Sunday, February 28, 2010

Where There's Smoke...

My father has been a smoker for longer than I've been alive. He used to smoke around me when I was a child; it was usually in the car, and he claimed that because he did it with an open window, it couldn't really be hurting me or my brother. And though he couldn't smoke inside the house (Mom insisted), he always smoked right outside the back door, which was the only door we could actually use because the front door is three feet off the ground and there's no porch or staircase there. Meanwhile, though I can't speak for my brother I can say with absolute certainty that I always had trouble breathing when Dad smoked. I've always been sensitive to the smell of cigarette smoke—one whiff and I end up in a coughing fit—but in recent years it's been getting worse.

Sometimes I just feel so helpless against it. Smokers are everywhere and too many of them feel entitled to indulge their addiction right outside almost every door in every public place I go to every day. Apparently their right to smoke trumps other people's right to breathe. Being someone who suffers a particularly unpleasant reaction to cigarette smoke, even the smell that it leaves on everything, that just makes me feel incredibly frustrated. Every time I have trouble breathing, every time I end up coughing so hard I taste blood, every time I end up with a tight feeling in my throat for days after being exposed to cigarette smoke, I also become angry. It's one thing for them to do something that will eventually wreck their own health. That's their decision, and it's their right to do that to themselves if they want to. But when it starts to impact other people—second-hand smoke is notoriously awful for everyone, regardless of whether they smoke or whether they have my sensitivity to it—that's where their right to smoke should end.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

On Faith and Depression

I think I've mentioned my personal experiences with depression a few times in the past. However, I suspect that for the purposes of this post, I'll have to give a bit more background information for what I'm about to say to make any real sense.

So. I started having unexplained fits of moodiness that were unusual even for a teenager when I was thirteen years old; I called them a "soulless calm", where I felt nothing but emptiness and the dull knowledge that later, I'd be in for a heck of a lot of emotional pain. I was never quite sure what brought them on. I could just be reading in the library, taking a walk on the school grounds (which were rather nice), taking notes in class or sitting at the lunch table with my friends and having a good time, and then—WHOOSH!—I suddenly felt blank. They disappeared for a brief time when I was fifteen—this roughly coincided with the beginning of my involvement with my former pipe band and the community choir that I'm still with twelve years later, and I don't think that was by accident. Eventually, though, they returned, and this time I did feel something, and that something was crippling emotional pain. I could actually feel it, a dull ache somewhere between my heart and my throat.

Most of the time I just tried to ignore it; I had more important things to think about, after all. I had classes to go to, homework to do, lessons to take, musical instruments to practice and friendships to maintain. And I never thought about actually talking about it with someone, because my mother always hated the thought of negative thinking and at the time I wasn't really on good terms with my dad. My friends couldn't possibly understand, and I didn't feel comfortable with the thought of talking to a counsellor; at the time, trusting a stranger with the details of my rather painful emotional life was so unthinkable that I actually had a few genuine panic attacks at the thought of it.

I still do, actually; that's one thing about posting a blog anonymously that I really, really appreciate. Given the chances that anyone I actually know in real life will find this blog, read all my posts and realize that "Zillah" is me, the illusion of complete anonymity makes it possible for me to write frankly about things that I would not likely ever actually talk about in person.

Anyway, I bottled all of this up for years and managed to live a pretty fair facsimile of a normal life until things began to gradually fall almost completely apart about four years ago. I'll spare you the ugly details now; in any case, I've written of them before in at least one of the entries I've linked to above. Eventually, I slipped into a depressive episode that lasted the better part of three years and I haven't quite managed to get out of it yet, at least partly because I've been trying to live as normal a life as possible while dealing with it, especially since my mother's intense depression struck when mine hadn't quite gotten to its worst point, and I had to put my own concerns aside to help her. I'm doing a lot better lately, but let's face it—in spite of my now more-frequent days when I feel like I could take on the world, I still have quite a few when the most heroic thing I can manage is simply to drag myself out of bed, get dressed and feed the budgies and the cats, and even grocery shopping may not be in the cards.

