Friday, January 11, 2013

The Pitfalls of On-Line Heathenry

On-line Heathenry is how many Heathens find and share information, promote and educate people about their events and efforts, and it is a great way to stay in touch with other Heathens and Kindreds not in your immediate area.  On-line Heathenry is where most new Heathens first encounter other Heathens.  But, on-line Heathenry is a flawed and dysfunctional place much of the time.  If you skim the surface and essentially just lurk about, it can be somewhat entertaining to watch the train-wreck that is on-line Heathenry.  But, if you delve in, share opinions and information, and engage in on-line discussions, the negatives to on-line Heathenry that make it almost not worth it to engage at all.

Honestly, most of the things I'm going to write about in this post don't occur very much in face-to-face Heathenry.  Probably because when you are face-to-face with another person you recognize them as another human being.  You recognize that the other person can react to what you say in an immediate and equal way.  And finally, most of the things described in this post are done by people who aren't really involved in face-to-face Heathenry.  These are things mostly done by people who see themselves as brave mighty Heathens, though most of their Heathenry takes place behind a keyboard and screen.

(Note:  I chose some cheerful photos from face-to-face Heathenry to accompany this essay, just to lighten the mood a little.  LOL.)

DENOMINATIONAL THINKING - The beliefs and practices of our Ancestors varied greatly, depending on time-period, geographical location, socio-economic status, and other factors.  Our Ancestors lived in an oral-storytelling culture, with no writing, no holy books, no centralized religious authority (at least to the degree we see today in Christianity), and there was a great diversity in what they believed and how they honored our Gods, Ancestors, and the Wights.  As with other oral-storytelling traditions, it is likely that even two families living on farms five miles from each other would have had at least some degree of differing traditions and beliefs.  But, there are those modern Heathens that seem to believe they know the "one true way" to Honor our Gods.  They may not admit to this openly, or even outright deny it, but their words and actions clearly suggest that they feel that their way is the only correct way.  They believe that what they believe and what they practice is right, and everyone else is wrong.  As such, some of these "fundamentalist" Heathens work very hard against anyone that does things or sees things differently than they do.  They denigrate and mock those Heathens that believe differently than they do.  They put forward the idea that modern Heathenry is about rediscovering what our ancestors believed, without ever truly acknowledging that our ancestors beliefs varied greatly and represent a diverse tapestry, not a singular monolithic belief structure.

This denominational thinking leads to unnatural divisions within modern Heathenry.  "I can't go to that gathering, because the people hosting it don't believe exactly as I do."  "I don't like that kindred four states away from ours because I've heard they do things differently than we do."  "I can't hang out with those folks," they are in a different National Org than I am, and must do things completely differently than I do."

Let's be clear.  Most Heathens have more in common than the petty differences that tend to get constantly highlighted on-line.  And modern Heathenry is too small and too new to weaken itself with exhausting and pointless wedges driven through segments of our Folk.  Wedges that are often driven into place by people with no real interest in advancing Heathenry forward as a whole.

THOSE THAT CONDEMN - There are on-line Heathens out there that jump at the chance to condemn and badmouth others.  Often these condemnations are over matters of belief.  They regularly accuse people of being Racists or Race-Traitors, Fluffy Bunnies, Wack-Jobs, and accuse people of having "Christian Baggage."  They almost always do this with very little actual knowledge of the person they are condemning and name-calling.  You may think you are engaging in conversation with them, or building mutual understandings, but their intentions are not to have an honest discussion with you.  They much prefer to nit-pick your words, remove them from context, argue meaningless semantics, and declare some sort of intellectual victory which they have not actually won.  I can't really say specifically why they do this, but I've come to believe they do it to feel better about themselves.  They suffer from that weak tendency of feeling bigger and better when they are tearing other people down.  From the outside looking in, it appears to be a "look at me!" showboating meant to make them feel intelligent and important.  It mostly leaves everyone else wondering why we bother getting on-line.

