F is for Facts

Welcome to this week’s Pagan Blog Project post.

First, a quick practical note: I’m at Paganicon this weekend. If you’re reading, and I don’t already know you’ll be there, I’d love to say hi! You can find me running madly around being useful in various ways (despite living in Maine these days, I’m still the hotel chair for the convention), but you can also find me presenting at 1pm on Saturday on “Seeking Knowledge, Finding Wisdom” – specifically about how to use a variety of research tools for Pagan goals. There’s lots of other awesome stuff on the schedule, too.

This week, inspired by a question online about how to evaluate things, I want to talk about facts. This started with a question on an online forum, from someone who was curious about learning more about the equinoxes, and then about how they might be celebrated. And it makes such a great example for talking about fact versus interpretation that I asked if I could use it as my example this week.

So, let’s look at this question. There’s some fact questions in here (“What’s an equinox?” “How do we know when they are?”) and then there’s some interpretation questions (“How does that fit into religious paths? What do people do about celebrating it?”) and then some experiential questions (“What does all that mean for me?”)

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E is for Education

[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]

I’ve been thinking this week – well, I do many weeks – about education. And what it means. Now, don’t get me wrong: I am fond of formal education.

(With the exception of the year I was not working, every year of my life has been lived by the academic calendar: I was the child of a professor, worked for my college after graduation, started grad school while working for a year in corporate America, and then worked for a school, and now for a college. I work year-round now, but there’s still the ebb and flow of the school year that  changes what I do at work on a regular basis.)

Anyway. I think there’s a lot of value in formal education, when it’s done right. I think that for a lot of reasons. I think that there are a lot of subjects that are huge and massive and complicated, and that working with someone who knows a lot more about them can help us get started with them in ways that make more sense to us. I think that people who have spent substantial portions of their lives with a subject see things about it that someone who is just starting won’t even know to look for or pay attention to. I think that the feedback a skilled teacher can give us is often priceless.

(As I have been known to say, “I prefer to learn from other people’s mistakes.” Which is to say, if people are going to make mistakes – and people do – I’d rather not repeat the same ones more often than I actually have to.)

But I also think – and see above, about ‘librarian working in an academic library, who thinks there’s a lot of good in formal education’ – think that often we can fetishise the process. There is no denying that going to school, and getting a Bachelor’s Degree or a Master’s Degree or a Doctorate is a wonderful thing. (Especially the last one: they take a tremendous amount of work.)

We should not confuse the map for the territory. There are many people out there doing excellent work in fields where academic credentials are not the relevant tool for evaluation. (Any of the creative arts, for example: degrees may be of interest to some people, but you do not magically become a better musician or a better artist or a better dancer or a better theatre director because of your degree: you become so because of work that may or may not be related to anything involving grades or the evaluation of anything other than “Did this speak to your audience?”)

And a lot of the Pagan world falls in here too. There are certainly people with excellent academic degrees doing excellent related work – for which, yay. That’s good for the world. But there are also people doing excellent work, with scholarly rigour, who don’t have a formal degree in the subject (or whose formal degree is in some other topic.)

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E is for Evaluation

[part of the Pagan Blog Project]

Evaluation is one of those words that seems to scare people. Which, all right: people don’t like feeling like they’re being judged. And for a lot of people it’s a word that has a great deal of formality and weight behind it – job evaluations, school evaluations. Senses of being weighed and found wanting.

But at the same time, evaluation is something we do every day.

Do you want to see this movie this weekend? That takes evaluation. Do I want to talk to a friend about going to a concert in a sort of nearby town? What should I eat for lunch? Should I spend twenty minutes working on this project or reading this thing or petting the cat? (The last, says my cat. Always.)

Evaluation, in short, is about making choices. Which we talked about last week. More specifically, it’s about making choices in context.

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D is for Decision

[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]

I was going to go somewhere else with this, and then was talking elsewhere online yesterday about making decisions and choices – that our religious identity isn’t, shouldn’t be a “Well, I feel like I’m X”, but rather a “I choose to be X, I am making a deliberate decision to be X.”