Now, I've heard people say that faith and depression are incompatible; if you have faith, you can't become depressed, and if you're depressed, it means you don't have enough faith. But what these people fail to understand about depression is that it isn't so easily dismissed, and they also fail to understand that faith is not a shield against the problems that can lead to depression and despair. Faith can help you deal with them, I agree with that—but it can't cure them. Saying "I believe" isn't therapy. Trusting the Divine with one's problems won't necessarily correct any imbalance in one's brain chemistry that might lead to depression. It always annoys me to hear people say that if you're depressed, you're not trusting God(dess) enough; it's always seemed to me like there was an insult not-quite-hidden between the lines there. It's a form of smugness and even hints at self-righteousness; the person saying it has presumably not actually experienced clinical depression firsthand, and can therefore afford the luxury of saying that the faith of the person who is experiencing it is inadequate.

I won't say that my slightly odd kind of spiritual faith hasn't been helpful to me—it has been. In the words of someone else who sings in my church choir (and who didn't seem surprised when I admitted to her that I've struggled with depression), "It can't help but help." But it isn't the only thing that helps me to deal with it, and its presence will not prevent it from happening again. It isn't because my faith is inadequate. It's because depression is a mental disorder which has many causes, some of which are not yet adequately understood, and it has a way of sneaking in no matter what you do to prevent it. But it can be dealt with, and lived with, and it is not a poor reflection on the people who have it. And I am profoundly insulted every time I hear anyone say that people who have it don't have enough faith.

I'll put it plainly: without my many different kinds of faith—spiritual faith, faith in my friends, faith in my family and the faith that my life will eventually improve because of my attempts to improve it—I would not be here today. I cling to that on my bad days. It helps me to get through them. And because of that help, I cannot accept the idea that my depression means my faith is inadequate; my continued existence on Earth is proof that it is not.

Friday, February 26, 2010


In my bookmarks menu, I have a category called "You Are A Privileged Asshole (And Don't You Forget It)". It's where I keep bookmarks to pages like Derailing For Dummies and various blog posts and "checklists" relating to various types of privilege. Call it an example of my somewhat bizarre sense of humour; it's intended to make me chuckle and remind me of something at the same time—while its name may be tongue-in-cheek, I think it's good advice. I do have privilege, and although I'm doing my best to not forget it so I don't rub it in the faces of those who don't have the privilege I do, I sometimes do forget and that makes me a jerk (at best) when it happens, so I do my best not to forget it, misuse it or otherwise be obnoxious about it. It doesn't always work out that well, of course—I'm human, after all, and we tend to be rather good at making mistakes—but I like to think that maybe I'm not making as many mistakes as I used to because I'm aware of the problem now. But perhaps I'm not the best judge of my own actions in this matter.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about privilege lately, to the point where it was actually a central idea in a research project I did for a course I took to add a qualification to my teaching certificate.

Among other things, I am a white, straight-leaning bisexual, fat, mostly able-bodied* cis woman with all the privileges and disadvantages that such a definition invites. What this basically boils down to is that some people will treat me kindly, but other people will want to murder me for one aspect or another of who I am. Most people will be somewhere in between. That doesn't make me special, but it doesn't make the existence of such privileges and hindrances right.

All this bellyaching about "but that privilege doesn't apply to me!" might partially come from the fact that we think of privilege as something to be ashamed of. Something that REALLY BAD PEOPLE have and not only do they enjoy it, but they flaunt it, too. The instinctive reaction of people who don't see themselves as REALLY BAD PEOPLE, especially when they see a privilege on the list that they don't actually enjoy, seems to be to try to defend themselves against a perceived attack. "REALLY BAD PEOPLE have these privileges and don't even bother to think about them. Yeah, I have a lot of these, but look, I'm not really such a REALLY BAD PERSON. Not all these privileges apply to me, so I must be OK on some level, right?" It's a bizarre form of insecurity, but it's there. It's like the reactions I sometimes see (or have, for that matter) when white people are told that we're innately racist because we're white. Like many people of my generation, while I was growing up I was taught that racism is an evil thing, something to be hated and scorned. Since most people tend to think of themselves as basically decent human beings, the assertion that we're born racist because we're white is at best a slap in the face—to many of us, it's akin to saying that we're innately and irredeemably evil.

