When I questioned the place of compassion in Pagan and Polytheist philosophy a couple of weeks back, I got an interesting response from one of my readers, “LaurelhurstLiberal”. She wrote,
“Now, about compassion: as a Heathen Reconstructionist, this is one of the big questions I’m still trying to puzzle out. Right now, it seems to me that a Heathen should be a good neighbor and a good citizen, but isn’t necessarily supposed to have capital-C Compassion for everybody in the world. There are people inside the gates that you particularly need to take care of, and those outside the gates should be helped, or at least not harmed, but not at the cost of those inside the gates. I think that’s difficult enough without trying for a saintly level of universal compassion.”
Steven T. Abell, storyteller and Patheos columnist, followed up on this idea in his post, Compassion in Cold Climates, by explaining in detail the ideas of Inangard and Utgard, or “Inside and Outside”, “Us and Them”.
I appreciate both L.L and Steven’s attempt at unpacking these ideas, but I have to come clean here and admit that I’m having a very difficult time with this way of thinking.
I have been “outside of the gates” on many occasions, and perhaps this is a part of why I have reservations about religious or cultural systems which place a value on reinforcing the boundaries of the group. Build a wall, and there will always be someone on the other side of the wall, be it women, gays, trans-folk among the gays, or Pagans. The list of those being othered is long, and it includes many of us. This list is added to every time a new “Us and Them” philosophy is created; or, for that matter, an old “Us and Them” is re-constructed. So, for me, the question is less about how to treat those on the outside of the wall, and more a question of whether the wall is even appropriate anymore.
I appreciate that inspiration comes to many Reconstructionists from exploring ancient cultural practices. I used to think Reconstructionism was very rigid, but author and Celtic Reconstructionist, Erynn Laurie, changed my mind during the 2012 Pantheacon Conference. Now I understand that searching for information about the ancients is a source of great inspiration for many of us. It can be the launching point for our spiritual practice, and I respect that. Truth be told, I look to the past for meaning as well.
But there’s still something about the reclaiming of an ancient “Us and Them” philosophy that rubs me the wrong way.
I wonder if strengthening our sense of separateness requires us to ignore other ways in which we are connected. If there was ever a case to be made for questioning models of thinking that reinforce our culturally constructed boundaries, it is the current ecological crisis. The air we breath, the water that falls from the sky — these things care nothing about our walls. They do not acknowledge our rationale for keeping some people in, and leaving others out. The Earth does not discriminate based on how we’ve chosen to group ourselves. We share our resources, we share this planet, and we share — contrary to what some politicians would say — the responsibility of her upkeep.
There is a connection between the personal and the global that doesn’t seem to be acknowledged within a binary, “Us and Them” worldview. There are never only two of us; there is always at least a third. We have evidence that our individual actions have far-reaching effects (see the Great Pacific Garbage Patch), and we have tools — namely, the internet — which provide evidence of a diverse, culturally eclectic and totally interdependent world outside of the cultural boundaries we create. We are undeniably interconnected.
Steven writes in his column,
“You can try to solve the world’s problems. You will fail. Or you can try to solve your own problems. You might succeed. You can work at various scales, but focus on things close at hand. The world will be better for it, as will your place in it.”
I like where he ends, and I wonder if it is more accurate to say that our personal problems are the world’s problems, and likewise the problems of the world belong to each of us. Working from this, can we ask whether or not our personal systems, religious or secular, are supporting an awareness of our interconnectedness, or are they reinforcing a philosophy of division?