Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Theology

Can Christians Be Animists?

Animism is having a moment in the pop culture spotlight. Thanks to the success of the Netflix show Tidying Up, featuring Marie Kondo and her joy-sparking approach to decluttering, thousands of Americans have been introduced to a subtly Shinto-influenced worldview* in which houses are ritually honored, books can be awakened with a cheerful tap, and even ugly t-shirts are thanked like dear old friends before being retired to the trash or a secondhand shop.

Meanwhile, over the last decade, environmentalists and conservationists have been facing the reality that despite our best efforts we’ve been unable to halt, let alone reverse, the ever-looming nightmare of global warming. Debates have raged over whether environmentalism as a political movement has failed — if we’ve entered a time in which “dark ecology,” action without hope, is the only adequate response. Earthlings everywhere are looking for a new approach. An approach, perhaps, that might even spark joy… Could animism be it?

With animism making a comeback among philosophers, environmentalists and reality TV hosts alike, what should arrive in my inbox but an invitation to review a new book by Religion & Environmental Studies professor, Mark I. Wallace, titled When God Was A Bird: Christianity, Animism, and the Re-Enchantment of the World. My interest was piqued! Were Christians embracing animism? And if so, what would a Christian animism look like?

The thrust of Wallace’s argument is this: although the traditional view of Christianity is that it’s a world-denying religion focused on a wholly transcendent God, in fact (he endeavors to prove), Christianity has always had roots firmly planted in an earthy, nature-loving worldview. Though he frames this claim as edgy and controversial, it’s nothing new. For the past couple centuries at least, this “greener” view of Christianity has been growing in popularity especially among more liberal denominations. What is new is Wallace’s claim that Christianity is (and always has been) animistic.

It’s a bold claim, and he’s right to note that it might raise some eyebrows. Saying that Christians could (and maybe should) become more animistic is one thing. But it’s hard to believe his assertion that Christianity has always been animistic, given its long legacy of proselytizing with the explicit and well-documented purpose of wiping out indigenous pagan cultures. Such an assertion is on par with claiming that Christianity has always been feminist because sometimes the Bible has warm-fuzzy feels about how gosh-darn pretty girls are and what wonderful baby-mommas they make! With its complex philosophical and theological critiques, modern feminist theory arose in part as a response to Christianity and has presented serious challenges to Christian tradition over the past century. In the same way, animism — particularly, the evolving modern understanding of animism — makes certain specific claims about the nature of our shared reality. It cannot be reduced simply to a kind of general “green-fuzzy” aesthetic response to the natural world.

Unfortunately, Wallace makes a habit of just this kind of reductionism. In his introduction, he starts off all right, drawing on contemporary anthropologists and philosophers to suggest that:

“animism flattens commonplace ontological distinctions between living/nonliving or animate/inert along a continuum of multiple intelligences: now everything that is is alive with personhood and relationality, even sentience, according to its own capacities for being in relationship with others.”

Even here, though, we can spot the first signs of trouble — what exactly does Wallace think this “flat ontology” looks like, and what does it mean for Christians in practical terms? He offers various descriptions of what he calls “Christianimism” (ugh), including: “[the belief] that God or Spirit enfleshes itself within everything,” and “God [as] ensouling every life-form with deific presence.” It’s hard to see how this approach — which centers God’s personhood and presence while framing other beings as mere “manifestations” or “expressions” of God — have much in common with an animism that (to quote scholar Graham Harvey) recognizes that “the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human.”

If Harvey’s definition of animism reminds you a bit of that wittily-brief definition of feminism — “the belief that women are people” — that’s no coincidence. In many ways, prejudiced stereotypes about women and nature have been mutually constructed and reinforced over the centuries, and it’s useful to compare the two categories in any attempt to deconstruct them. Wallace himself prompts for this comparison with his book’s title, a callback to Merlin Stone’s highly-influential feminist work from the 1970s, When God Was A Woman. In her book, Stone asserted that throughout much of Europe and the Middle East, there once existed a beneficent matriarchal society that centered on worship of the Great Goddess, until it was suppressed by invasive patriarchal religion. As a vision of female empowerment, the text occupies a special place on the cusp of second-wave feminism; however, it also perpetuates a number of misconceptions and prejudices that the intersectionality of third-wave feminism has only just begun to critique effectively. And as an historical analysis, its sweeping conclusions are dubious.

Wallace’s When God Was A Bird occupies a similarly conflicted place in current theological conversations around animism and earth-rooted spiritualities. His eagerness to embrace our planet as a locus of divinity and beauty is undeniable. But for all his earnestness, his historical argument remains unconvincing. Worse than that, his understanding of animism is decidedly… let’s call it “first wave.”

To see what I mean, you can play this fun little game as you read: for each example of the Christian “animistic” attitude that Wallace offers, try replacing the plants and animals with women. Then, ask yourself if you still think they’re good examples of respectful relationship. If a saint were to, say, drive all the dangerous whores out of Babylon, or transform an ugly old hag into a totally bang-able super hot virgin as a manifestation of God’s glory — would you consider that feminist? Yet these are the examples — driving native reptile or insect species out of a forest, forcing a tree to bloom in the depths of winter, etc. — that Wallace cites to show how Christianity has been animistic from the beginning. That these are the best examples he can come up with is not very encouraging.

Even when, like a broken clock that’s right twice a day, Wallace stumbles upon an example that could arguably support an animistic interpretation, it’s obvious that he’s not exactly clear on why. The most striking instance of his confusion is when he compares a healing ritual from Hildegard von Bengin’s 12th-century medical treatise, Physica, to the story of Jesus curing a blind man in John 9:6-7. In the Gospel account, Jesus spits into the dust, smears the resulting mud on the man’s eyes and tells him to wash in a nearby pool, whereupon the man’s sight is restored. In her text on natural medicine, Hildegard describes a three-day ritual which consists of:

“taking handfuls of green soil and packing it around the head and feet of a person suffering from numbness […]. The goal is for the earth itself, thoughtfully positioned near the patient, to be its own agent of healing and to radiate its restoring warmth into the numbed body of the sufferer. […] ‘You, earth, are sleeping in this person, N.’ […] ‘You, earth, grow and be useful in this person.'”

Wallace asserts that these two rituals are “almost identical,” presumably because they both involve healing and mud. Beyond these two similarities, however, there are essential differences that Wallace either overlooks or discounts as unimportant. In particular, three aspects of Hildegard’s ritual stand out as potentially animistic:

(1) In her ritual, the healer addresses the earth directly, recognizing the soil’s unique presence as a specific embodied entity, and not merely as a symbol that represents something else or as a manifestation that points to some other entity behind or beyond it.

(2) The healer asks for the earth’s participation in the healing process as an agentive being, recognizing that it possesses a particular perspective, as well as an interiority that is withdrawn and inaccessible except through its own self-disclosure and willing participation to make itself available to others.

(3) In speaking to the earth “sleeping in this person,” the healer acknowledges the complex interobjectivity** in which both human and soil participate. In this way, the ritual draws attention to the multiplicity and complexity of interconnected personhood that exists on many levels, and invites a perspective that can shift among these levels without either denying them or collapsing them into each other.

The Gospel account of Jesus’s healing includes none of these characteristics, and in some cases directly refutes them:

(1) The mud and spit are seemingly incidental to the healing act — Jesus kneels down and works with the dirt where he just happens to be, prompted not by the earth itself but by the questions of his disciples, and more indirectly, by God. There’s no immediately obvious reason why the blindness (or its cure) is explicitly tied to this particular mud or its characteristics; other instances of Jesus’s healing miracles show him making use of whatever materials are available. For this reason:

(2) The mud and spit are, at best, treated as tools or symbolic extensions of Jesus’s divine power, not as agentive beings in themselves. They have no interiority or perspective. They do not act themselves but are only acted upon by others. Wallace describes this healing ritual as “shamanic” and examines the ways in which it grapples with issues of boundaries and transgression. But even with the most generous reading, the healing is at best an act of sympathetic magic in which “like attracts like” — the symbolically impure mud, ritually “charged” with Jesus’s spit, draws out the impure/harmful blindness from the man and so cures him when he washes both away with the (symbolic purity of) clean, fresh water. It is only after and because of this miracle that the pool (but not the dirt) is named.

(3) Far from acknowledging a complex interobjectivity, the use of mud as a symbolic tool in this way lends itself to just the opposite reading: a concern for how one’s purity (ie one’s bodily and spiritual integrity) can be corrupted by overly porous boundaries, resulting in a blindness which, like dirt, is “matter out of place” that needs to be removed in order for the person to be cured and “made whole.” Just prior to this miracle, Jesus’s disciples speculate about the cause of the man’s blindness, suggesting it’s due to some sin he or his parents committed — but Jesus explicitly rejects this explanation and the relationality it suggests. Instead the blind man himself, like the mud, is a tool that God uses to demonstrate his power.

Were Wallace to offer an alternative, animistic reading of the Gospel miracle, I might still quibble with his interpretation — but he doesn’t even bother! Instead, he seems not even to recognize how these “almost identical” rituals are actually very different. He conflates them (along with many other superficial and sometimes downright strange examples throughout the book) and offers a version of animism in which God’s personhood is always and repeatedly foregrounded, and there is no meaningful distinction between “person” and “tool” because even human people are wielded as tools by God. Rather than highlighting the personhood and agency of such tools (as I suspect he thinks he’s doing), he merely succeeds in reducing the former to the latter.

This issue of foregrounding and backgrounding is a serious overarching problem in Wallace’s text. While distinguishing between foreground and background is natural — a result of the way we perceive, process and participate in the world — one of animism’s basic insights is that these foregrounds and backgrounds are not static, inherent aspects of reality but instead arise from particular perspectives. Different human and non-human perspectives will foreground different aspects of our shared reality while backgrounding others. An animist text would, ideally, explore these shifts in perspective deliberately and conscientiously, interrogating and de-centering its own assumed or inherited perspective — for instance, asking how non-human persons might construct foreground and background differently and gleaning insights from the tentative answers that such questions provoke. Unfortunately, when Wallace manages to acknowledge a shift in foreground/background at all, he does so only in a single direction and to one specific end: in order to background individual persons in nature and foreground the human relationship with God.