Perhaps some of this is a reflection of the very concept of lists of privileges that are enjoyed by separate groups. It assumes that people can only belong to one group, have only one set of concerns, experience discrimination and privilege in only one way. People aren't like that. Now, I'm going to use myself as an example because I'm the only person I can really talk about with any real authority, not because I want to claim that I am not a REALLY BAD PERSON—there's always a chance that I'd be wrong if I claimed that, in any case. ;) Anyway, personally I have some aspects of privilege as a white cis person with no real disabilities.* Other factors in my life, however—being a woman, being fat, being bisexual, being Christo-Pagan—lead to kinds of discrimination that, while not being equivalent to the discrimination encountered by gay people, trans people, people of colour and people with visible disabilities (just to name a few), can sometimes resemble some of the forms of discrimination that they encounter. The reason for the discrimination may be different, but the end result is the same—at best, a hurting human being. And let's face it, unless you're a straight white temporarily able-bodied middle-aged Christian man with huge heaps of money which was either inherited from outrageously wealthy ancestors or generated by a huge corporation, chances are you'll encounter discrimination of some kind, and it'll probably be extremely harmful to you and others like you in one way or another.

This whole discussion about privilege bothers me because it treats people as categories that can't blend with other categories and that encounter set types of discrimination, not people who suffer because other people do something that hurts them. I understand the need to tackle specific types of discrimination, and it would be profoundly hurtful for me to say otherwise. But I do think that when privilege is talked about in terms of "if you're [X], you have this kind of privilege" and that privilege is talked about as if it was never cancelled out by anything, it's almost as harmful as denying that privilege exists in the first place. Invalidating other people's pain because they have privilege of one kind or another does not do anything to help the people who do not have that privilege. And you know, I just think that it's very sad that treating other people with respect and kindness, and expecting the same in return, is rare enough that it's not considered common decency—it's a luxury enjoyed by a privileged few. It shouldn't be that way.

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*I consider myself to be "mostly able-bodied" because most of the time, I'm fine. Occasionally, however, the sites of various former injuries I've endured over the years see fit to turn walking, playing musical instruments, and lifting objects heavier than a large housecat into painful pursuits. However, considering what people with real physical and mental disabilities have to deal with, this is at most an annoyance.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The "Pagan Persecution Complex"

Or, "Help! Help! I'm Being Repressed!"

In his Annotations to Reynolds' Discourses, William Blake contemptuously wrote that "to generalize is to be an idiot". Nonetheless, I'm going to embrace this idiocy for a moment and hazard a guess that most people who are, or have considered becoming, Pagans of one kind or another have come across the idea of the "Pagan persecution complex". You know, the idea that Christians are all out to convert Pagans with their "Buy-bull" and crosses and crucifixes* and "stolen" rituals that Everybody knows are really Pagan in origin, and if Pagans don't convert, they'll be burned at the stake—"OMG, just like the Burning Times!!!" Christians of all denominations are dismissed as "fundies" and accused of being evil minions of a power-hungry institution. (Just look at the comments over at Wren's Nest whenever anything even vaguely related to Christianity comes up.) We stand in solidarity—or at least, we like to think we do—with the victims of the onslaught of Christian villainy and oppression. Some of us even revel in it, perhaps because it gives us a sense of importance.

Look at us! See how much of a threat this Big Mainstream Religion thinks we are! See how hateful they are! Look at how wonderful we are for being above that sort of petty thing! And incidentally, aren't all of the members of this Big Mainstream Religion terrible?

There's no nice way for me to say this, so I'll just say it plainly: snap out of it!

Yes, there are people who use their religion to kick other people when they're down. The Phelps crew and a lot of religiously-motivated abortion protesters come to mind very quickly. You may even have heard of Tempest Smith, a 12-year-old girl who took her own life in 2001 after being relentlessly taunted and bullied by her classmates because she was Wiccan. These are all terrible occurrences, but you know what? They are not an adequate excuse to see us as a marginalized and oppressed group. We are not martyrs. We are not Virtuous Pagans in a spiritual battle against the Hateful Christians. Self-righteously condemning people who are on a path that you personally do not subscribe to sounds an awful lot like some of the behaviour that you're accusing them of displaying. There's plenty of hatred and evil in this world already. Don't add to it. Point it out. Do something about it. But do NOT whine about it and complain that because we Pagans are still a minority, anyone who isn't, especially anyone who's a Christian, is an enemy and is therefore out to re-create the Salem witchcraft trials or the "Burning Times" as a whole.

We're not martyrs. Whining is useless and annoying. So snap out of it, because you're not really doing yourself—or the rest of us, for that matter—any favours.

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*Yes, there's a difference. A cross is the familiar t-shaped object that's often used to represent the Christian faith. A crucifix, on the other hand, is the same shape but has a human figure meant to represent Jesus on it.