NAY-SAYERS - Another group of on-line Heathens spend their time tearing down anyone that is actually doing anything real in the world.  You host a gathering, and they spend their time spreading negative misinformation about your gathering.  You start a kindred, and they spend their time trash-talking your efforts.  You work on any sort of forward-looking Heathen effort, and they spend their time mocking your efforts.  Nevermind that they have never attended your gathering, have never met your kindred, and know nothing about your efforts.  And nevermind that they aren't really doing anything themselves except posting on-line, and mostly posting attacks and negativity.  Again, I can't say for sure why they do this.  But, it seems to me that if they can tear down everyone else's efforts, it makes it alright in their mind that they aren't really making any positive efforts of their own.  If no one else succeeds, or they find a way to mock anyone else's successes, it makes their own lack of action or successes somehow more personally acceptable.
LEADER-KILLERS - There are on-line Heathens that spend a fair amount of time tearing down anyone that gains any sort of renown.  Anyone that expresses any sort of opinion or shares anything publicly about their beliefs or practices is mocked as wanting to be the Asa-Pope.  It is almost a reflex reaction anymore.  Anyone that leads a kindred or local group is declared a Cult-Leader, a Know it All, or accused of benefiting from a Cult of Personality.  If they can't find anything real to destroy the leaders with, they make up lies.  Nevermind they've never met the people they are tearing down. To some degree, I understand the mistrust of anyone who represents any sort of leadership.  I think a distrust of leaders is sort of built into our American culture, and perhaps this is amplified within the Heathen subculture because we are an alternative to the status quo.  But, the people I'm talking about literally attack anyone who is working hard within Heathenry.

PERSONAL POLITICS - Heathenry represents an enormously small percentage of the population, making Heathenry a "small world."  There are Heathens that quickly develop personality-conflicts and personal dislike for other Heathens, and focus in almost obsessively to the task of destroying those they don't like...and anyone that associates with those they don't like.  Any effort by anyone they don't like, is mercilessly and endlessly attacked.  Any opinion stated by anyone they don't like is twisted and taken out of context so that it can be gutted and made to seem not only unreasonable, but outright foolish or stupid.  Often this sort of personal attack is done in the shadows.  The people that do this sort of thing feel completely comfortable attacking their target's family, using photos of their target's friends and family, and suggesting the worst possible things about a person in places and in ways that prevents the target from defending himself or herself.  It is clear to most of us how dishonorable this behavior is, but that argument is lost on those that engage in this behavior.

THE FANTASY IDENTITY - I understand when a person wants to maintain their privacy and not share too much about their family or personal life.  But, there is a specific kind of person involved in on-line Heathenry that speaks about life, Heathenry, values, and other matters...but we don't know a single real thing about the person.  They exist as just so many pixels on the screen, without any information or context available for the opinions they are sharing or the ideas they are spreading.  These fantasy identities usually have an assumed name or a "Heathen name."  There are few if any photos of the person.  No real information about their life, their successes, their failures, etc.  Nothing.  So, they are able to portray themselves any way they wish, and many people will just accept this because we all know "if it is on the internet it must be true."  LOL.  I have managed to track down information on a few of the fantasy identities that irritated me the most, just out of personal curiousity.  And I assure you that if people knew more about who they really are and what they really do in life, their online fantasy identities would lose most if not all of their credibility.  Your best bet when encountering an advice or information from someone who is basically a blank slate, is to consider that advice or information as extremely suspect until proven otherwise.

I mean, do you want to take advice about Heathen marriage from someone who has been divorced three times?  Do you want to take family advice from someone who has never really had a good family experience and doesn't really know how to interact within a family?  Do you want to take job advice from someone who has never had a career of any sort, and who has gone from job to job to job every few months?  And if you don't know anything real about the person giving you advice, you don't really know if they have any knowledge or Luck worth sharing.

CRAZY PEOPLE - We all understand that there are mentally ill people and people with personality disorders in every religion and every walk of life. But Heathenry, perhaps because it is an alternative religion and not part of the mainstream, seems to have at least its share of crazy people.  There are Heathens on-line that are delusional, unreasonable, and without any boundaries what-so-ever.  They develop hatreds for others on-line over the smallest things.  They are obsessive and, once they are on the attack, they never stop.

WHAT CAN YOU DO? - Honestly, the most you can really do about these behaviors is not engage in them yourself, call people out when you see them engage in these behaviors, and don't associate with those people who insist on acting in these ways.  Ignoring these people as sort of the broken bottom-feeders they tend to be is probably the best way to deal with them.