You can see this backgrounding in a very literal way in his tendency to focus on metaphors of nature as environment. A familiar example of this is the popular quote attributed (incorrectly) to John Muir: “Nature is my church.” Though Muir never said exactly these words, he did often describe the natural world as a location within which humans encounter God, and Wallace leans heavily on this concept. Non-human beings, such as pine trees, may collectively contribute to the ambience of that environment, but usually only as a pluralized abstraction. Rarely do non-human persons make individual appearances or express individual perspectives on this human-God encounter in Wallace’s accounts. Even when they do appear as individuals, he immediately undermines this individuality by reattributing their expressive agency to God.

(An aside to return to our feminism parallel: This reattribution is akin to viewing women as extensions of male agency, so that even when a woman seems to be acting independently, her actions are reframed as a man’s choice not to act and/or as the object of the male gaze. See also, Morton’s Ecology Without Nature for a fascinating analysis of how nature-as-environment is commonly evoked through the “ambience” of lists in the nature writing genre. And then turn to page 77 in When God Was A Bird for a striking example of Wallace just straight-up listing bird species like some kind of avian Mambo #5.)

Again, Wallace engages in this reframing even with texts that are arguably good candidates for a re-imagined Christian animism. The Biblical call to “consider the lilies of the field,” for instance, could be read as an invitation to consider the lilies as persons who have a particular perspective, the capacity to perceive how they are cared for and supported, and even a kind of agency (insofar as they can refrain from toil). The passage prompts the reader to imagine the lilies’s perspective and compares them to “Solomon [a person] in all his glory.” And yet, Wallace twice makes sure to reframe this as a comparison not to Solomon-the-person but to Solomon’s temple as an aesthetically pleasing environment. He rejects the invitation to “consider the lilies” and considers instead only the field — that is, lilies-as-background.

For the most part, Wallace’s “Christianimism” seems to endeavor to look forever cross-eyed at the natural world — or rather, to look through it, as if it were one big Magic Eye puzzle in which you can see a 3D picture of God riding a dolphin if you squint just the right way. There are times, however, when he comes tantalizingly close to noticing the complex non-human community as more than just pleasing soft-focus background. These occasions are usually the direct result of his time spent outside in the natural world, in prayer or on pilgrimage. It’s when he is confronted with the undeniable presence of particular plants and animals living and acting in the world around him that he is forced to meet them face-to-face. His abstracted theological narrative momentarily falters, and we as readers have a fleeting chance to imagine a world in which non-human persons look back at us.

Perhaps, then, if there is hope for a more robust animism emerging within today’s Christianity, Christians might find themselves on the right path if they follow the same directions musicians take to get to Carnegie Hall — practice, practice, practice!

In the meantime, Wallace’s When God Was A Bird represents a well-intentioned first step along that path. Unfortunately, it is the same first step that Christians have been taking for hundreds of years. The “green” approach to Christianity seems to have one foot stuck firmly in place, limping in circles around that same sticking point for centuries. Which raises the question: what exactly is this sticking point? If Christians are interested in taking more than just that first step — moving beyond the most basic acknowledgement that “nature is good” — at some point they’re going to have to ask themselves what is holding them back? What is it about their doctrines and/or ritual practices that prevents them from following the call of longing and belonging that so many of them have been noticing just on the edge of their hearing for so long…?

Rather than yet another re-imagining of the Christian past to suit today’s sensibilities, I long for an honest wrestling with Christianity’s history of missteps and an informed, intersectional, interobjective attempt to redress them. That’s the book I want to read!


* There are a lot of hot takes on Marie Kondo going around right now, including some terrible takes rooted in racism and sexism. The philosopher Dr. Jonathan Flowers (@shengokai) has some excellent Twitter threads addressing some of these issues. I highly encourage you to read and follow!


** Interobjectivity is perhaps too specialized a term for this kind of review, but it’s one I find super useful. The concept was introduced by Bruno Latour (pdf) as a way to talk about the social agency of objects and to challenge the common distinction in Western philosophy between subjectivity and objectivity. It’s been further developed by other scholars, my favorite being Timothy Morton, particularly in his work on hyperobjects.


Photo Credits:

• “Dove,” by Jan Daciuk (CC) [source]
• “Dove In Flight,” by Victor Paul (CC) [source]
• “Eight Flying Doves,” by Hartwig HKD (CC) [source]
• “Dive,” by Daniela (CC) [source]

Current Events, Holy Wild, Mythology & History

Can Clowns Save Our Souls?

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


untitled-clown_neys-fadzil

“He was nobody in particular, yet everybody all at once.”

— Conrad Hyers

It is said that the Irish god Manannan mac Lir likes to travel in disguise. He roams from town to town, sometimes entertaining kings with heavenly music, other times baffling onlookers with clumsy feats of buffoonery. “One day I am sweet, another day I am sour,” he declares, as if to explain away his conflicting reputation as both wiseman and fool. His disguise is a familiar one: a hat full of holes, shoes that squish with puddle water when he walks, threadbare striped clothes, a cloak of many colors that shimmers like mist in the sun. It’s a wonder we don’t recognize him immediately. Figures like him have been with us since the beginning, holding up a funhouse mirror to our ordinary lives, mocking our heroes and transfiguring our bums. In short, Manannan mac Lir is a clown.

Clowns need no introduction, says professor of religion Conrad Hyers in his book, The Spirituality of Comedy. When they appear on the scene, everybody recognizes immediately what they are. “There are clowns who are silent and clowns who are subtle, but there are no incognito clowns.” And yet clowns are, by definition, difficult to define. Almost defiantly contradictory, they take upon themselves the myriad aspects of human society and human nature, throwing all of these elements together in astoundingly irreverent and incongruous ways. “In a kaleidoscopic identity,” Hyers writes, “the clown is many people and many moods, formed and reformed out of the same disparate pieces of humanity.” The clown is the Everyman, recognizable despite or, more accurately, because of his make-up and his mask. The clown is the familiar stranger: the god who travels in disguise under an assumed name, yet whose reputation always precedes him.

Big Shoes To Fill: A Walking Contradiction

Over the past few months, we’ve watched this pattern of embodied contradictions and oscillating opinions play out in real-time as a Creepy Clown Epidemic took the American media by storm. In earlier articles, I traced the evolving nature of this phenomenon — from the Phantom Clowns of urban legend, to the mischievous Stalking Clowns confounding police, to the public backlash and its impact on the professional clowning community. As media coverage returned again and again to this strange but eerily familiar figure, interpretations of the Creepy Clown’s meaning have swung back and forth, each new claim reacting against and building upon those that came before it. Were the clowns real, or just a hoax? Old urban legend, or new media meme? A coordinated effort by marketers, or a grassroots trend of rumors and copycats? Attention-seekers, or anonymous pranksters? Political commentary, or frivolous distraction? Harmless fun, or serious threat? Criminals, or victims?

The answer, of course, is all of the above…. and then some. “Clowns are not ‘simply’ anything,” Hyers writes. “The clown as ‘Everyman’ is the representative of the many-sidedness of our existence and the tensions between sides — not any side or set of characteristics. The clown is omnivorously human.”

greatest-show_classic-film

This undiscriminating lust for life in all its forms can itself be disturbing (think: the exaggerated mouths and the smiles full of sharpened teeth in so many of today’s creepy clown Halloween masks). There is something unsettling about the clown’s willingness to poke fun at anything, to upset the status quo. We might wonder: is nothing sacred? Yet throughout history, the spiritual role of the clown has always been that of trickster, the Wise Fool who can challenge social norms and bring the shadow-side of ourselves and our community out into the open to be confronted, laughed at, integrated and transcended.

In his exploration of the clown as a cultural and spiritual figure, Hyers notes that there are two distinct manifestations of the clown as a mediator of opposites. The more “complex and ambitious” type of clown, Hyers writes, is the solo clown, who brings these opposites together in his own person and contains the tension of polarity within a single figure. The motley, multi-colored outfits of these clowns speak to this radical inclusivity of contradiction. “If they wear oversized shoes, they will like as not wear an undersized hat. If they give themselves a gaudy smile, they will probably also add a tear. If they are graceful one moment, they will likely be jerky the next.” They might take exaggerated care to tiptoe across the stage, only to trip noisily at the last minute; or precisely measure the swing of their giant hammer, only to miss the nail and smash their thumb instead. One day sweet, the next day sour.

478px-paul_cezanne_060But there is another kind of clowning: the comic duo. Here, polar opposites are exaggerated and separated, embodied in two different characters who are nevertheless bound together, played against one another to hilarious effect. From the Koshare spring-summer clowns (sprouters of grain) and the Kurena fall-winter clowns (maturers of grain) of the Jemez Indians, to the suave Whiteface and clumsy Augusto of the medieval French pantomimes, such pairs are well-known throughout history. If one is tall and thin, the other will be short and stocky. If one is a wild risk-taker, the other will worry and fret. If one is restrained in word and deed, the other flails about and never shuts up. We see these odd couples everywhere in modern times, too, in comedy pairs like Harpo and Groucho Marx, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Penn and Teller, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Troy and Abed… the list goes on and on.

To these pairs, we might add: Patch Adams and Pennywise — the “caring clown” and the “creepy clown” of modern American culture. Perhaps we need look no further to explain the Creepy Clown phenomenon than our culture’s changing view of the clown, from the ambiguous trickster of sacred ritual to mere kids’ entertainer:

Before the early 20th century, there was little expectation that clowns had to be an entirely unadulterated symbol of fun, frivolity, and happiness; pantomime clowns, for example, were characters who had more adult-oriented story lines. But clowns [are] now almost solely children’s entertainment. Once their made-up persona became more associated with children, and therefore an expectation of innocence, it made whatever the make-up might conceal all the more frightening.

Everywhere we find them, clowns are walking contradictions, polarities set in dialectical motion so that we may (re)discover our own wholeness. “Our whole being is put joltingly together by the simple device of slapping opposites against one another,” writes Hyers. With our recent overemphasis on the innocent fun and “light side” of the Caring Clown, perhaps it was inevitable that the darker Creepy Clown would eventually come calling.