And that reminded me of a conversation in college, when I was very actively Catholic. I went to a women’s college, one of the Seven Sisters, and we had both a priest (male, as per Catholic requirement) who was part-time, and a full-time female chaplain, who could and did everything other than directly consecrate communion. She was awesome. And from time to time, she’d say things that really stuck with me.

In this particular one, she was talking about being at a friend’s wedding (which I think she’d officiated at, but if not, she was actively one of the people making the thing happen) and she talked about the most important advice she’d ever heard or given at a wedding – she’d heard it from someone else, and she passed it on.

Each and every day, you should turn to your spouse, and say “I choose you.” Not “I love you.” Or “I want you.” Or even “I appreciate you.” (though those are also good things to say.)

But instead, something that reminds you that you make a choice to be together, to be part of each other’s lives, and that that is an ongoing thing, an active thing, a thing you choose not just on your wedding day, not just when you get engaged, not just when you decide you’ve got a romantic thing or a family thing, beyond friendship. But that you make a deliberate choice to be in each other’s lives, and you renew that choice all the time.

Clearly, this has broader applicability to life.

I think that religion is like that: that we need to make an active choice, on a regular basis about what we’re doing with that. It doesn’t need to be a big thing, or a formal thing (any more than that “I choose you.” is the same thing as a wedding.) But … we need to decide that we’re choosing to be a certain way when we act in the world, and we need to check in on how that’s affecting us, and we need to at least consider adjustments based on what we’re looking at.

The ways this is like research are fairly obvious to me.

We do not just learn stuff by sticking books under our pillows, and hoping that the information seeps into our brains by osmosis. Instead, we need to make some choices – some active, some more passive or at least habitual – that help us learn stuff. New stuff.

We can choose to listen to the news, or load a news website that gives us multiple perspectives. We can choose to read widely, about things we don’t know, as well as things we do. (I find reading Longform to be great for nudging me to read subjects I didn’t know about, and Ask Metafilter for getting me thinking about other ways people interact with the world.) We can choose to make time in our lives to read on a specific topic (or listen to a podcast about it from an informed source, or to go to a class on something, or many other options).

Or we can choose to use that time in ways that shut down our options, that dull the keeness of our minds, that make us less than we could be. There’s nothing wrong with a little escapism now and then – but there’s escapism that makes us more whole, and there’s escapism that weakens us, and learning to tell one from the other is a very useful skill. Likewise, learning to tell what’s manipulating us from what’s engaging us, what’s encouraging us from what’s depressing us, and what’s helping us learn from what’s shutting doors.

We can decide that even in our pleasure watching, our pleasure reading, our pleasure listening, that we’re going to pick things that encourage our curiousity, encourage our engagement, encourage our attention. (I’m currently watching The West Wing while I knit, and let me tell you, it has ethics and how-to-be-competent and how-to-be-a-good-friend and all sorts of stuff in it, in ways that inform my religious life and my professional life, both.)

It’s not that we need to learn all the time – not formally. Just like we don’t need to be doing formal religious ritual all the time. But the more that we choose a mindset of learning, the more that we choose a mindset that opens to the numinous and the liminal, the more that we let the light in – the more that’ll happen for us. And these are all things where practice, where regular attention, make them easier.

Let me leave you with a bit of the quote from the comments I made that got me started thinking about this: These things are complicated: none of us sees every star in the sky at every moment, nor even every planet. But we have to make a choice to look up in the night in the first place. And until you do that – well, you’re not looking at the sky, and saying you have been is going to confuse people who ask you about the constellations. And the planets. And the unexpected meteors.

What do you choose, today?

D is for Detail

[part of the Pagan Blog Project]

One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is details. How many are useful. How many are too many right now. Which ones matter.

And I’ve been thinking about which of those details we notice, which ones we pay attention to (but aren’t fully aware of) and which ones just pass us by.

Here’s my theory: we, as humans, build up a vast library of stuff we pattern match against. Some of it most humans get sooner rather than later (this thing will burn you, that thing hurts when dropped on your toe, this furry purring cat thing is pretty awesome unless you’re allergic.) But a lot of them are very individual – we are going to be much much better at dealing with patterns we’ve spent more time around than ones we haven’t. And knowing that, and paying attention to what it means, can make our lives much easier.

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