I wrote this essay, because people will often ask me why I am such a strong proponent of face-to-face Heathenry, grass-roots growth, and Heathen gatherings.  Sometimes people take exception when I say something negative about on-line Heathenry.  So, I thought perhaps I would illustrate some of the things I've experienced to better explain why I fear the negative affect on-line Heathenry has on all our efforts.  Granted, there are many positive features of on-line Heathenry, which is why I am still involved on-line.  But, it is my worry that Heathenry will be stuck in a prolonged infancy as long as we tolerate these destructive behaviors.

Mark Ludwig Stinson
Jotun's Bane Kindred
Temple of Our Heathen Gods

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Change is Certain - Accept it - Plan For It

The one constant in life is change. The earliest recorded expression of this idea is by Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher who wrote a book around 500 B.C.E. Heraclitus expressed the idea that even when the stand in the exact same place in a river, the waters flowing around you are different waters, flowing from different places in each moment. When modern Heathens discuss Wyrd and Orlog, they sometimes use the symbolism of a tapestry. There may be familiar patterns or repeating themes in your life, but you are always at a different point on the a different point in your story. For this reason, your knowledge, difficulties, support mechanisms, and opportunities are all different, even if the situation seems similar.
You will often hear people say, "I don't like change." Or perhaps they'll say, "I fear change." Essentially, this is like saying, "I fear life," because our lives are in a constant state of change. And while you don't have to like or enjoy all the changes, it is healthy to acknowledge and accept that change is a certainty. You body matures, ages, and changes unceasingly over time. Your mind-set, understandings, and emotional maturity move, shift, evolved, and can even devolve over time. Everyone your know and interact with is changing, shifting, and "standing in different waters" from moment to moment. We watch our parents grow older, weaker, and eventually die. We watch our children learn to walk, talk, and grow from nearly helpless little babies to full-grown adults with minds and lives of their own.

It would be unwise to ignore the ways our lives shift and change. It would be outright foolish to hope for long-term stasis or "sameness" in a world as complex and fast-moving as our own. But, there are ways we can build relatively stable lives upon the shifting sands. Stable rich lives full of people we love and stand with against all hardships. But, like many things worth doing, it goes better if you put some thought into it and approach the puzzle with forethought and purpose.

Currently you do not have the same friends, nor do you have the same relationship with each of those friends, that you had five years ago. And five years from now you will not have exactly the same friends that you have now, and your relationships with each of the friends that remain will be different. As human beings our needs, interests, tolerances, and life-situation change over time. Some friendships end with a loud and rowdy fight or disagreement over an action taken by one of the friends, a difference in values that can't be resolved, betrayal, disgust, or clashing interests. Some friendships simply fade away quietly due to changing interests, new people in each friend's life, or a changed life-situation that just doesn't really support the continuance of the friendship anymore. People who once liked each other can learn do dislike each other over time. People get jobs far away and need to move. People get married, find new interest, new friends, change religion, or move in a direction in life that you may not want to follow.

This is not to say that some friendships can't last your whole life. And I certainly don't mean to say that friendships should be given up on easily. But, it is clear to me that you cannot predict which friendships will last your whole life. You can't predict these things with any certainty at all. The friend you thought would never ever let you down...may surprise you by completely walking away just when you need his friendship the most. The friend who swears life-long friendship to you in the strongest terms, may forget the commitment in those words just a few months later while playing with whatever "new shiny thing" they've come across lately.

Knowing and understanding this, we can act wisely toward our friends. We must treat our friends well. Visit them often. Be generous with our gifts, our advice, our support, and our time. We must share our thoughts with them, and listen to their goals, experiences, and thoughts when they share them. If we find ourselves with a new interest, a new friend, or a new direction in life -- sharing these new things with our friends allows them to adapt to the changes in us. We should in turn encourage our friends to share those new things in their lives with us. If a friend really digs a new band or their start a band, listen to the music. If a friend starts going to a sports event all the time, ask to go with them sometime and find out what they love about the sport. If a friend gets involved in a new club, a new activity, a new interest, at least get to know what they are up to and why they love this new thing. Staying involved and interested in a friend's life and allowing them to be involved and interested in your life goes a long way toward letting you change and grow at a nice even pace -- rather than growing apart.