One Clown, Two Clown, Red Clown, Blue Clown

But why now? There is something unique about the Creepy Clown Epidemic this year. Although the cycle of clown sightings has recurred fairly regularly since at least the 1980s, there seems to be a deeper sense of urgency, uncertainty and anxiety that has driven this fall’s hysteria.

8112010clown-phil_roeder_sm

You don’t need to scratch very far below the surface to discover what it is. Almost from the beginning, commentators have noted the strong parallels between the Creepy Clown hype and the American presidential election, in which many aspects of an increasingly polarized and dysfunctional political system are on full display. Art and film often anticipate and illuminate these trends through their social commentary. Take, for instance, the recently-released Rob Zombie horror movie, 31, which one reviewer describes as “perhaps unintentionally relevant” in the current climate:

[T]he free-loving carnies and the carnage-loving clowns all arguably ought to be on the same side, as they’re at the same level of income, and loosely connected to the whole notion of traveling shows. But they’re not, and indeed, it’s partly because some on the clown side are racist, sadistic, abusive, horrible people. Regardless, though, they’re all being played by rich jerks for some minor amusement, and even once they realize this and have a chance to break the cycle, or heaven forbid, fight the actual system, they can’t stop. They just hate each other too much, while the rich go back to their rich lives unburdened.

Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist at Botany College in New Zealand, links the rise in creepy clowns to two rising forces in the US: social media, and a fear of otherness. “Social media plays a pivotal role in spreading these rumor-panics which travel around the globe in the blink of an eye,” he says. “They are part of a greater moral panic about the fear of strangers and terrorists in an increasingly urban, impersonal, and unpredictable world.” Politicians have often played on the fear of otherness to rally their base and “get out the vote” on election day. We might even see in the Republican and Democratic candidates an echo of the tragicomic duo, a pair of opposites vying against each other, each one “playing the mask” of political showmanship while also trying to radiate personable authenticity. All of this might explain why Loren Coleman, who posited the Phantom Clown Theory, notes that creepy clown appearances often coincide with the election cycle.

new-york-daily-news-clown-1Still, this year’s election season has been one of the most vitriolic in recent history, with one candidate in particular invoking (and provoking) xenophobia, racism and misogyny as defining aspects of his campaign. For some, the explanation for this year’s creepy clown craze can be summed up in two words: Donald Trump. Yale School of Drama professor Christopher Bayes describes Trump as “all illness and artifice,” saying, “There’s something poison there. It feels malignant, and it freaks us out.”

With his uncanny appearance — the fake spray-tan, the wild orange hair, the gaudy sense of fashion, the overblown blustering and weird gesticulations on stage — Trump is the quintessential creepy clown. Equally preoccupied with stoking fear of outsiders and resentment towards insiders who’ve supposedly rigged the system against him, he is not easily categorized according to our usual understanding of political and cultural identity. Instead, he hides behind a mask of populist “everyman” rhetoric to conceal crass self-interest and, perhaps, something even more sinister. In light of numerous allegations of sexual assault, including the rape of a 13-year-old girl and his possible connection to drug-fueled sex parties with underage teens, it’s hard not to see Trump as the “killer clown” who leers at children on the playground and tries to lure them into the woods. Even his caught-on-tape boasting about how his celebrity allows him to assault women — “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” — seems like a sickening callback to the serial killer-clown John Wayne Gacy’s confession, “You know… a clown can get away with murder.”

Clown as Savior and Escape Artist

How do we rid ourselves of these creepy clowns, real and imagined?

First, it might help to know that much of the Creepy Clown hysteria is driven by media coverage and, like all such trends, it will eventually die down on its own (especially once Halloween and the election are over). Professor of psychology at Evergreen State College, Bill Indick explains, “That’s why it comes in waves. The media propagates it, creates it, feeds it and at a certain point, gets tired of it. The media then digests it and eliminates it. And just as quickly as it started, it’s over.”

We shouldn’t necessarily see this as a criticism of the media’s short attention span, however. After all, that is the clown’s deeper spiritual and psychological role in society: to help us confront our own contradictions, bring them to consciousness, and integrate them. Hyers writes:

What we are reluctant to acknowledge, but what the clown fixes on, is that we are composed of and dream of contraries. We fantasize about complete freedom and complete security, rugged individualism and social harmony, amorous adventures and marital bliss, higher wages and lower prices, something worth fighting for… and peace and tranquility.

The ever-shifting media narratives — about clowns, and about everything — can guide us through a process of navigating these contradictions, swinging from one perspective to another, discovering the complexity of the stories we tell about our all-too-human lives. Hyers notes that clown performances often end with the clowns being chased off stage, driven out of the shared community space and sent scurrying back into the mists of chaos from which they came. “What has been welcomed so clamorously, must also be put to flight somewhat ingloriously,” he writes. “The clowns who have indulged us vicariously, must also vicariously pay a price for their profanities. The scapegrace becomes the scapegoat.”

clown-session_laura-cuttierBut at the heart of this process is a longing for wholeness and a renewed sense of unity. With his colorful patchwork antics, the clown reconnects “the many fragmented shades of our existence, if only by tossing them laughingly side by side and calling their ephemeral combination a link between the heavens and the earth.” Liminality and impermanence are all part of the play. The clown straddles, skips and stumbles over the lines we draw to separate the mundane and the sacred, “mudhead and godhead,” order and disorder, stability and change, inside and outside, life and death.

In this way, the clown is also a psychopomp, leading us through fragmentation towards resolution and the redemption of a richer life. Says Hyers, “[T]he clown resembles a ghostly apparition from the spirit world, paradoxically seeking with grinning death-mask to renew life and revive our slumping spirits.” Why should we be surprised, then, to find ourselves brought face-to-face with this paradoxical figure during the season of ghouls and goblins, when the veils between the worlds are thin and the dead mingle with the living?

So maybe the solution is actually quite simple: to rid ourselves of the creepy clown, we need only rediscover the deeper complexity and ambiguity of the clown as a sacred trickster and spiritual guide. To live more courageously and playfully in the face of our uncertainty. To remember to hold our desire for categories of right and wrong, good and evil as lightly as we can. For though we might try to follow where the clown leads, we cannot hope to pin him down or hold him still. It is only when we stop insisting that the clown be just one thing that he is free to become the multiplicity of being that he really is.


Photo Credits:
• “Untitled,” by Neys Fadzil (CC) [source]
• Jimmy Stewart, Emmett Kelly, The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952 [source]
• “Shove tuesday (Pierot and Harlequin)” by Paul Cézanne [source]
• “8.11.2010 clown 209/365” by Phil Roeder (CC) [source]
• Frontpage June 17, 2015, New York Daily News [source]
• “Clown Session,” by Laura Cuttier (CC) [source]


Daily Prompt: Transformation


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Current Events, Holy Wild, Mythology & History

Can Clowns Save Our Souls?

untitled-clown_neys-fadzil

“He was nobody in particular, yet everybody all at once.”

— Conrad Hyers

It is said that the Irish god Manannan mac Lir likes to travel in disguise. He roams from town to town, sometimes entertaining kings with heavenly music, other times baffling onlookers with clumsy feats of buffoonery. “One day I am sweet, another day I am sour,” he declares, as if to explain away his conflicting reputation as both wiseman and fool. His disguise is a familiar one: a hat full of holes, shoes that squish with puddle water when he walks, threadbare striped clothes, a cloak of many colors that shimmers like mist in the sun. It’s a wonder we don’t recognize him immediately. Figures like him have been with us since the beginning, holding up a funhouse mirror to our ordinary lives, mocking our heroes and transfiguring our bums. In short, Manannan mac Lir is a clown.

Clowns need no introduction, says professor of religion Conrad Hyers in his book, The Spirituality of Comedy. When they appear on the scene, everybody recognizes immediately what they are. “There are clowns who are silent and clowns who are subtle, but there are no incognito clowns.” And yet clowns are, by definition, difficult to define. Almost defiantly contradictory, they take upon themselves the myriad aspects of human society and human nature, throwing all of these elements together in astoundingly irreverent and incongruous ways. “In a kaleidoscopic identity,” Hyers writes, “the clown is many people and many moods, formed and reformed out of the same disparate pieces of humanity.” The clown is the Everyman, recognizable despite or, more accurately, because of his make-up and his mask. The clown is the familiar stranger: the god who travels in disguise under an assumed name, yet whose reputation always precedes him.

Big Shoes To Fill: A Walking Contradiction

Over the past few months, we’ve watched this pattern of embodied contradictions and oscillating opinions play out in real-time as a Creepy Clown Epidemic took the American media by storm. In earlier articles, I traced the evolving nature of this phenomenon — from the Phantom Clowns of urban legend, to the mischievous Stalking Clowns confounding police, to the public backlash and its impact on the professional clowning community. As media coverage returned again and again to this strange but eerily familiar figure, interpretations of the Creepy Clown’s meaning have swung back and forth, each new claim reacting against and building upon those that came before it. Were the clowns real, or just a hoax? Old urban legend, or new media meme? A coordinated effort by marketers, or a grassroots trend of rumors and copycats? Attention-seekers, or anonymous pranksters? Political commentary, or frivolous distraction? Harmless fun, or serious threat? Criminals, or victims?

The answer, of course, is all of the above…. and then some. “Clowns are not ‘simply’ anything,” Hyers writes. “The clown as ‘Everyman’ is the representative of the many-sidedness of our existence and the tensions between sides — not any side or set of characteristics. The clown is omnivorously human.”

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This undiscriminating lust for life in all its forms can itself be disturbing (think: the exaggerated mouths and the smiles full of sharpened teeth in so many of today’s creepy clown Halloween masks). There is something unsettling about the clown’s willingness to poke fun at anything, to upset the status quo. We might wonder: is nothing sacred? Yet throughout history, the spiritual role of the clown has always been that of trickster, the Wise Fool who can challenge social norms and bring the shadow-side of ourselves and our community out into the open to be confronted, laughed at, integrated and transcended.

