In I Believe that Polytheism Is Important Right Now, Julian offers a big-picture philosophical answer to this question: why does polytheism matter, in the grand scheme of things? It may not appear to be an important question, particularly if you don’t identify as a polytheist. It may seem backwards, or like you’re splitting hairs, to insist that polytheism has a role to play on the global stage of ideas, right alongside it’s little siblings of monotheism and atheism. Julian certainly speaks for me on this topic, and I think he does a good job of first explaining to you why this question matters (and it matters more than a little). It would be a waste of time to try to add more examples to an already-comprehensive piece.
So instead I’m going to try to answer a slightly different question in the same vein: why does polytheism matter, in the scheme of everyday things? Why does polytheism matter in my life, or in yours?
The world reveals itself to us to be a stranger and more complicated thing than we could have imagined. The binary choice offered by traditional monotheistic worldviews simply is not elastic enough to cope with the changes we face.
I have spent the last year and half in the trenches of an exercise in rewiring my brain. Our brains are plastic, endlessly adaptable, capable of changing neural pathways in response to our environment. My brain is really good at worrying, at feeling anxious, and at holding on to repetitious thoughts of “you’re not good enough” or “you’re a failure.” My brain is so good at recognizing patterns that I find myself acting out an old pattern before I’ve consciously realized it was this pattern I was trying to avoid, like falling into a pit trap at twilight. To break the cycle of these negative patterns, you have to make choices–and you have to make those choices over and over again. In every relevant moment, you have to notice what is happening in your mind, and exercise your force of will to swim against the current of your neural pathways, until your brain catches on and starts forming the pathways you are attempting to cultivate.
I suggest you attempt this exercise in metacognition whenever you watch the news, or read a newspaper, or surf Facebook’s trending topics. How much effort do you really put into discerning truth, reason, and fairness? How much effort do you put into discerning your own thoughts and feelings on a given topic, divorced from what you are watching and reading? I’m willing to bet that for a lot of you, the answer is surprising. This part of rewiring your brain, learning to question your perceptions and to evaluate your sources of information, leads to thoughtful engagement with text (of any type, be it video or hyper) and allows for recursive analysis of your own thoughts and feelings–basically, it helps you to make choices while you weigh all sides of an issue, measure all possible paths against one another so that you are able to choose optimally and in line with your goals.
This rewiring also lets you break free of the binary. It lets you see the third path, the outside choice; it eliminates the illusion that the whole world is built of dichotomies, of either/or pairs, of this v. that. When you have gotten to this point in your quest to break through harmful patterns and harness your own brain’s plasticity to let you see the world in a new way, you have (perhaps unwittingly) stumbled upon a polytheistic worldview.
Shedding Old Skin
I don’t know which rock you call home, but even from under the rock where I live I have noticed that “self-help” is all the rage. “Self-help” tends to be a bit of a derogatory word in the polytheist and pagan communities, because it implies that a text or resource isn’t really meant to help one connect to divinity, but to help them “navel-gaze,” to help them turn inward and focus on themselves. I hear lots of people who think that this effort, this time spent navel-gazing, is selfish and indicative of egomania.
I think the most loving choice is to do the work. It takes courage to face your demons, and it takes great integrity and bravery to take responsibility for them. The work of “self-help,” as derided as it may be, is the work of constantly iterating on your own identity, and on the meaning that you assign to that identity. When we take the time to improve ourselves, we create space within us for more work, for more love, and for a deeper connection with the divine.
When you take the time to do the work of cultivating a polytheistic worldview, you are engaging in some radical self-help. You are cracking your perception of the world wide open and beginning to see that the narratives of the monotheistic overculture (think “American Dream”) are myopic, limiting, and discriminatory. You are confronting the idea that you have failed before you’ve even begun, and you are discarding it like the trash that it is.
Reorienting your world around the idea that you have a plurality of choices, rather than a duality, is freeing. I won’t try to mislead you–I backslide. Sometimes, and most especially when I’m anxious or panicked, I forget about that third choice. I fall backwards into the thinking I was raised with: I have two choices, and I must choose.
I am not an island. I am not either/or. I contain multitudes, and so do you, and so do us all. Whatever it is that I am doing, I can’t and I won’t do it alone. The world is shifting, and we are living through an apocalypse. When we lift our heads once the dust has settled, I have no idea what the world will look like, or what we will have to do to survive in a new place. I can see this happening already, as people my age and my younger sister’s age are struggling to find their place in a society that has forgotten or discarded them.
We must be willing to engage meaningfully in dialogue with the myriad and distinct beings that we encounter. We must allow these dialogues to be transformative. We must allow ourselves to be changed by the viewpoints of others. We must be willing to work together to move forward, rather than rigidly and repetitively cleaving to our own preconceptions. An honest engaging with other truth claims requires the acceptance that our own understanding of truth is flawed or incomplete. To open ourselves to the other requires us to accept that we ourselves are only units contained within a larger system, not ourselves arbiters of that system. We live in a world amongst others of increasing difference. We deny the difference that we face at our own peril.
Community is a vital part of a polytheistic worldview because that community offers you not only love and support, but a check and a balance against self-limitation and backsliding. When this happens, I rely on my community. I take this anxiety and this panic and I turn to the people whom I trust, the people who are doing this work on themselves and in the world, and I ask them to love me and to square me away.
My community is not exclusively made up of self-identifying polytheist radicals–it includes atheists and Christians, it includes servicemembers and civilians, it includes those much younger than me and much older. My community includes some coworkers, some friends, some family, and everyone at Project Asterism. My community lifts me up, and we rise together.