But, the point of this essay hinges on the fact you can do everything right, and still a friend may go away. You can attempt to follow the flow of change, manipulate it, and make it work for you. But, in the end you can't stop change and you can't predict where it will go or how it will affect your life and friendships. So, a skill in life that must be learned is how to let go of friends. Sometimes friends begin exhibiting behaviors that make it clear something is wrong. Perhaps they are taking actions that are very selfish, or possibly even hurtful to you or mutual friends. Perhaps they are expressing dissatisfaction with who you are, but the things they are asking you to change or alter are not things you want to change or alter about yourself. Perhaps they make it a habit to let you down and not follow through with plans you've made. Perhaps they are befriending or offering "comfort and aid" to your enemies. Perhaps they simply disappear from your visits, no calls, no interest in remaining in touch.

You can address these behaviors with your friend in an open and honest way in the hopes that these matters are misunderstandings and can be resolved or worked through. During this process of working through problems, pay much more attention to the actions and deeds of your friend, and not so much attention to their words. There is a type of person out there that likes to say all the right things to keep you on the hook, without really being willing to do the right things or take the right actions. In the end...if you find these matters cannot be resolved or worked through, it is time to let go. It is sad and disappointing to let a friend go. Some are more sad and disappointing than others of course. But, life is too short and our decisions about who we associate with too important to drag out a bad relationship that has no real hope of becoming good again. Let go with as little drama as possible. Let go with as much honesty and clarity as possible. Let go in a way that does not do any more harm to either of your interests. But, let go.

Hanging onto to failed friendships wastes your time, your energy, and your emotions on someone who has usually shown by their actions that they aren't really interested in being a loyal friend to you any longer. There are plenty of good and loyal people in the world that you can spend your time, energy, and emotions your mutual benefit.  Toward this end, it is good to be open to new friendships.  Especially when you encounter someone who has the values, interests, and qualities that you know would make for a good and loyal friend.

Much of the advice in the Friendship portion of this essay goes for marriages as well, with one major difference. A marriage is an oath between two people, usually made with a high degree of permenance in mind. An oath made before their family, their friends, and their Gods. This oath becomes even more important once the married couple take on the responsibility of raising children in a healthy and stable environment. So, even more so than with friendships, both spouses need to work very closely together to ensure they are growing and changing together in complimentary ways, and not growing apart. New friends, interests, and directions in life should be shared between the married couple, at least enough so that these new factors do not create wedges in the marriage.

Any long and successful marriage can almost be mapped in phases. The marriage relationship changes of it own accord. There is the time when you are first married and honey-mooning. This can be a time of great joy and plenty of little fights as the two of you figure out how to live together in one house, sharing one life together. Then the children come, and things shift into new parent mode. Eventually the children are old enough to not need constant attention and the marriage moves into another phase where the married couple has a little more time together, for each other. And so on. Every marriage is different, but they all experience a shifting focus and evolution of purpose over time. If the married couple is determined and intentional in working on their marriage and keeping is healthy and positive, then they will work through all the changes together as a team, communicating and making adjustments as they go.

As I've stated in other essays, while maintaining the marriage oath is enormouly important to the married couple, their children, their extended families, their kindreds, and their friends -- there are circumstances where a marriage is better off being disolved and the oath released. In general, spousal abuse, chronic alcohol and drug abuse, gambling addiction, and infidelity are obviously some areas of failure where it might be better for all involved if the marriage is ended. But, it should never be done so lightly and without a full understanding of the consequences it will have on everyone connected to the failure.