In his exploration of the clown as a cultural and spiritual figure, Hyers notes that there are two distinct manifestations of the clown as a mediator of opposites. The more “complex and ambitious” type of clown, Hyers writes, is the solo clown, who brings these opposites together in his own person and contains the tension of polarity within a single figure. The motley, multi-colored outfits of these clowns speak to this radical inclusivity of contradiction. “If they wear oversized shoes, they will like as not wear an undersized hat. If they give themselves a gaudy smile, they will probably also add a tear. If they are graceful one moment, they will likely be jerky the next.” They might take exaggerated care to tiptoe across the stage, only to trip noisily at the last minute; or precisely measure the swing of their giant hammer, only to miss the nail and smash their thumb instead. One day sweet, the next day sour.

478px-paul_cezanne_060But there is another kind of clowning: the comic duo. Here, polar opposites are exaggerated and separated, embodied in two different characters who are nevertheless bound together, played against one another to hilarious effect. From the Koshare spring-summer clowns (sprouters of grain) and the Kurena fall-winter clowns (maturers of grain) of the Jemez Indians, to the suave Whiteface and clumsy Augusto of the medieval French pantomimes, such pairs are well-known throughout history. If one is tall and thin, the other will be short and stocky. If one is a wild risk-taker, the other will worry and fret. If one is restrained in word and deed, the other flails about and never shuts up. We see these odd couples everywhere in modern times, too, in comedy pairs like Harpo and Groucho Marx, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Penn and Teller, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Troy and Abed… the list goes on and on.

To these pairs, we might add: Patch Adams and Pennywise — the “caring clown” and the “creepy clown” of modern American culture. Perhaps we need look no further to explain the Creepy Clown phenomenon than our culture’s changing view of the clown, from the ambiguous trickster of sacred ritual to mere kids’ entertainer:

Before the early 20th century, there was little expectation that clowns had to be an entirely unadulterated symbol of fun, frivolity, and happiness; pantomime clowns, for example, were characters who had more adult-oriented story lines. But clowns [are] now almost solely children’s entertainment. Once their made-up persona became more associated with children, and therefore an expectation of innocence, it made whatever the make-up might conceal all the more frightening.

Everywhere we find them, clowns are walking contradictions, polarities set in dialectical motion so that we may (re)discover our own wholeness. “Our whole being is put joltingly together by the simple device of slapping opposites against one another,” writes Hyers. With our recent overemphasis on the innocent fun and “light side” of the Caring Clown, perhaps it was inevitable that the darker Creepy Clown would eventually come calling.

One Clown, Two Clown, Red Clown, Blue Clown

But why now? There is something unique about the Creepy Clown Epidemic this year. Although the cycle of clown sightings has recurred fairly regularly since at least the 1980s, there seems to be a deeper sense of urgency, uncertainty and anxiety that has driven this fall’s hysteria.

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You don’t need to scratch very far below the surface to discover what it is. Almost from the beginning, commentators have noted the strong parallels between the Creepy Clown hype and the American presidential election, in which many aspects of an increasingly polarized and dysfunctional political system are on full display. Art and film often anticipate and illuminate these trends through their social commentary. Take, for instance, the recently-released Rob Zombie horror movie, 31, which one reviewer describes as “perhaps unintentionally relevant” in the current climate:

[T]he free-loving carnies and the carnage-loving clowns all arguably ought to be on the same side, as they’re at the same level of income, and loosely connected to the whole notion of traveling shows. But they’re not, and indeed, it’s partly because some on the clown side are racist, sadistic, abusive, horrible people. Regardless, though, they’re all being played by rich jerks for some minor amusement, and even once they realize this and have a chance to break the cycle, or heaven forbid, fight the actual system, they can’t stop. They just hate each other too much, while the rich go back to their rich lives unburdened.

Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist at Botany College in New Zealand, links the rise in creepy clowns to two rising forces in the US: social media, and a fear of otherness. “Social media plays a pivotal role in spreading these rumor-panics which travel around the globe in the blink of an eye,” he says. “They are part of a greater moral panic about the fear of strangers and terrorists in an increasingly urban, impersonal, and unpredictable world.” Politicians have often played on the fear of otherness to rally their base and “get out the vote” on election day. We might even see in the Republican and Democratic candidates an echo of the tragicomic duo, a pair of opposites vying against each other, each one “playing the mask” of political showmanship while also trying to radiate personable authenticity. All of this might explain why Loren Coleman, who posited the Phantom Clown Theory, notes that creepy clown appearances often coincide with the election cycle.

new-york-daily-news-clown-1Still, this year’s election season has been one of the most vitriolic in recent history, with one candidate in particular invoking (and provoking) xenophobia, racism and misogyny as defining aspects of his campaign. For some, the explanation for this year’s creepy clown craze can be summed up in two words: Donald Trump. Yale School of Drama professor Christopher Bayes describes Trump as “all illness and artifice,” saying, “There’s something poison there. It feels malignant, and it freaks us out.”

With his uncanny appearance — the fake spray-tan, the wild orange hair, the gaudy sense of fashion, the overblown blustering and weird gesticulations on stage — Trump is the quintessential creepy clown. Equally preoccupied with stoking fear of outsiders and resentment towards insiders who’ve supposedly rigged the system against him, he is not easily categorized according to our usual understanding of political and cultural identity. Instead, he hides behind a mask of populist “everyman” rhetoric to conceal crass self-interest and, perhaps, something even more sinister. In light of numerous allegations of sexual assault, including the rape of a 13-year-old girl and his possible connection to drug-fueled sex parties with underage teens, it’s hard not to see Trump as the “killer clown” who leers at children on the playground and tries to lure them into the woods. Even his caught-on-tape boasting about how his celebrity allows him to assault women — “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” — seems like a sickening callback to the serial killer-clown John Wayne Gacy’s confession, “You know… a clown can get away with murder.”

Clown as Savior and Escape Artist

How do we rid ourselves of these creepy clowns, real and imagined?

First, it might help to know that much of the Creepy Clown hysteria is driven by media coverage and, like all such trends, it will eventually die down on its own (especially once Halloween and the election are over). Professor of psychology at Evergreen State College, Bill Indick explains, “That’s why it comes in waves. The media propagates it, creates it, feeds it and at a certain point, gets tired of it. The media then digests it and eliminates it. And just as quickly as it started, it’s over.”

We shouldn’t necessarily see this as a criticism of the media’s short attention span, however. After all, that is the clown’s deeper spiritual and psychological role in society: to help us confront our own contradictions, bring them to consciousness, and integrate them. Hyers writes:

What we are reluctant to acknowledge, but what the clown fixes on, is that we are composed of and dream of contraries. We fantasize about complete freedom and complete security, rugged individualism and social harmony, amorous adventures and marital bliss, higher wages and lower prices, something worth fighting for… and peace and tranquility.

The ever-shifting media narratives — about clowns, and about everything — can guide us through a process of navigating these contradictions, swinging from one perspective to another, discovering the complexity of the stories we tell about our all-too-human lives. Hyers notes that clown performances often end with the clowns being chased off stage, driven out of the shared community space and sent scurrying back into the mists of chaos from which they came. “What has been welcomed so clamorously, must also be put to flight somewhat ingloriously,” he writes. “The clowns who have indulged us vicariously, must also vicariously pay a price for their profanities. The scapegrace becomes the scapegoat.”

clown-session_laura-cuttierBut at the heart of this process is a longing for wholeness and a renewed sense of unity. With his colorful patchwork antics, the clown reconnects “the many fragmented shades of our existence, if only by tossing them laughingly side by side and calling their ephemeral combination a link between the heavens and the earth.” Liminality and impermanence are all part of the play. The clown straddles, skips and stumbles over the lines we draw to separate the mundane and the sacred, “mudhead and godhead,” order and disorder, stability and change, inside and outside, life and death.

In this way, the clown is also a psychopomp, leading us through fragmentation towards resolution and the redemption of a richer life. Says Hyers, “[T]he clown resembles a ghostly apparition from the spirit world, paradoxically seeking with grinning death-mask to renew life and revive our slumping spirits.” Why should we be surprised, then, to find ourselves brought face-to-face with this paradoxical figure during the season of ghouls and goblins, when the veils between the worlds are thin and the dead mingle with the living?

So maybe the solution is actually quite simple: to rid ourselves of the creepy clown, we need only rediscover the deeper complexity and ambiguity of the clown as a sacred trickster and spiritual guide. To live more courageously and playfully in the face of our uncertainty. To remember to hold our desire for categories of right and wrong, good and evil as lightly as we can. For though we might try to follow where the clown leads, we cannot hope to pin him down or hold him still. It is only when we stop insisting that the clown be just one thing that he is free to become the multiplicity of being that he really is.


Photo Credits:
• “Untitled,” by Neys Fadzil (CC) [source]
• Jimmy Stewart, Emmett Kelly, The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952 [source]
• “Shove tuesday (Pierot and Harlequin)” by Paul Cézanne [source]
• “8.11.2010 clown 209/365” by Phil Roeder (CC) [source]
• Frontpage June 17, 2015, New York Daily News [source]
• “Clown Session,” by Laura Cuttier (CC) [source]


Daily Prompt: Eerie

Holy Wild, Science & Civilization

Landscape in Ink, With Horse

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“Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized.”
– Graham Harman

I find the strip of gray newsprint wedged between the stacks of old Trapper Keeper folders and reams of torn-edged notebook pages, all of which had been shoved unceremoniously into several cardboard boxes and hidden away in the closet of my old bedroom when I moved out of my parents’ house after college. Now, as I sort through the abandoned relics of my grade school days, the misplaced bookmark strikes me as strangely familiar. At the top, there is an off-color drawing of a lopsided planet earth. Under it, in thick uneven letters of alternating blue and purple crayon, the short verse:

Laugh and the world laughs with you
Cry and you cry alone
For the sad old earth
Must bury its mirth
And has tears enough of its own

When had I first learned this bit of rhyme? I must have written it from memory — the original poem speaks of borrowing mirth, not burying it — how old was I then? Still young enough to write in crayons. Looking at the wobbly, waxy drawing, I find myself imagining a planet utterly tired of weeping, so exhausted that its woes have become almost laughable. As if Mother Earth has decided she’s had enough of all this sadness and turned her attention instead to some old secret, buried away within her, like a belly laugh that must be kept quiet at a funeral.

