There are some blogs that I read but never comment on, as for one reason or another the author’s tone or choice of subjects leave me feeling contentious, and I don’t really want to get into comment-wars with anyone (or be moderated out of existence, which is more likely). I keep reading them because they occasionally come through with something interesting or thought-provoking, and sometimes I learn as much or more from my own hostile reaction as I do from the content. Brendan Myers’ is one such blog. I think part of my issue with his writing is in part related to tone rather than content – for instance, in his latest post, the one that inspired me to write this, he talks about the issue of homelessness in America and asks what the “Pagan response” to this should be. As though none of those homeless are themselves Pagan, as though none of us are involved in social justice work, as though there is some monolithic “Pagan response” that is even possible, as though homelessness was some new and shocking thing that had just come to his attention – with the sort of carelessly privileged “oh my, poor people exist whatever shall we do!” tone that is guaranteed to make me go all argumentative. And thus I don’t comment there, because the issue of charity in a Pagan context is an interesting one worthy of discussion that doesn’t need to be derailed by my grouchy irritation. All this is to explain why I’m responding to something on someone else’s blog without actually responding there, because there is one bit that struck me as an explorable point:

“We talk a good talk about how important it is to be practical. But the emphasis on the practical rings hollow to me, when that practicality is directed only on one’s own “personal development”: aligning one’s chakras, or finding one’s spirit guide, or meditating with crystals, “working with the gods” or “being open to the change”.”

Ignore for now the use of scare quotes or the deliberately sarcastic tone taken in regard to other people’s spiritual practices (I’m sure trying to do that) – there’s a point there. I think the point is that if our practice is oriented only to the self and never turned outward, it is hollow. In the context of the entire post, he seems to be saying that a practice that is wholly self-centered is selfish and is of no benefit to anyone, as even the practitioner will fail to benefit from a practice that does not include charity. Charity to those other people, those people over there, those people who are not us. If only “we” could look up from our crystals long enough to hand “them” a blanket and a bowl of soup, then our spiritual practices suddenly would take on new meaning! Homeless people – more useful than crystals!

Oops, I’m getting sarcastic – I wasn’t going to do that. You can see why I don’t comment directly. Let me try again. I meditate, I mess around with crystals and spirit guides and chakras, I “work with” the gods (when I’m feeling fancy I call it theurgy, but whatever). I’ve also spent a not insignificant part of my life as a homeless person. It was a long time ago and I hope is something that I will never return to, but you know what? I did the same sorts of things then (though my crystals were not so nice) and if it ever happens again I will keep doing those things. I do them because they are part of who I am and how I live in the world. When times get difficult they are the things that sustain me. There are times when I have resources to share – when that happens, I share as best I can. There are times when I don’t. This isn’t directly related to how much time I spend meditating, but to how my own luck and life are doing. The more I am dedicated to my spiritual life, the more I am inclined towards a consistent attitude of compassion and nonjudgmental curiosity (obviously I am not there yet, but you know, there’s always room for improvement.) The more consistent I am about daily meditation, the better I am at handling my personal affairs and the more I have left over for others.

I started out in life with a whole lot of strikes against me. I have managed to beat unpleasant odds, and I’m proud of that. I attribute a great deal of that to what I have learned from the Gods and the guides and the faeries and the Universe and everything, and I couldn’t have learned any of that without the “self-development” techniques that Myers so snidely dismisses.  Giving a blanket to someone who is cold because the sight of a suffering fellow human is unbearable is compassion; giving the blanket to the cold person because it will somehow enhance your spiritual practice or will allow you to look good to your fellow rich people is just more hollow vanity. I remember being a poor kid and seeing clearly the difference between those who wanted to help out of compassion (very, very rare but much treasured in memory) and those who wanted brownie points with God or the other church ladies. I got a reputation for being “difficult” early on because I would rather have starved than have been someone’s charity project and was not afraid to say so.  It’s why I still think of charity as a dirty word – using other people’s suffering to enhance your own self-image is ugly, and the person you are helping can see that ugliness.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t help people who need help, but I believe that as long as the help does not come from a place of true spiritual compassion, it will ring hollow to both the giver and receiver. If you’re hungry enough, of course, it doesn’t matter who is handing you the soup, but it certainly affects how both people feel about the relationship, and how we exist in relationship to one another is the entire point of existence. The idea that there is a mass of faceless poor over there somewhere in need of soup is, I believe, a destructive one. There are no “tent cities” – there are neighbors of yours that live in tents. The smelly homeless guy under the bridge is as fully human as you are. I don’t know of any way to come to this understanding without spiritual practice, whatever the flavor.

That is what the “pagan response” should be, if such a thing is possible – recognition that we are all human beings living in relationship with each other, and that we all do the best we can under the circumstances, and that our lives are defined by our relationships with our fellow beings.