from the places where we are weak. I want to offer thanks to the many people who have shown me what strong, empowered personhood looks like, irrespective of gender. If you’ve recognised yourself in the above, then I did mean you – it would just be a very long list to write.

Personhood is an amazing thing, recognition of yourself as a valid, worthwhile entity in your own right, not dependent on anyone else, not conditional on any one aspect of who you are. Where we have that for ourselves, we’ve no need to reduce anyone else. There’s all the room in the world for them to be strong and independent too. For the first time in my life, it’s occurred to me that being female, being a person, is whatever I choose it to mean. Such a simple discovery, such huge ramifications.

Relationship with self

How we relate to ourselves is at the centre of our life experience. It informs what we do, how we do it, what we accept and tolerate. The ideas we hold about ourselves are not created in a vacuum, they are shaped by those around us. To a certain extent, who we think we are depends on who everyone else thinks we are. How we act informs this, and it creates a circle of action and reaction. If we aren’t doing this consciously, if we behave in the ways we are expected to, we can end up very much products of our environments and backgrounds with little actual control over ourselves.

We all of us carry stories about who we are. Some of that may derive from what we do. Much of it can be purely fantasy and daydream, carried within us. Equally, we may be under thrall to the perceptions of others. How do we tell? Is any of this any more real or important than any other aspect?

Who do we want to be and how would we like people to relate to us? Put aside all that is, and contemplate for a moment how you would like it to be. Where are the differences? Could you cover that distance with your own actions? Or is it all about the perceptions of others? Are you hankering after fame and fortune, or would you just like to be heard and taken seriously for a change?

Where we have good relationship, it is easier to flourish. In a good relationship, we are supported and cared for, encouraged to do our best and to aspire to greater things, to take joy in what we achieve and feel good about ourselves. Toxic relationships, poisoned by jealousy and resentment may instead encourage us to be small and insignificant so that others do not feel challenged by us. We may run up against people who resent us because we do not conform to their beliefs, and who will try and reduce us so they do not have to take a knock to their own cherished paradigm. We may meet with people who want to control us – they may well have little control over their own lives, and find security in being able to restrict others.

It is very hard indeed to have a good relationship with self if you are not allowed the space in which you can be yourself. Human relationships can be absolutely crippling in this regard, but if we are always used to being treated in certain ways, even seeing there is a problem is tricky. Consider the child who has grown up being told they are ugly and stupid. The absence of self esteem, and the profound self consciousness engendered may make them socially awkward, clumsy, reluctant to try, thus reinforcing all those beliefs about worthlessness.

Sometimes, to find out who you are, it is really important to get away from people. The sky will not judge you. The earth will not comment on your weight, or your earning capacity. With quiet and space, it’s possible to find different ways of being. I’m coming out of a great deal of darkness and difficulty, years of feeling like a total failure as a human being, a belief that I carried an inherent wrongness that marred everything I did and made it reasonable for people to treat me as less important than everyone else. Living with that from day to day, I couldn’t see it, much less challenge it.

When you change – as we all do, some people will fear and resent it, others will continue to love and support you. It’s easy to end up internalising the fear, jealousy and resentment of others, to become ‘wrong’ so that they can remain comfortably where they are. If you are acting carefully, honourably, then the right and freedom to be who you are should be a given. If it isn’t, if you are being restricted and not permitted to live and flourish on your own terms, you may be dealing with the toxicity of another. Step back. Take yourself, your soul, out into the wilds. See who you are when you stand only in relationship to the sky and the soil. Seek things you can undertake alone, and see what that reveals to you about your own nature. Relationship with self need not be defined by the attitudes of others, and no matter who we’ve been told we are, we can change, grow, become ourselves and be able to view ourselves as people worthy of love and respect.

Relationship

How we understand and undertake relationship is a huge part of our total life experience. It informs not only our interactions with other humans, but how we understand ourselves, and how we relate to the planet and its many non-human residents.

How do we learn this vital aspect of life? No one formally teaches us how to have relationships. Many of us go through without ever sitting down and considering how we treat other people or expect them to treat us. Many people never think at all about their relationship with the planet. When things go horribly wrong we may be forced to sit down with our ideas and assumptions to start the process of figuring out what actually works, and what was rubbish all along.