Thanks to folks like Armstrong and Aldrin and Sagan, I’ve known since childhood that I live on a planet you can see from the outside. It’s easy to think of the Earth as a precious blue marble suspended alone in empty space. It’s easy to be the awed external observer examining this curious little object, picking it up at arm’s length, turning it this way and that to catch the light.

We struggle to see ourselves as wholly and inextricably immersed in a living and responsive natural world. When we speak of “nature,” it’s almost always as if from the outside. It’s hard to get our heads around the concept of this intermingling unity of being that was once second nature to our ancestors. These days, sometimes the best we can do is a bit of personification: The earth’s rainstorms weep. The afternoon sun breaks into smiles. The wind rolls over in the night and tenderly kisses the still sleeping horizon.

In high school, I decided I would be a hippie.

Maybe not a tree hugger in the literal sense, though there were a few trees I was particularly fond of. An evergreen sprig I’d planted on Earth Day in first grade had grown large and leggy in the years since. Decorative pear trees edged the parking lot of the elementary school down the block, bursting with awful-smelling blossoms in the spring and letting loose a cascade of sunset-colored leaves each autumn that the neighborhood kids collected to trade like valentines. A somewhat droopy dogwood grew next to the corner bus stop near the house of the boy I had a secret crush on. He and I would stand under it on warm afternoons after school, talking about how we wished we were popular — or rather, how he wished he were popular so that girls (other, more popular girls) would like him. I had an amiable relationship with plenty of trees, but it never went as far as hugging.

I decided I wanted to be the weird girl, the counterculture kid with the ironic perspective, the artistic distance. Distance enough that my unrequited crushes wouldn’t sting, at least. I bought a bunch of tie-dye shirts, peasant blouses, a pair of birkenstocks. I wore lots of beads and hemp and a necklace of turquoise that a Native American woman had sold my parents on their honeymoon twenty years earlier. As with any self-conscious transformation, I tried very hard to play the part. I acted the way I thought a hippie would act, trying to be “real” and “natural,” as if what was natural was always strange and mysterious, even to oneself.

My parents bought me an acoustic guitar for my birthday that year. I carried a notebook around with me everywhere, filled with hand-scribbled lyrics and poetry. I wrote about flowers and rivers, though I had only a passing interest in what actual flowers and rivers were like. I sprinkled nature imagery liberally throughout my poems, taking advantage of all the usual metaphors for emotion and desire, the convenient icons of sadness, love, humor, anger. I gazed out the window during geometry class and wrote verses from my favorite rock songs in backwards letters so that you had to read them in a mirror.

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We draw a line around what is sacred, to set it apart as special. We imagine the planet as a precious blue marble floating in space, so small and far away we cannot see the delicate contours of our own faces turned upwards towards the night sky, doing the imagining. We worship the lands that give us life, the earth that sustains us with its salty waters and wild winds, its mud and grit. We encircle the world in the darkness of outer space, and it shimmers all the brighter.

