Saturday 28 August 2010

The Power of Language

Babies are strong and can tolerate conditions that adults can’t. Whilst there’re excellent evolutionary reasons for newborns of all species to be resilient it’s also humbling and touching to hear about the struggle for life and potent maternal instinct of James and Kate Ogg in Australia.

These kinds of events are hailed as miracles in some cultures and such is the relief and gratefulness of the parents and loved ones that it’s entirely understandable. Then believers come along and perceive it all as an act of their god, something that makes many classical theologians depressed: if their god is wholly simple – that is, unaffected and beyond all we can understand – then how would their god get involved in that world? If that involvement occurs then their god is no longer godlike.

Protestant theology, which perceives the bible as their god and their god as intensely interested in them, disagrees which in fact bears a close relationship to how many Pagans function. Many of us have a personal relationship with our gods and they with us. So what might Paganisms response to the powerful evidence of one child’s will to survive be?

Personally, I don’t believe in miracles but this doesn’t prevent me from experiencing intense interest or from being very moved by James’ struggle and becoming even more convinced of the power of physical touch and physical connection to change destiny. I’m aware of only a few Pagan responses to this story and they’re all based in wonder and joy. In some of the replies there’s just a hint – which I, all good midwives, good neonatal nurses and many mothers share – of  “This goes a long way towards further proving that skin-to-skin contact between newborn and mother has enormous consequences.”

(The link works in formatting but not in fact! Take a look at   

Maternal instinct is frequently correct and is sometimes the difference between life and death. Pagans seem to know that as a scientific and beautiful reality rather than as a miracle.

One or two Pagan responses have given me pause. I doubt any would say they believe in miracles, not one has any ill intent behind their comments, none would dream of using this event to proselytise or judge. But they use a language of poetry which bestows numen and a particular weight to what they say. Just as we respond to specialised medical language or the language of advertising so we respond to the language of ‘Karmic connection’  ‘ a holy gift’ ‘the quiet voice that knows truth’ and so on. That’s why the language of ritual is different from mundane language and it’s why I’ve stopped using what I perceive to be the language of mystery outside of ritual.

Because in this case it makes the mothers of dead babies failures. They didn’t have the karmic connection. Why didn’t the Goddess give them the gift of a live child? Despite hours of skin-to-skin contact and yearning and communication they didn’t bring their dead child back to life, perhaps because they didn’t listen hard enough for or were unworthy of the voice of truth. That is clearly not the intent of people who have used the language of mystery to communicate their feelings and it can’t help but have that effect.

Every mother and father that has had a premature or full term stillbirth or neonatal death will be pitched back into stinging grief by this story. Did they do
enough? Did their child have a chance that they didn’t take? Did they put too much trust in their medical team? How were they deficient? There’s no mother of a dead or disabled child who at some point doesn’t ask herself this, even if she knows that the answer is an unambiguous no. It’s only very recently that mothers were allowed to have anything to do with their dead baby. Imagine our mothers, grandmothers, other older women now wondering if they’d only been allowed to hold their baby, what if, what if. Lets not add things to feel dreadful about.

The kind of attention to pain which concerns itself with unknowing and doubt, semi-consciousness and the unconscious, can be approached most effectively through careful and specialised use of the language of mystery, sometimes through formal ritual and sometimes in less formal shifting of awareness. When we listen to and respond to people in pain this cultural language can be useful but it’s not the language of the everyday. This is why priestesses and priests are trained. It can come naturally but it has to be used carefully. Words have power.

I’ve long had a particular bugbear about the careless use of poetic language, language used to change the writers and the readers consciousness and which marks the person who speaks in this manner as seperate from the poor dumb mundanes; it’s become used by every Pagan to describe brushing their teeth. Life can be tough, tedious and banal which is just as important to our human understanding as joy, peak experiences and excitement; arguably more important to get to grips with and understand. Whilst all of creation is sacred and we are sacred beings living sacredly as part of it, we also have to maintain some perspective and keep our knickers on. Getting breathless about canning pears is a tad hysterical. And using the language of ritual casually and habitually can have unintended but horrendous consequences.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Buddhist Resource

"To people who know but little Dharma, death seems something strange, something never before experienced. And because of this at least such people fear death. The question is, do we have need to fear death, or not? And if not, then why not? The answer here depends on the actions of individual people. Some people will have cause to fear dying, others will have no cause. What are the causes, which bring about the fear of death, and what are the causes which lead to a peaceful death?"

Preparing for your last breath
Laurence – Khantipalo.

Lots of information on preparing for death, dying and after death, from the Buddhist Dharma Education Association.