We learn relationship by watching our parents. What happened to us back before we can consciously remember it will have set the groundwork for our ideas of what relationship is. We learn from how people treat us – from the moment of arrival onwards. We learn from our siblings and how the adults around us encourage us to be. We continue the behaviours that bring rewards (and attention is reward, so many children end up courting a telling off because it’s the only attention they get).

As we grow we unconsciously pick up more information about what other people do and what is generally considered normal and acceptable. School, wider community, and television play their part. How many people have the drama of soap opera colouring their notions of acceptable human interactions? How many people learn from the daytime television freak shows where the most dysfunctional people are encouraged to shout at each other in public? When you stop and look at the way we portray relationship in the entertainment industry, it’s all about drama, tension and difficulty. Because that makes for the most immediate stories. It doesn’t tell us how to do actual relationship, but if you spend more time with the TV than interacting with actual people, do you know that?

I have some huge and dangerous blind spots around my ideas of how people can and should treat me. I’m poised to have to do a great deal of scrutinising of my beliefs and assumptions about relationship. I’m also investing a lot of time at the moment trying to work out in a rational sense where the boundary lines ought to be. How should we treat others? What do we have the right to expect? What does honourable relationship really mean? I’m going to try and work out, and express, what it means to undertake good relationship, and what is not acceptable. Not based on soap opera drama or what I’ve taken for ‘normal’ but based on what is honourable, fair and just. It’s an area that also raises issues about power, authority, ownership and social justice, so as I explore the main theme I expect I’ll be branching out in all kinds of directions.

For anyone coming with me, thank you for taking the time to read, and an extra big thank you to those of you who share stories and become an active part of the exploration.

Hands of the Moon

I’ve made bread for years, but in winter especially, my bread has not come out well – it doesn’t rise properly and comes out squidgy when cooked. It wasn’t room temperature, others making bread in the same conditions get good results. For years I assumed I was doing something wrong – I was told there must be things wrong with my technique – but not what!

Then in a random conversation about comics a few weeks ago, Tom mentioned a Japanese comic about baking (anything can be heroic, in comics) and a young man possessed of ‘the Hands of the Sun’ – hands at the perfect temperature for making bread. It got me thinking.

I have cold hands, especially in winter. I inherited poor circulation from my paternal grandmother. But also like her, I’m a good pastry maker. Bread needs warmth to stimulate the yeast. Pastry is best made cold. The temperature of a person’s hands are going to make a lot of odds on this one.

I have the Hands of the Moon. And so I make good pastry but struggle in winter with bread. Two mysteries solved, and with no need for blame, no issue with my technique, just a simple reality of my body that makes me good at one thing, not so good at another.

I love the term ‘Hands of the Sun’ – poetic, delightful. There is no doubt a perfect body temperature for bread making, and it’s going to be warm, because yeast thrives on warmth. And the colder your hands, the better your pastry. My circulation-troubled Nan was an awesome pastry maker. I’m not sure if ‘Hands of the Moon’ exists as a concept in Japan, but it seemed the obvious pairing.

The stories we tell about ourselves, the language we use and the we way we make sense of our own lives, abilities, challenges and experiences shape the journey for us. I used to consider myself a lousy breadmaker. Now, I have Hands of the Moon, and a totally different story about who I am and what I do (in the kitchen at least). There are plenty of things we have no control over (like my skin temperature) but I can shape the stories I tell to myself about who I am, and that is something available to all of us. Sometimes it takes some help to point us in the direction of a better story, but once we start looking, it can be possible to let go of the beliefs that make us feel small and unhappy, and find instead stories that celebrate who we are and what we are able to do. Stories that help us live our lives.

Life in Context

The circumstances in which we experience things significantly inform how we relate to them. At first glance, this makes perfect sense. What we do at work is not what we do at home. Who we are with our friends in a bar is not who we are at a family celebration. Different situations call upon us to act in certain ways, be different people.

