A is for Answers

[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]

The world has relatively few absolute answers. Oh, yes, there are some things we’re pretty sure about. But compared to the things we don’t actually know for sure? They’re actually pretty tiny.

That’s why biology and chemistry and physics and astronomy are vibrant fields. That’s why we have history and sociology and anthropology and archaeology. That’s why we’re looking in the deepest oceans, and the furthest biomes, and the farthest reaches of the universe. And that’s why we have people who piece together the details of tiny beads, bits of pottery, and much more, to guess at all the things we don’t have writing about, and people who look at all the writing we have, and try to piece that together.

(And there are vast parts of the world we don’t have writing about. Even the places that wrote things down left out a lot – often they’re great at some parts and bad at others. We might have excruciating detail of household accounts, and no idea about their religious rites. Or we might have elaborate temple ceremonies, and no real idea how day to day religious practice or even ordinary family life worked. Or we know the religious parts, but what mattered in how you raised your kids or cooked your meals, not so much.)

And then there’s all the nuances. I learned Ancient Greek in high school and college, for a variety of reasons. And yet, much of what we have in Classical Greek is a tiny limited fragment of what there used to be. And what we have is mostly from a very small number of communities, authors, and perspectives. We see, in those bits, hints of other dialects and stories that were well known that we only see hinted at. But we really have no idea what we’re missing.

We know a lot of things varied by polis. But we don’t know which things, or how they varied, often. We don’t know what that meant for many religious festivals, or about representation of the Gods. Or how that changed over time. We have hints and glimpses and moments, but we don’t have certainties for vast swaths.

Imagine looking at your computer or ereader screen – the one you’re looking at right now. Now, imagine that maybe one or two pixels, one or two points of light on that screen, were lit. Could you tell whether the picture was Atlantis at the depths of the ocean, or Avalon, or Charon’s boat? Maybe you’re lucky, and the thing you’re looking at right now gives you more hints – the curve of a boat here, the reach of a tower beneath the waves there, a shadow of a well there.

There’s one other thing we don’t have, and it’s best summed up for me by a quote from Peter S. Beagle’s Folk of the Air:

“Because that world’s gone. The world where people walked around whistling that music. All the madrigal singers in the world can’t make that other one real again. It’s like dinosaurs. We can put them back together perfectly, bone for bone, but we don’t know what they smelled like, what kind of sounds they made, or how big they really looked standing in the grass under all those fossil fern trees. Even the sunlight must have been different, and the wind. What can bones tell you about a kind of wind that doesn’t blow anymore?”

The speaker then goes on to talk about how even in the times we have history for, we don’t really know what the street sounds were like, what the smells did to what we paid attention to, what the light and the street beneath our street felt like. We can guess, and guess better, the closer we are to the world we live in now. But there’s so much missing.

We don’t have many answers.

And yet, people like answers. They want answers, desperately and painfully. Because certainty is comforting, even if it’s a depressing certainty. (There’s a recent This American Life show called “Heretics” that takes that one on.)

And yet, most Pagan religions don’t have them on offer. Not about the ‘what happens after we die’ part, but often not about lots of other things. Why this works. Why that doesn’t. Why that does, but it’s a bad idea. (Well, we’ve got some answers for that, but they’re anecdotal, rather by definition.) All the laid out beauty of a composed and structured plan.

No, what we’ve got are whisps and bits and fragments of song and memories of dance and chants by candlelight and firelight and moments in time. It’s up to us to hold space for them, but to hold space for our present, too, and to find our answers – our own personal answers – going forward.

So what do we do? Hold space for what we know, and hold a gentle space for the things we guess at. The things that fill in the lines between the sparks of light we have. And in that space, we make things real for ourselves.

When we do it honestly, with integrity, we’re clear (with ourselves, and with everyone else) about which is which. What is fact anyone else can find, and what is the stuff we figured out to make it hold together. And we keep our eyes and ears and minds open to new information, even if it contradicts what we thought might be an answer (last week, last month, last year, last century.)

Because there’s new information all the time. And in the spaces in between – well, we have learn to be better at living in uncertainty.

(Like it or not, we’re going to have to do it, so we might as well get better at it.)

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  • Odeliaivy

    This is flat out beautiful. 

    • Thank you! It came out that way, though really I can go on about stars and oceans for a very long time as a general rule :) 

  • Well said.  I’m reminded of something I read once, about how what we really need to know are not the answers, but the questions.  We need to know the things we know, and then recognize the areas where we lack knowledge.  Don’t try to create answers where there aren’t any, but just learn to be comfortable with uncertainty.  Personally, I love knowing that there are some answers we will never have.  It reminds me that we will never know everything, and that there will always be new things to discover.