But when we’re not paying attention, the lines we draw around the sacred can cut us right through the middle.

~~~

It was awkward going home that first summer after my freshman year of college. In the daze of late night study sessions and coin-operated washer-dryers, noisy beer-drenched parties down the hall and dormitory showers that always seemed sticky with other people’s sweat — I’d given up the Hippie persona for the more practical comfort of jeans and sweatshirts. The wide-eyed lyrical daydreamer who’d floated easily through high school only half paying attention had been replaced by a young woman who sucked down endless cans of Dr. Pepper to fuel a brain that was finally finding school to be an intellectual challenge. But the hippie poet girl was still what my friends back home expected me to be. And I expected the same, unchanging things of them, too.

One afternoon that first summer, my old high school friend Dana called me up and asked if I wanted to go driving through the countryside. It was only last year I’d known her as the snarky, pampered youngest daughter of her large Catholic family, engaged to marry her long-term high school boyfriend. Now, she was out of the closet as bisexual; she and her girlfriend were radical feminist Pagans who spent their weeks running half a dozen student clubs and spent their weekends drinking. But she was still the same Dana, her various identities sliding around her like landscapes that shifted as she moved from place to place, off to college and back home again.

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Driving through the country was a kind of tradition, an inside joke between the two of us. Living in the suburbs of Lancaster, we could get to “The Countryside” in about five minutes. We used to go driving on the back roads, pretending we were out-of-town tourists gawking at the picturesque covered bridges. We’d roll the windows all the way down and let the rich country air come blustering in to tangle our hair, as we listened to Nine Inch Nails or Ani DiFranco or Eve 6, talking or laughing or singing at the top of our lungs. Just trying to escape the dullness of suburbia — our own private version of On The Road.

After a year at college on the outskirts of Philadelphia, nostalgia for the countryside was starting to overwhelm me. When I tried to imagine what the rolling hills and farmlands really looked like, all I found myself picturing was something like an Andrew Wyeth painting. So Dana and I drove out into the familiar scenery, neither of us quite who we had been the last time we were there, both of us settling back into the uneven gaps between shifting identities where friendship still held us together like crumbling mortar.

The sun was high and interrupted by the casual billows of cotton-white cloud. On either side of the one-lane gravel road, fields stretched away, fenced in haphazardly and dotted with cows and occasional copses of trees. Dana gave up looking for songs on the radio — she’d reprogrammed all the buttons for her local college stations. We drove in silence, the car dipping out from under us as we rounded the crests of each low hill. I watched the trail of dust disappearing behind us in the rearview mirror.

“Ah, Goddess! It’s beautiful out today!” she said. I nodded. The breeze whipping in through the window was warm and smelled like a typical summer afternoon in Lancaster — that is, like manure and sweet corn. I’d started studying Paganism at college, too, and I was playing with seeing the old landscapes of home through the eyes of someone whose idea of the Old Craft was shaped by pastoral scenes of wicker fertility idols and sacred harvests. I’d mentioned this new interest once to Dana, but her cold response had suggested she didn’t think much of people who plagiarized other people’s newly minted self-identities.

“You still write poetry, right?” she asked me.

“Yeah.” I said.

“That’s why I like coming out here with you — it’s like that movie, Contact: ‘They should’ve sent a poet.’ The one about the astronaut, and she gets transported billions of lightyears or something, and she can’t find the words to describe how beautiful it is.” Dana had wanted to be an astronaut when she was little, but she’d grown up too short and her eyes were bad. “Sometimes, everything is just — I don’t know. Too beautiful, too perfect… That’s why I like having you along. To be the poet.” I nodded again. I didn’t say anything.

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Four white birds took sudden flight from among a patch of tall grass. They were not like discarded paper napkins caught up from the sidewalk in the minuette waltz of a city breeze. Rounded valleys of freshly-tilled earth stretched out below us. They were not the body of a sleeping goddess drowsing lazily in the sun. Nor did they have the dark, wet scent of catharsis, of overcoming hardship, of human struggle that gives way to new joy.

Nothing but four white birds gliding off over round valleys. I did not want them to be anything else. When I looked out the car window, I felt the exact opposite of a poet.

I sent up a half-formed prayer to God (or the Goddess, or Whoever Was Listening). More than anything, I wanted words — some phrase or fragment that could capture the afternoon without reducing it to something trite and cliché. Something inspiring and meaningful and true. More than anything, I wanted to be able to write about the countryside on a summer afternoon without having to mediate it through metaphor. For once what I wanted to translate into words was not the exotic or the strange, but the feeling of home that was unrolling all around me. Give me something, anything, I asked, that will break down this aesthetic distance without breaking the whole world.

The car dipped slightly out from under us as we dropped over the top of the next hill. And there by the edge of the road just a few yards away, framed by the cozy hum of the bucolic summer scene — a horse squatted, peeing into the dust.

Dana slammed the brakes, and my head bumped the dash as I bent double with laughter.

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I will never write a poem about a real horse.

Some philosophers say this is because there is an aspect of the horse that withdraws from our knowing it; withdrawn from all things, even its own self, there is a secret essence of the horse that can never be exhausted.

Still other philosophers say that, from this secret place in the heart of all things, objects and beings put themselves forward, constantly pushing their way into our awareness uninvited, unexpected, so that the world is always unfolding around us, thick with wakefulness and surprise.

I sit looking at the strange little planet and its strange little poem smudged in familiar crayon handwriting on the old gray bookmark. The child who made it is not exactly me anymore; even the high school hippie poet girl I can remember being was only just beginning to become the person I think of as myself.

Memory changes things.

I remember the horse squatting next to the road on that summer day. But it has lost the immediacy that propelled me, laughing, into the dashboard as the seat belt cut tight across my belly. When I remember it now, I see the golden stream of urine sparkling in the sunlight, the graceful muscles of the horse’s legs tensed and twitching under its skin, and it all seems like a classical Greek statue that you might put in a plaza somewhere, an equestrian Manneken Pis. Time draws a line around memory, sets it aside as special, and transforms it into art.

And the line cuts through the middle of us, our feet dusty with the dirt of the sacred land. The strange becomes familiar, the familiar suddenly turns over into strangeness again, so that we are always walking through layers of otherness and intimacy. We are a part of nature, and then we are apart from it, gazing at the precious blue marble planet of our mind’s eye.

We know ourselves, and then we do not know.

And then a horse pisses in the dust and a snippet of an old song comes through on the radio static, and we are home again.


This piece originally appeared in SageWoman Magazine, Issue 87. (March 2015)
It was shared in response to the Daily Post’s prompts: Elusive and Shared Journeys


Photo Credits:
• “Globe,” by oh_debby (CC) [source]
• “Globe,” by Teresa Alexander-Arab (CC) [source]
• “The Lost Traveler,” by Martina (CC) [source]
• “Mother & Son,” by b k (CC) [source]
• Horse tattoo, by Denis Ciumbargi (CC) [source]

Holy Wild, Social Justice, Theology

Romancing the Flower Maid: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Anima

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


My husband’s anima has a name like the sun, though these days she only shows herself as a quick-footed, gnome-like creature with black, star-studded owlish eyes. She lingers in the forests of his inner landscape, close to the temple that he has built for her there. During his morning meditations, he visits the temple, sometimes leaving offerings for her: a pearl from his heart, a prayer, a sip of cool water.

My animus has no one name, but goes by many. I call him the angel at the gate.

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When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a scientist. Specifically: a marine biologist. I was mesmerized by everything that lived in those dark, salty waters — from the translucent crystalline forms of microscopic protozoa to the sleek, monstrous bodies of whales. During warm summer afternoons, I would spend hours crouched on the banks of a muddy creek that ran through our neighborhood, practicing my skills as a naturalist. Making observations, taking notes, catching bugs and butterflies to sketch, collecting plant samples to take home with me, pressing them carefully between the pages of our old American Heritage dictionary.

Back then I, too, felt the subtle threat of being flattened out by the weight of definitions and labels. No one ever told me I couldn’t be a scientist because I was a girl. At least, not directly. But in all the subtle ways that society shapes us, opening some doors while discreetly closing others, my love of the natural world was slowly redirected away from the sciences and towards pursuits that were considered more appropriate for my sex. When I asked for a field notebook as a birthday gift, something rugged and sturdy and waterproof, I was given a beautiful diary with a delicately designed cover featuring flowers and kittens, more suited to stanzas of nature poetry than drawings of animal scat. My parents praised me for the creativity of my English homework and art projects, but never seemed to notice the careful, detailed work I put into my diagrams of squids and frogs for science class. My grade school friends could play with Breyer horses for hours, imagining elaborate stories inspired by Black Beauty, but they soon lost interest when I tried to recruit them to join an “endangered species club” and raise money to sponsor a manatee or an ocelot.

Over the years, I gradually lost interest in science as a potential career path. My classes were too easy, and nobody seemed to expect much from me or notice when I did well. In middle school I discovered that bringing my mom’s old college biology textbook to study hall as my “fun reading” quickly earned me a reputation for being a nerd. Factor in my boy’s haircut, thick glasses, clunky braces, and my mom’s unfortunate belief that overalls would make me look adorable… and by the time I got to high school, I had pretty much secured my reputation as an awkward tomboy brainiac.

The mysteries of being feminine presented a far bigger challenge to me than any chemistry set or geometry problem. “Acting like a girl” didn’t come all that naturally, but I earned greater praise when I succeeded, when I was delicate and charming and self-effacing rather than stubborn or out-spoken or willing to get dirt under my fingernails. I was applauded for being a team player, but subtly discouraged from pursuing activities where I would stand out in the spotlight.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that it was my competitiveness and ambition, my desire to prove myself and challenge myself — those very traits that might be considered “masculine” and unbecoming in a woman — that drove me to work so hard to be good at being a girl.

In high school, with the freedom of a new school and a chance to start over, I remade myself into the hippie-artsy-mystic-poet-girl who wore flower-print skirts and dangly earrings. But even as I remade myself, I held onto a certain disdainful defiance, embracing the feminism and social justice of the women’s movement from my mother’s generation. I once prayed to God to give me large breasts and an even larger brain, so that I could be a living challenge to the stereotype of the brainless beauty. I wanted to force the world, once and for all, to take me seriously as a woman.

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These days our society is moving further and further from the simple conception of gender as a binary: male or female, man or woman. We are beginning to recognize that gender is complex. In the natural world, scientists continue to discover undeniable examples of how sexuality is multifaceted and fluid, from the parthenogenesis of blacktip sharks to the three distinct sexes of the midshipman toadfish. Our online lives have also freed us from strict gender norms to a certain extent — we can adopt as many different personas as we like, each with its own Facebook page. Through virtual avatars, we can be male, female, plant, animal, or mineral; we can give ourselves fairy wings or stag antlers, or use our profile pictures to make a political statement with icons and slogans. Offline, through marriage equality and LGBTQ rights initiatives, we’re making important strides towards a more open society where people are supported and honored for who they are regardless of gender identity or sexual preferences.

But we’re not there yet. Binaries have kept us trapped for a long time, defining us by what we are not or what we supposedly cannot do, rather than by who we are and what we’re really capable of. No one person was to blame for the kind of pervasive, subconscious sexism that I and many people like me experienced as kids. As an adult, I can see now how much other people’s expectations of me influenced my own beliefs about who I was and what I could become. I’m not resentful of the encouragement and support I received growing up, but I can see more clearly how that encouragement was often one-sided. Those experiences have left me with a lingering sense that certain aspects of life are off-limits; that there are places I must not go and things I must not do.

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Carl Jung, one of the founders of modern psychology, explored the interplay of gender in a person’s psyche through his concepts of the anima and animus. Like the shadow, the anima/animus is an aspect of ourselves that we tend to externalize as something separate and distinct from our self-identity. According to Jung, every person holds within the subconscious an archetype of the opposite sex, a symbol or image that represents an amalgamation of all the traits and qualities that we associate with the “other.” For a man, this archetype is the anima, the epitome of womanhood; for a woman, it is the animus.

As a psychologist, Jung was fascinated with how archetypes and mental processes could sometimes help us become whole, healthy individuals, and at other times prevent us from reaching that wholeness. The anima and animus are no different. They can serve as inner guides that put us in touch with the fluidity and complexity of gender within ourselves, allowing us to embody both the masculine and feminine in their myriad expressions and permutations.