The standards we are expected to maintain depend a lot on context as well. Lots of people have affairs and no one makes anything of it. If a politician has an affair it can be splurged across the media and bring an end to their career. In times past here in the UK (and it may well be true still for other parts of the world) if you had a more sensitive job – like teaching, then it was not ok to be pagan.

There are contexts in which it is acceptable to express our beliefs, ethics, political stance and so forth and places where we can’t. This is especially true around work. Who we are at work is an employee, and in many places, the rest of who you are has to stay outside.

Another one that fascinates me is that there are plenty of places people don’t want children, because it makes them uncomfortable. There are things we do as adults that we don’t want our younger folk to see or know about. Things like 18 films are there to protect the young. But they also exist to protect the adults from the very young knowing certain things about us. Children should not see us when we are drunk, on the pull, or otherwise messing about. If children saw how adults behave when they ‘let their hair down’ we’d have a deal more trouble getting them to accept our authority.

Some of the rest of it comes down to authority and power too. Who has the right to be what, and when? Who is allowed? But there’s also the issue of the ways in which we compartmentalise our lives, what we choose to let out and when. As with most things, there are no hard lines here, no clear cut certainties. There are times when what is required of us varies. But there is, I think, a difference between modifying your behaviour and presentation style to fit a circumstance (how we talk to a Judge is not how we talk to a lover) and not feeling like we are, or can be the same person in different settings. When the sense of what is permissible starts to impact on your sense of identity, there are questions to be asked.

If someone – be it yourself, or someone you know – is an entirely different person in some circumstances, how do you tell what is real? It might be all real. It might be that one character portrayed is just a mask. That’s when the problems begin. If fitting the context ceases to be necessary social flexibility and becomes a charade, then it’s a lie. It raises issues about honour. To spend any significant amount of time pretending to be someone you aren’t isn’t healthy either. It isn’t good for the soul.

It’s worth taking the time to consider how your identity changes (if at all) in response to people and situations. Does that feel comfortable? If it does, then the odds are that all is fine. If, on reflection, it makes you uncomfortable, then it’s worth thinking about why. I’ve had one of those today – a situation which only works if I am docile, co-operative, make no attempt at having or expressing an opinion and pretty much do what I am told. While the co-operative bit is very much in my nature, the rest of it isn’t. How do I respond to a situation in which I am not allowed to be myself? How much is conditional upon my behaving in the manner expected of me? There are no easy answers, but the process of considering is important.

Radical Religion

Back in my college days, I squeezed in a module on religious studies. Bits of it I can still remember. One of the points we discussed was why people get involved with religions, and one of the answers the tutor offered was the desire to be part of something.

All religions, so far as I know, have badges of belonging. Signs and symbols identify believers to each other, and may flag them up to others as different. Religious garb both marks folk as part of a group, and highlights them as separate from all others. Paganism has its symbols too, although many of them are also popular with New Agers. You can’t mistake the velvets, silver and pentograms of a female witch. Druids have the Awen symbol /l\ Norse folk wear Thor’s hammer, and so forth. Fifteen odd years ago when it didn’t feel entirely safe to be out, we’d sound each other out by dropping ’blessed be’ into the conversation, amongst other things.

Back in my college days, when I was first coming out as pagan, there was a huge thrill to finding fellow travellers. It didn’t matter who they were or what they believed, but they shared something magical with me – a secret, dangerous sort of truth. Being pagan was exciting. Belonging to something hidden (which is what occult literally means, after all) had an allure to it. Coming out to non-pagans felt like real risk taking. Perhaps it was – I never had any bad experiences, but it was still legal to discriminate against us back then.

Being in a new place, I’ve had all the coming out issues to play with all over again. We’re the first pagan family the school has encountered. They’ve responded with interest, and sensitivity, being relaxed and helpful. I mentioned being a Druid to some folks I went carol singing with. “Ah,” said the one. “We get some Druids at singing camp. I could imagine you there.”