Monday 9 August 2010

Pagan Medical Ethics

The concept of Pagan ethics is getting a good airing; as a community we’re ready to think about our responsibilities as well as our rights. But I do wonder how, or even if, we approach medical issues that other religions struggle with, things like fertility, quality of human life and the artificial manipulation of genes. Individual choice is part of the post-modern mindset which Paganism has most effectively embraced and of course no matter what any religious authorities decide on most individual religious people go their own way, choosing to have or not have assisted conception, abortions, genetic treatments for conditions such as spinal muscular atrophy and so on. Their religious leaders and societies have the debate, understandings are generated but followers generally ignore them. Beyond vegitarianism and in the US, the abortion debate (based in politics much more than religion) we're yet to really get going.

News of Ciaran Finn-Lynch and his life-saving trachea transplant grown from his own stem cells reminds us that medical science is both exciting and moving at a speed that may often be beyond what we can keep up with. New guidelines around the use of genetic tests for children demonstrates that philosophy may not move as fast as science or the free market but is profoundly necessary to protect the individual, family, society and the most vulnerable from the excesses of both.  Freedom of choice for the parent has, in this situation and others, overwhelmed the rights of the child. Post modernism and raw capitalism are ironically close relatives.

So where might Paganisms start with a deasophy of assisted conception? Do we start with ‘An it harm none . . .” or the damage that is being done to the Earth by the unsustainable numbers of humans draining the basic resource of water? We already use medical technologies like surgery, chemotherapy and antibiotics so why not AI and IVF? Where do our responsibilities as a human community intersect with our individual human rights? Might we embrace infertility not only as part of the natural world that is as worthy of respect as other aspects of fertility, as much a demonstration of balance in nature as flood and fire but now also a much needed natural gift to the Earth? Might we forgo or limit reproduction as part of a sustainable relationship with the planet? This might be the most pointed definition of ‘Bioethics.’

Vegans have long experience of coping with the ethics of animal-derived medicines and treatments born from vivisection but what about the ethics of human research? Are Pagans who put themselves forward for medical research honouring animals or dishonouring their own bodies? How does being paid for the risk effect the ethics?

And since we don’t consider our children Pagan how do we make decisions about our children’s health? Is there a uniquely Pagan way or do we just tag along with our friends?

There are often no answers to these kinds of questions but in attempting to answer them we discover what is fundamentally important to us and why, not just viscerally but materially. Speaking about inter-relatedness and earth consciousness is one thing; but how do we relate to the realities of disability, poverty, mental illness?

Obstetric and neonatal care and life expectancy has improved so radically that there are already a greater number of people with learning disabilities than there were a decade ago and this number is expected to rise.

In the UK most people who have learning disabilites live with their families and 40,000 live in institutions. Although a tiny minority of these institutions are excellent (measured by the kinds of relationships you would want for yourself rather than a managerial tick box exercise) most people in institutions are not treated as well as they might be.  Here are some cheery statistics:

•    Four times as many people with learning disabilities die of preventable causes as people in the general population.

•     People with learning disabilities are 58 times more likely to die before the age of 50 than the general population

•     Almost one in three people with learning disabilities say they do not have any contact with friends.  One in twenty have no friends and do not see anyone from their family

•     40 per cent of people say they would like more say in what goes on in their everyday life

•    Nearly one in three people say they did not feel safe using public transport

•     Nearly one in three people with learning disabilities said someone had been rude or offensive to them in the last year. In most cases, the person who bullied them was a stranger

•     Only one in four women have ever had a cervical smear

•    More than one in ten people with learning disabilities say they never feel confident.

People with learning disabilities have a right to life. They can have rich and fulfilled lives and improve the lives of people without learning difficulties simply by being present in them. The reality is that most will die young and live as second-class citizens. Like the elderly and mentally ill they are too often used as a form of employment scheme for people who would not be able to work in an environment where clients can make use of a meaningful complaints process.

How might a Pagan ethic approach this situation? People who detest the meat industry can become vegan and have an economic effect, but how do we respond to a reality that is located between ethics and economics, between total expediency (involuntary euthanasia) and a total social revolution that values fire-fighters, teachers and people with disabilities as much as CEO’s and celebrities? We know it’s wrong to euthanize people with disabilities (Why? Just because Nazi’s did it? Is there a Pagan take on right to life, voluntary and involuntary euthanasia, quality of life?) but we are, in truth, killing them off through direct and indirect neglect and many will live lives filled with casual, catastrophic and everyday abuse.

Some of these issues are addressed directly in Starhawks' Truth or Dare whose understanding of power dynamics have been taken up by academics and practitioners. If Paganisms are more than Reclaiming what are the other Pagan ways of approaching modern medical ethics?

The temptation is to look for ultimate answers where there may only be fragmentary ones if any exist at all.  But engaging with the questions, examining reality as it is rather than as we wish it was; developing new and decidedly Pagan understandings of what, why and how we value the Apparent world (as opposed and in relation to our colossal valuing of the Otherworlds) and the people in it (as opposed and in relation to the concepts of animals, Land and Nature) demonstrates a readiness to be taken seriously as part of that world.

Start here with a feminist, relationship ethic and please feel free to contribute your own favourite
 Pagan medical ethic pages and sources.