But when these archetypes are ignored, repressed or denied, they can become tricksters, sabotaging our relationships with others, looming up at us as projections that we attribute to external people and events instead of seeing them as aspects of our own psyches. If we want to grapple with the cultural legacy of binary gender roles that we’ve inherited, one of our first tasks is to make friends with our inner opposites.

Since childhood, my animus has often appeared to me in dreams and meditations as the angel at the gate. The wielder of the fiery sword, barring the way to a paradise where I need not hide my nakedness. My relationship with him has long been one of forbidden love. Sometimes he is beautiful, with wings of flame and shadow that seem to flicker behind him like an after-image burned into the retina. His face is bright, framed by a tangle of hair that writhes like serpents, or climbing ivy, or tongues of fire. At other times, he appears to me as utterly ordinary. But always, he is distant, loving wisely rather than too well, careful to place duty and professionalism above desire or intimacy. His detachment is seductive in its own way, for it echoes aspects of my own lingering discomfort with my gender.

Before I began to work with my animus consciously through meditation and dreamwork, I often found him in the people I dated — men who were rational and dutiful almost to a fault, who valued my intelligence and confidence but often held me at arm’s length, seeing me as too mature for “girly” things like romance or emotional vulnerability. Yet during arguments, my animus would lock horns with the suppressed anima in my partners: when I most wanted to be taken seriously as an intelligent person, defending my position with my animus’ fiery blade of devastating logic, they would see me as their own projected trickster-anima, the dangerous wild-woman, irrational and unpredictable.

As so often happens when we are taught that who we are isn’t quite acceptable, I came to dislike those parts of myself that identified me too strongly as “female” even while I tried to embody a particular ideal of femininity projected onto me by others. For a long time, my own animus — aping the impersonal disdain I found in the culture around me — prevented me from valuing the complexity of the feminine, both in others and in myself. I resented being seen as unpredictable or irrational, and I despised depictions of idealized women in mythology who behaved in ways that portrayed them as weak-willed and vulnerable to passing whims. Although intellectually I valued the diversity and equality represented in polytheism with its many gods and goddesses, personally I found it hard to imagine a female deity worthy of worship.

No goddess provoked my resentment more than Blodeuwedd, the flower-faced maiden in Welsh mythology, who had been crafted out of blossoms by the magician-god Gwydion to be a wife for his nephew, Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Made to suit the desires of men, Blodeuwedd was the ideal woman, perfect in every way and far superior to the flawed human women whom Lleu had been forbidden to marry. She was soft, delicate, beautiful, and completely loyal. That is, until she fell in love with a brawny huntsman who came along during her husband’s absence, and together they plotted to kill Lleu and usurp his place as ruler of the land. I rolled my eyes at how typical this “feminine weakness” seemed to me, how insulting it was that she should be so fickle and easily won over by the first handsome stranger to flex a bit of muscle her way. Far from celebrating her passionate love, or admiring her youth and beauty as a maiden goddess of the spring, I couldn’t help but think of her as “part of the problem.” When Lleu took his revenge for her betrayal, transforming her into an owl and cursing her to haunt the night hated by all other birds, my sympathies were entirely on Lleu’s side. My animus, his sword blazing, stood guard with a watchful eye on the castle turrets, listening to the owl’s eerie cry, satisfied that justice had been done.

I did not come to appreciate Blodeuwedd until I came to see her as an initiator of the Self. According to Jung, when we begin the work of integrating our animus or anima, we will often be confronted by the figure of an old wise one, an elder, whose work it is to initiate us into wholeness. Although I could not connect to the young flower maiden, I found that sometimes I could hear her whispering as the owl-faced old maid of the forest. She moved on silent wings, slipping like a dark knife into the heart of the moonless night.

Young people today are so noisy, she whispered. Young people are cobbled together from bits and pieces of beautiful things. They make themselves a patchwork of expectation and desire.

Listening to this owl-faced goddess, it seemed to me that her transformation had not been a punishment at all, but a triumph.

I came to see the story of Lleu and Blodeuwedd in a new light: as a story of a young woman’s confrontation with her own animus, who was at times a husband of skill and authority, but at other times came to her as a dark and handsome stranger. I came to see how this confrontation transformed Blodeuwedd from a puppet of flower petals into a living, breathing being with a will and a life of her own.

And I saw that this ancient myth was also a story of Lleu’s transformation, with the lovely flower maiden acting, through her betrayal, as an initiator and guide to the depths of wild soul.

bird_woman_ junibears

As we work with our inner archetypes of gender and confront the power of the other as it is expressed in the animus or anima, we often discover that the strict duality of male and female begins to break down.

My husband has been working with his anima for years as a guide to wisdom and wholeness. She shows herself now not as the beautiful young maiden, but as a wizened wild thing familiar with the shadowy ways of the subconscious.

I, on the other hand, still have work to do. My animus still appears sometimes as the handsome man of unrequited longing. But I have also had dreams in which I am the one who bears the flaming sword, and I raise it above my head not as a weapon against my enemies or a defense against the unknown, but as a torch that casts its steady light to dispel the darkness. On the hilt, I can see sometimes the entwining vines of plants and androgynous figures, neither male nor female, whose nakedness speaks of the strength and courage to be found in complexity.


This piece originally appeared in SageWoman Magazine, Issue 84. (August 2013)


Photo Credits:
• Tree sketch in Moleskein, by Steve Loya (CC) [source]
• “The Bird Woman,” by June Yarham (CC) [source]
• “point of no return,” by jinterwas (CC) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Contemplation & Meditation, Holy Wild, Mythology & History

Romancing the Flower Maid: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Anima

My husband’s anima has a name like the sun, though these days she only shows herself as a quick-footed, gnome-like creature with black, star-studded owlish eyes. She lingers in the forests of his inner landscape, close to the temple that he has built for her there. During his morning meditations, he visits the temple, sometimes leaving offerings for her: a pearl from his heart, a prayer, a sip of cool water.

My animus has no one name, but goes by many. I call him the angel at the gate.

female-drawing-journal-outdoors

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a scientist. Specifically: a marine biologist. I was mesmerized by everything that lived in those dark, salty waters — from the translucent crystalline forms of microscopic protozoa to the sleek, monstrous bodies of whales. During warm summer afternoons, I would spend hours crouched on the banks of a muddy creek that ran through our neighborhood, practicing my skills as a naturalist. Making observations, taking notes, catching bugs and butterflies to sketch, collecting plant samples to take home with me, pressing them carefully between the pages of our old American Heritage dictionary.

Back then I, too, felt the subtle threat of being flattened out by the weight of definitions and labels. No one ever told me I couldn’t be a scientist because I was a girl. At least, not directly. But in all the subtle ways that society shapes us, opening some doors while discreetly closing others, my love of the natural world was slowly redirected away from the sciences and towards pursuits that were considered more appropriate for my sex. When I asked for a field notebook as a birthday gift, something rugged and sturdy and waterproof, I was given a beautiful diary with a delicately designed cover featuring flowers and kittens, more suited to stanzas of nature poetry than drawings of animal scat. My parents praised me for the creativity of my English homework and art projects, but never seemed to notice the careful, detailed work I put into my diagrams of squids and frogs for science class. My grade school friends could play with Breyer horses for hours, imagining elaborate stories inspired by Black Beauty, but they soon lost interest when I tried to recruit them to join an “endangered species club” and raise money to sponsor a manatee or an ocelot.

Over the years, I gradually lost interest in science as a potential career path. My classes were too easy, and nobody seemed to expect much from me or notice when I did well. In middle school I discovered that bringing my mom’s old college biology textbook to study hall as my “fun reading” quickly earned me a reputation for being a nerd. Factor in my boy’s haircut, thick glasses, clunky braces, and my mom’s unfortunate belief that overalls would make me look adorable… and by the time I got to high school, I had pretty much secured my reputation as an awkward tomboy brainiac.

The mysteries of being feminine presented a far bigger challenge to me than any chemistry set or geometry problem. “Acting like a girl” didn’t come all that naturally, but I earned greater praise when I succeeded, when I was delicate and charming and self-effacing rather than stubborn or out-spoken or willing to get dirt under my fingernails. I was applauded for being a team player, but subtly discouraged from pursuing activities where I would stand out in the spotlight.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that it was my competitiveness and ambition, my desire to prove myself and challenge myself — those very traits that might be considered “masculine” and unbecoming in a woman — that drove me to work so hard to be good at being a girl.

In high school, with the freedom of a new school and a chance to start over, I remade myself into the hippie-artsy-mystic-poet-girl who wore flower-print skirts and dangly earrings. But even as I remade myself, I held onto a certain disdainful defiance, embracing the feminism and social justice of the women’s movement from my mother’s generation. I once prayed to God to give me large breasts and an even larger brain, so that I could be a living challenge to the stereotype of the brainless beauty. I wanted to force the world, once and for all, to take me seriously as a woman.

tree-sketch_Steve-Loya_sm

These days our society is moving further and further from the simple conception of gender as a binary: male or female, man or woman. We are beginning to recognize that gender is complex. In the natural world, scientists continue to discover undeniable examples of how sexuality is multifaceted and fluid, from the parthenogenesis of blacktip sharks to the three distinct sexes of the midshipman toadfish. Our online lives have also freed us from strict gender norms to a certain extent — we can adopt as many different personas as we like, each with its own Facebook page. Through virtual avatars, we can be male, female, plant, animal, or mineral; we can give ourselves fairy wings or stag antlers, or use our profile pictures to make a political statement with icons and slogans. Offline, through marriage equality and LGBTQ rights initiatives, we’re making important strides towards a more open society where people are supported and honored for who they are regardless of gender identity or sexual preferences.

But we’re not there yet. Binaries have kept us trapped for a long time, defining us by what we are not or what we supposedly cannot do, rather than by who we are and what we’re really capable of. No one person was to blame for the kind of pervasive, subconscious sexism that I and many people like me experienced as kids. As an adult, I can see now how much other people’s expectations of me influenced my own beliefs about who I was and what I could become. I’m not resentful of the encouragement and support I received growing up, but I can see more clearly how that encouragement was often one-sided. Those experiences have left me with a lingering sense that certain aspects of life are off-limits; that there are places I must not go and things I must not do.

pointofnoreturn_jinterwas

Carl Jung, one of the founders of modern psychology, explored the interplay of gender in a person’s psyche through his concepts of the anima and animus. Like the shadow, the anima/animus is an aspect of ourselves that we tend to externalize as something separate and distinct from our self-identity. According to Jung, every person holds within the subconscious an archetype of the opposite sex, a symbol or image that represents an amalgamation of all the traits and qualities that we associate with the “other.” For a man, this archetype is the anima, the epitome of womanhood; for a woman, it is the animus.

As a psychologist, Jung was fascinated with how archetypes and mental processes could sometimes help us become whole, healthy individuals, and at other times prevent us from reaching that wholeness. The anima and animus are no different. They can serve as inner guides that put us in touch with the fluidity and complexity of gender within ourselves, allowing us to embody both the masculine and feminine in their myriad expressions and permutations.

But when these archetypes are ignored, repressed or denied, they can become tricksters, sabotaging our relationships with others, looming up at us as projections that we attribute to external people and events instead of seeing them as aspects of our own psyches. If we want to grapple with the cultural legacy of binary gender roles that we’ve inherited, one of our first tasks is to make friends with our inner opposites.

Since childhood, my animus has often appeared to me in dreams and meditations as the angel at the gate. The wielder of the fiery sword, barring the way to a paradise where I need not hide my nakedness. My relationship with him has long been one of forbidden love. Sometimes he is beautiful, with wings of flame and shadow that seem to flicker behind him like an after-image burned into the retina. His face is bright, framed by a tangle of hair that writhes like serpents, or climbing ivy, or tongues of fire. At other times, he appears to me as utterly ordinary. But always, he is distant, loving wisely rather than too well, careful to place duty and professionalism above desire or intimacy. His detachment is seductive in its own way, for it echoes aspects of my own lingering discomfort with my gender.

