Wednesday 18 February 2009

Limits to Care

I had the un-nerving experience the other day of meeting with someone who caught my attention more than usual. As you know I have a principal of not wanting to know what patients have done or have had done to them and this particular meeting demonstrated how useful that can be. We were able to meet, person to person, without too much of my anxiety getting in the way.

But the meeting has stayed with me. Where do my responsibilities to the patient begin and end as a Pagan chaplain, and why?

Christian chaplaincy offers a good starting point; they have experience that we don’t. Their theology suggests that they have a duty to visit everyone, perceiving Christ in every individual. Sacrifice is important in Christianity in a way that it isn’t in Paganism which will have an impact on the way in which Christian chaplains are with people who have lived in ways that will be difficult to come to terms with. They have a duty to serve rapists and torturers. I’m not sure that Pagans do.

If we have a concept of the Sacred Feminine beyond something other than a symbol then we have to think about what happens when that sacred feminine is purposefully defiled. If we have a thealogically-based understanding that the abuse of power is wrong then how do we respond when we meet someone who has grotesquely and perhaps over a long period of time abused their power? Do we, like the Christians, hate the sin but love the sinner? Since we don’t have a concept of heaven or hell, of salvation or damnation, but tend towards ideas of the progress of the soul, do we have a duty to ‘save’ anyone, indeed, can anyone be saved? And is there some kind of unspoken trade-off in that dynamic where the more we sacrifice ourselves to save others the more saved we ourselves become?

Paganism doesn’t have a thealogy of forgiveness. Popular writing on the subject encourages us to forgive for our own wellbeing, so that we can feel better, let go move on: forgiveness as self-healing rather than a courageous act to make the whole world a better place. The Shadows of New Age understandings of forgiveness aren’t explored. Forgiveness can certainly be used as a punishment, it raises the forgiver above the person being forgiven, a necessary and useful first movement all round, but a rather manipulative and shady way of doing things if that’s where it ends. Do we ultimately want to meet each other as equals or always remain in top- and underdog positions? Punishment has its place, atonement can be healing and if we deny people the opportunity to atone we can do as much damage as if we were to punish them inappropriately.

Paganism isn’t yet a religion that many of us are born into, it’s a positive personal choice. Whether that choice is made as a rebellion against Christianity (which is no real reason to enter into Paganism, but one that many people take) or whether it genuinely feels like a homecoming it’s not something that you casually decide to do. We research it, even if that means reading just one terrible book and almost all of those books, no matter how dreadful, will discuss personal responsibility. So Pagans know that we can’t go all post-modern about life, that although there may be good reasons for people to behave poorly the buck needs to stop somewhere.

Patients can learn from other people on the wards and the nature of institutions is that power is at the forefront of everyones behaviour. Paganism can be seen as the obvious way to get what you want which makes it an apparently simple choice for people who like to get what they want.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some people discover they’re Pagan soon after going to prison. The need to be seen as an individual; the need to be seen at all; the need to be different; the need to exert their difference may all feed this epiphany. My own experience suggests that being seen to be Pagan can be a way of demanding special treatment. In every case I’d say that every person should be given special treatment, it’s what our institutions tell us they’ll deliver, personalised care tailored for the individual. In almost every case, the Pagan patients I’ve met know very well that this is a load of nonsense; they’re very clear-sighted about abuses of power and rebel against cant.

In the lemniscate of complexity in people’s circumstances and motivations, and in our own, where do we find guidelines for ourselves around who we will and won’t deal with, safety considerations aside?

Personally, I don’t want anything to do with child or elder abusers or rapists. We all do things in moments of madness but rape and torture doesn’t come into that category. In the unlikely event of a Pagan vivisectionist ever finding themselves in hospital I wouldn’t want anything to do with them either. Child and elder abusers, rapists and vivisectionists have purposefully and for personal gain turned off their natural ethics and I dare say they can all give excellent reasons for doing so. I don’t agree with them. Since I hold strong opinions on the matter I’m unlikely to be of any use to them.

This is where my principal of not knowing can be both a help and a hindrance. Life being what it is I’m bound to find myself face to face with a deeply distressed child abuser, someone like Mary Bell who killed her first child when she was 11 having (inevitably) experienced abuse herself and didn’t leave prison until she was an adult. What happens then?

Who knows? My answers today may not be my answers of tomorrow. Looking outward for enlightenment has limited effect, we have to look inward, to our own resources and weaknesses, goodness and evil, light and dark, complexities that can be almost impossible to manage. Because, despite what the majority of druid and witchcraft authors may tell us, we all have within us the capacity to murder, rape, abuse and torture. When we deny our own dark we become as unbalanced as those who deny their light.

So I don’t have any definite and easy wisdom to pass on, other than, perhaps, to follow the Charge myself, to constantly seek answers inside and of myself as well as seeking for useful external help to guide my knowledge.


Makarios said...

As chaplains, our vocation includes working with people who have spiritual issues that need working through. Once we start putting people into boxes, one labelled "deserves my assistance" and the other labelled "doesn't deserve my assistance," we are in serious danger of betraying our vocation.

Consider the case of a lifeguard who happens to know that a particular person who is in danger of drowning is a murderer (or substitute the crime of your choice). Would the lifeguard's revulsion at the person's past acts be sufficient justification for failing to attempt to rescue that person? Is it open to a lifeguard to choose, on moral grounds, whom assist and whom to abandon?

Clare Slaney said...

Hi Makarios, and thanks for your comment. I'm interested in the principles that help us make decisions and would be interested to know more about your own. If there are differences between Paganism and, say, Christianity, how will those differences effect our approach to chaplaincy?