Now I’m part of something that ‘outsiders’ generally have a vague awareness of and are ok about. No doubt there’s prejudice still out there (did I say Daily Wail at all?) but it’s small pockets, not widespread. The word ’pagan’ does not strike fear any more, not into the hearts of sane people, anyway. We aren’t fringe and secret any more. We’re increasingly open and visible. Even policemen can admit to being pagans. It attracts curiosity and the odd questions about naked dancing, and that’s about it.

I wonder if there were people who were attracted to paganism precisely because it represented something outside the mainstream. For teen pagans that air of danger and rebellion was always going to appeal, but its fading. The more comfortable everyone else becomes with us, the easier being a pagan is. How much of the appeal lay in the challenge? How much of the sense of being special came from being socially unaccepted? And how true is that for other, less accepted and more radical faith positions?

Religion. We want to belong somewhere. So many of us get a kick out of transgressing in some way, or having badges of specialness, difference, preference. We all want to be the chosen few, on some level. All of these reasons for seeking faith groups to belong to are very, very human. And at the same time, totally at odds with what all of those faiths are about. Belonging and asserting difference are all about our own individual selves. Spirituality, in all its forms is about reaching out to something bigger than us, external to us, however we conceptualise that.

Who we choose

We choose who to be, from one moment to the next. Our actions, words, silences and inactions define us. They express who we are. No matter what we imagine ourselves to be, or dream we could be, the truth of each of us lies, moment to moment, in every choice we make.

There’s a huge, ongoing debate in psychology about the degrees to which nature (genetic inheritance) and nurture (how we are brought up) affect us. From what I’ve seen, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal out there about the degree to which we are able to consciously choose who we are. The more I consider it, the more certain I feel that we actually have a lot of choice in this regard. Yes, our genetic inheritance will predispose us in certain ways. There’s some consensus that intelligence is inheritable, but it also looks like that only plays a part if the environment you grow up in isn’t very rich. We learn a lot in growing up – about relationships, families, society, we learn what is expected of us. The odds are that we learn some unhelpful stuff in the mix, drawn from the fears and foibles of our immediate relatives. As Lady Midnight says in The Mistress and the Mouse, no one gets out of childhood entirely unscathed. I think it’s just part of being human.

We aren’t clockwork machines, we do not run along preset tracks. We are able to think and learn. Nature and nurture set us off with some tools and raw material, but it’s down to us as individuals to decide how we use them. We do not have to repeat the patterns and mistakes of our childhoods, our parents, our ancestral line. We are not doomed to play out some narrative coded into our DNA.

Over the years I’ve run into far too many people who act without thought, ascribe this to their ‘nature’ and consider it unassailable. This too, is a choice. You can view it as a choice to be spontaneous, in the moment and acting out your nature. You can also view it as being reactive, following habits and not really thinking about what you are doing. To me, the innate nature of a person that shines through when they act like this, is one of carelessness, both for those around them, and for their own well being. People who speak and act carelessly seldom do themselves any favours, and then follow through with a refusal to acknowledge there was anything untoward. What this gives you is a total absence of power. 

Everything matters. Every so often some bright spark will tell me I take life too seriously. I think I take life about seriously enough – it is, to the best of my knowledge, the only one I’ve got, and I don’t intend to squander it. So for me, there is a second or two of thought before every word, every action, every decision to stay still. Sometimes more thought than others, granted, but I seldom find I’ve done something without knowing why. I don’t come home with impulse buys that make no sense to me, and I don’t think I’ve ever hurt someone by saying something I didn’t mean. (If you know me, and I have injured you with words at some point, this does not necessarily mean I meant to cause pain, only that the words were meant.)

It’s easy to go through life on autopilot, doing what you always do, acting from habit and ‘nature’ rather than from a basis of constantly choosing who and how you wish to be. To be Pagan, is to take responsibility for your life. To be a Druid is to seek to act honourably in every word and deed, not just the big, obvious stuff. We can choose, peace, honour, integrity and compassion moment to moment, or we can snap at someone because why should we walk round on eggshells all the time? If you shout at me, that entitles me to shout back because I’m angry, right? Or I can choose to control my anger and speak reasonably. It’s a choice. We are not just products of nature and nurture, we are also the consequence of our own, individual ability to choose.