Before I began to work with my animus consciously through meditation and dreamwork, I often found him in the people I dated — men who were rational and dutiful almost to a fault, who valued my intelligence and confidence but often held me at arm’s length, seeing me as too mature for “girly” things like romance or emotional vulnerability. Yet during arguments, my animus would lock horns with the suppressed anima in my partners: when I most wanted to be taken seriously as an intelligent person, defending my position with my animus’ fiery blade of devastating logic, they would see me as their own projected trickster-anima, the dangerous wild-woman, irrational and unpredictable.

As so often happens when we are taught that who we are isn’t quite acceptable, I came to dislike those parts of myself that identified me too strongly as “female” even while I tried to embody a particular ideal of femininity projected onto me by others. For a long time, my own animus — aping the impersonal disdain I found in the culture around me — prevented me from valuing the complexity of the feminine, both in others and in myself. I resented being seen as unpredictable or irrational, and I despised depictions of idealized women in mythology who behaved in ways that portrayed them as weak-willed and vulnerable to passing whims. Although intellectually I valued the diversity and equality represented in polytheism with its many gods and goddesses, personally I found it hard to imagine a female deity worthy of worship.

No goddess provoked my resentment more than Blodeuwedd, the flower-faced maiden in Welsh mythology, who had been crafted out of blossoms by the magician-god Gwydion to be a wife for his nephew, Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Made to suit the desires of men, Blodeuwedd was the ideal woman, perfect in every way and far superior to the flawed human women whom Lleu had been forbidden to marry. She was soft, delicate, beautiful, and completely loyal. That is, until she fell in love with a brawny huntsman who came along during her husband’s absence, and together they plotted to kill Lleu and usurp his place as ruler of the land. I rolled my eyes at how typical this “feminine weakness” seemed to me, how insulting it was that she should be so fickle and easily won over by the first handsome stranger to flex a bit of muscle her way. Far from celebrating her passionate love, or admiring her youth and beauty as a maiden goddess of the spring, I couldn’t help but think of her as “part of the problem.” When Lleu took his revenge for her betrayal, transforming her into an owl and cursing her to haunt the night hated by all other birds, my sympathies were entirely on Lleu’s side. My animus, his sword blazing, stood guard with a watchful eye on the castle turrets, listening to the owl’s eerie cry, satisfied that justice had been done.

I did not come to appreciate Blodeuwedd until I came to see her as an initiator of the Self. According to Jung, when we begin the work of integrating our animus or anima, we will often be confronted by the figure of an old wise one, an elder, whose work it is to initiate us into wholeness. Although I could not connect to the young flower maiden, I found that sometimes I could hear her whispering as the owl-faced old maid of the forest. She moved on silent wings, slipping like a dark knife into the heart of the moonless night.

Young people today are so noisy, she whispered. Young people are cobbled together from bits and pieces of beautiful things. They make themselves a patchwork of expectation and desire.

Listening to this owl-faced goddess, it seemed to me that her transformation had not been a punishment at all, but a triumph.

I came to see the story of Lleu and Blodeuwedd in a new light: as a story of a young woman’s confrontation with her own animus, who was at times a husband of skill and authority, but at other times came to her as a dark and handsome stranger. I came to see how this confrontation transformed Blodeuwedd from a puppet of flower petals into a living, breathing being with a will and a life of her own.

And I saw that this ancient myth was also a story of Lleu’s transformation, with the lovely flower maiden acting, through her betrayal, as an initiator and guide to the depths of wild soul.

bird_woman_ junibears

As we work with our inner archetypes of gender and confront the power of the other as it is expressed in the animus or anima, we often discover that the strict duality of male and female begins to break down.

My husband has been working with his anima for years as a guide to wisdom and wholeness. She shows herself now not as the beautiful young maiden, but as a wizened wild thing familiar with the shadowy ways of the subconscious.

I, on the other hand, still have work to do. My animus still appears sometimes as the handsome man of unrequited longing. But I have also had dreams in which I am the one who bears the flaming sword, and I raise it above my head not as a weapon against my enemies or a defense against the unknown, but as a torch that casts its steady light to dispel the darkness. On the hilt, I can see sometimes the entwining vines of plants and androgynous figures, neither male nor female, whose nakedness speaks of the strength and courage to be found in complexity.


This piece originally appeared in SageWoman Magazine, Issue 84. (August 2013)


Photo Credits:
• Tree sketch in Moleskein, by Steve Loya (CC) [source]
• “The Bird Woman,” by June Yarham (CC) [source]
• “point of no return,” by jinterwas (CC) [source]

Contemplation & Meditation, Holy Wild, Theology

Relishing Choice: How Not To Be An Ass

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


It was her sixth birthday, and my youngest stepdaughter was standing in the middle of the toy store looking like she was attending her own funeral.

“What’s wrong?” I asked her. All I got back was grumpy silence.

donkeybaby_jillbluemoonbeamstudio1This was a special trip for us — to one of those quirky, locally-owned toy stores that is proudly eco-friendly, aggressively gender-neutral and unabashedly educational — and I’d told her she could pick out anything she wanted as a birthday present. At first I’d worried that she wouldn’t be able to find anything she liked, that maybe her tastes as a six-year-old had already been firmly corralled by American consumer culture into the pink-Barbie-fashion-princess phase that every little girl apparently has to live through, if only to get it out of her system. But we’d been there for twenty minutes and she’d already considered half a dozen choices with enthusiasm, taking each one carefully off the shelf and turning it over in her hands, imagining out loud how much fun she’d have with this doll or that board game or one of these books…. Now she just stood there looking somewhat morose, and I as the still-very-new-to-stepmothering stepmom was starting to feel antsy.

I tried encouragement. “I think that doll looks awesome. He’d make a great friend for your teddy bear… Is that what you want to get?”

“I don’t know,” she groaned. “I can’t decide….”

“Did you like the Make You Own Silly Slime kit better? Maybe you want that instead?” I saw the look of tortured indecision cross her face again as she glanced towards the Science Is Fun aisle.

“This isn’t fair,” she accused me. “Every time I think about picking one, it feels like I’m missing out on all the other ones I want. It’s like you’re taking them away from me.”

Her older sister, who’d tagged along for something to do and was also starting to get antsy by this point, chimed in with annoyance: “That’s stupid! If you take much longer, Ali’s going to change her mind and then you won’t get anything — so just pick something already!”

From the mouths of babes.

icanhastreats_jennifer

There is a famous philosophical paradox known as Buridan’s Ass, in which a hungry donkey finds himself exactly halfway between two identical stacks of hay and, being unable to choose between them, stands there until he starves to death.

The ridiculousness of this scenario is adorably poignant when played out by a sweet little six-year-old on her birthday. Of course, she did eventually choose just one toy (though I’ll be damned if I can remember which one it was, and I’d bet that she doesn’t either, which only goes to show).

Some philosophers have pointed out that no real-live, non-allegorical donkey has ever died of such indecision — eventually, the very palpable hunger pangs compel even the dumbest donkey to act. I try to imagine conducting this experiment with my parents’ dog to see which bowl of food she would choose, but I have a feeling the results would be an inconclusive hurricane of slobber and tail-wagging, with both bowls empty before they ever touched the ground. Which only goes to show.

donkeyonfarm

We humans like to think we are so much smarter than donkeys. Still there have been plenty of times in my life when I’ve faced just such a situation and almost made the same mistake as Buridan’s Ass. This philosophical paradox is meant to illustrate the nature of free will: when placed between two options that are perfectly equal in every way, it is our freedom, our very ability to choose one or the other, which breaks the tie. But if we know that two choices are equal and it doesn’t matter which one we pick so long as we make a choice, why do we ever get stuck in this stalemate in the first place?

Intelligence can only take you so far when you’re bogged down by fear — fear of loss, fear of making the wrong decision, fear of the consequences of claiming your own power to act in the world and owning up to all of the wild possibilities that spiral out from that act. We are perhaps a bit too intelligent for our own good: able to imagine all the futures in potentia that await us, we conjure up whole alternate timelines with every roll of the die. We recognize at an instinctive level that no two choices are ever truly equivalent; if they were, there would be no choice. We know that each path will lead us on a unique journey with twists and turns that we can only guess. We know, deep in our squishy guts, just how little we actually know. And so we wait… hoping that some new information will come to light, that one path will call to us as the clear and obvious right answer. We wait for the universe to step in and take away the need to decide. And if it refuses? We might find ourselves waiting forever.

It’s tempting to lecture like a big sister and say: Snap out of it! Make a decision already, before you lose everything! We could go on pretending that life is a rom-com chick flick about a guy who’s afraid of commitment, caught between the enticing stranger and the girl next door, and by the end credits we’ll all have learned a valuable lesson about friendship.

But that’s not where I’m going with this. What I want to do is shift the conversation. I think our real problem is not that we are more or less scared of commitment, or that commitment is more or less difficult for some folks than others. I think what we struggle with at the deepest level is our fear of all that we have to lose.

This fear is built right into the word: decide, from the Latin meaning literally “to cut off” (de- “off” + caedere “to cut”). Every decision, it seems, severs us from the infinity of the possible and forces us onto a narrower path where our options will be more limited and our actions restrained. In trying to make a wise decision, we might distance ourselves emotionally or intellectually in hopes of avoiding bias — bias, from Old French meaning “slant, slope, sideways,” possibly related to the Proto-Indo-European *krs-yo-, from the root *(s)ker- meaning “to cut.” We might try to determine which decision is best through careful analysis — analysis, from the Greek meaning “a breaking up, a loosening, releasing,” tracing back to the PIE root *leu- “to loosen, divide, cut apart, untie, separate”; and determine, from Latin de- “off” + terminare “to mark the end or boundary,” from terminus “end, limit.” The evolution of our language doesn’t pull any punches: when faced with a decision, we are practically obsessed with separation and loss.

With such an obsession, by focusing on the necessity of commitment — lest we lose everything and/or die alone — we only exacerbate our fears. No wonder every rom-com ends with a marriage as surely as life ends with a funeral.

But if the lesson of Buridan’s Ass is to remind us of our freedom, what I propose is a radical reversal of this perspective: to give up this notion of decision-making in favor of the more liberating and empowering concept of choice. Choice, from the Old French choisir meaning “to recognize, perceive, see,” related to the Old English ceosan “to seek out, select; to test, taste, try; to accept, approve.” From the PIE root *geus- “to taste, to relish.”

keepthatsmile_leabesson

Words have power. What a world of difference a single word makes! To take the step from decision to choice is to shift our focus from loss to enjoyment, from separation to engagement. To choose is to express not only our freedom, but also our joyful and sensual embodiment in the world: we see and taste and touch, we recognize and reconnect, and we relish that connection. Choice engages our sense of curiosity and experimentation: we test and try, and try again. Every choice is a new opportunity to learn and explore, opening up unexpected possibilities, rather than a decision that cuts us off from all but one option. Choice cultivates gratitude, shifting our attention from what we fear to lose to what we value and appreciate, what we long for, what we seek out because it calls to us. Choice is creative and generative, even as it encourages acceptance and affirmation of the world as it is.

This is the magical power of choice. For we can exercise it even in situations where we feel we have no control over our external circumstances. To make a choice is to perceive a connection, to affirm a relationship — whether it’s with a teddy bear, a slime mold or a spouse, a career or a casserole. At the heart of our freedom to choose is our recognition of the myriad unique relationships that draw us together and weave us into the world. Even when it seems like we have no alternatives and our path is set in stone, we can choose how to walk that path in relationship with others — to walk with curiosity, mindfulness, and passionate engagement. We can say yes to the world as it is with as much authenticity as we can muster. We can say yes to whatever twists or turns we encounter, eager to discover what’s to come rather than haunted by an unchangeable past.

donkeysinlove_klearchoskapoutsis

We can even say yes to our own indecision. We can see our stillness as a choice to be present, to be patient. We can accept our own insecurity or uncertainty or ignorance, to hold ourselves open to whatever possibilities may arise when we least expect them. Maybe the last fear we have to overcome is that our own indecision is an unforgivable loss, a missed opportunity. But we cannot unweave ourselves from the world of relationships. No choice is ever final, because these relationships are always changing in response to the shifting circumstances of our daily lives, both those beyond our control and those of our own making. Every moment is a new chance to choose again, to shift our focus, to see and accept and relish the place that we find ourselves in. So don’t worry — even in this topsy-turvy world, the guy can still choose the girl next door, we can all learn a valuable lesson about friendship, and even the dumbest donkey doesn’t die.


Photo Credit:
• “Donkey Baby,” by Jill/Blue Moonbeam Studio (cc) [source]
• “I can has treats?” by Jennifer (cc) [source]
• “Donkey on a Farm,” public domain [source]
• “Eating Process,” by Irene Mei (cc) [source]
• “Keep the smile,” by Lea Besson (cc) [source]
• “Donkeys in love,” by Klearchos Kapoutsis (cc) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com