Finding other Asatruars or Heathens can be difficult, and building a lasting kindred can be even more difficult.  Friendships and trust must be built.  Understandings and boundaries established.  Structure, decision-making, and methods need to be discussed and agreed upon.  So, once you have a kindred that is operational and moving forward, the last thing you want to see is change.  You don't want to see anyone leave, and when people do leave it feels like a failure in some way...or a disruption.  It is completely natural to feel this way, if not a little unrealistic.  Change is going to happen no matter how much you attempt to prevent it.  It doesn't matter how air-tight your kindred oath is and it doesn't matter how serious you believe every oath-taker is when they make that oath.  Some will burn out.  Some will move away.  Some will lose interest.  Some will self-destruct.  Some have never had a family, and don't have a clue how to be a part of something like a family.  Some unintentionally seek drama in their lives, and your kindred will be no exception.  We could go on and on here, and I'm sure many readers would find examples from their own lives to contribute.
But here is the bottom-line.  If your kindred is five-years old, then it is enormously likely it does not have the exact same members it did when it started.  And look around your kindred right now.  The people you see around is enormously likely they won't still be there five years from now.  Sure, some members will be in a kindred for its entire existance.  But, just as with friendships, it is impossible to predict who will stay and who will go.  That's just how life works.  You'd like to believe that you know who is going to stick with your kindred effort for the long haul, but it is hubris to believe you can predict that.  The guy or gal you have 100% faith in could be gone in six months.  And the guy or gal you aren't completely sure about, might be there for the next 30 years.
So, how do you build a stable kindred on such shifting sands?  You have to be smart about it.  Choose your kindred members wisely.  Choosing wisely will at least limit or reduce the turn-over in membership over time.  Carefully structure and plan your kindred, its traditions, its decision-making, and its processes to maintain stability even as kindred membership evolves slowing over time.  Protect your kindred from all threats to its existance and stability, from both within and without.  Have a process and method for dealing with those members that may flake-out on you over time.  Address problems within your kindred openly and honestly -- and be direct about it.  As with all human interaction, generous communication and seeking of understanding and common ground can avoid a lot of problems...and solve many of the problems you can't avoid.  Especially within a social group that has been established on the basis of trust and Frith.
What do you do when kindred members fail or when problems develop.  Just like with friendships, you tackle any problems that come up in a forward and direct way, in hopes of resolving or fixing the problem.  But, there are times when the actions of a kindred member repeatedly show that it is time for them to go.  Much like with friendship, there is a time when hanging onto a failed kindred member wastes your time, your energy, and your emotions over someone who is showing by their ongoing actions that they don't want to be a loyal and frithful kindred member any longer.  Letting go of a kindred member should never be done lightly, as a kindred oath and your relationships within the kindred were established to be stable, strong, and lasting.  But, there are people out there that will take advantage of your loyalty, when they have no intention of truly being reciprocal in the oath they hold with you.  Some of these people don't even know they are doing it...but their actions and the consequences of their on-going actions tell the tale very clearly.
When you find yourself in this situation, let go with as little drama as possible. Let go with as much honesty and clarity as possible. Let go in a way that does not do any more harm to either of your interests. But, let go.
Acknowledging that there will be at least some turn-over in kindred membership over time, necessitates making efforts to meet and add new members to your kindred over time.  Sometimes existing members will resist the addition of new members, arguing that they "just want things to stay the same."  The problem with listening to this advice, is the person who is arguing against adding any new membrers over time may not be there in a year or two.  The kindred, its health, its survival, and its goals are more important than any one person within the kindred.  The kindred is paramount because if the kindred has been built and maintained correctly, the kindred itself may very well outlast every current member's involvement or time on this earth.  So, directly argue against selfish and short-sighted advice of kindred members who just want everything "to stay the same."  Nothing stays the same.
There are also incredible benefits to the kindred in addiing new quality members over time.  New members are much  more than just an extra set of hands to do the work.  New members tend to be fired up about the kindred and heathenry, and this energy and excitement can be contagious for more tenured members.  New members naturally bring new skills, new knowledge, and new opportunities to the table for the kindred.  They also bring a fresh eye and fresh approachs to challenges or problems that have affected the kindred over time.  It is important that you choose your new members carefully and do the work necessary to properly bring them into the Thew and traditions of your kindred.  But, if you have chosen well, new members can be a spark for positive change within a kindred and a sign of the kindred's potential longevity.
You may not like change.  You may fear change.  But, change doesn't really care.  Its going to happen anyway.  So, accept it.  Acknowledge it.  Plan for it.  If you really think it through and learn from your experiences, you can build a stable life, with a stable marriage, stable friendships, and a stable kindred on top of the shifting sands of change.  And these powerful and meaningful successes in your life prepare you and shelter you from everything and anything that might come your way.

Mark Ludwig Stinson
Jotun's Bane Kindred
Temple of Our Heathen Gods