Pagan Existentialism: An Interview with Brendan Myers
Think of Jesus sojourning in the desert for weeks before beginning his career as a prophet and messiah; think also of his passion in the Garden of Gethsemane, prior to his arrest. In Buddhism, we have the example of Siddartha Gautama's solitude beneath the Bodhi tree. Pagan examples do exist—for instance, Odin's nine-day ordeal on the World Tree.
Modern paganism, however, tends to emphasize relationships, especially the ecological "circle of life." At the same time it also emphasizes individualism and the importance of personal seeking. Indeed, shortly after launching the book, many pagans told me that they feel no loneliness because, as they say, the gods are always with them, or because they find their source of self-worth within.
But these explanations never seemed good enough for me. When we turn outward, to our relationships, we soon find, among other things, the absolute difference, otherness, and even strangeness of others. And when we turn inward, we soon find the absolute uniqueness of the individual, which in turn leads to the discovery of each individual's absolute distance from others. A "pure type" individualist locks himself within himself, and soon confronts the problem of loneliness, whether she is willing to admit it or not.
Moreover, even the gods themselves are lonely. If they exist, and if they are some of what people think they are, then they understand the solitude and the emptiness of things much better than we do, and probably ache with that experience much worse than we do. Loneliness is an existential condition; it is inherently bound up in our way of being in the world. But so is its opposite, revelation, which is the gift of presence we offer each other whenever we meet. This is only a short description of the nature of the problem, of course; in the book I describe it more carefully and completely. But it is the solitude, itself, rather than its special appearance in any given religious tradition, is the central question of my book.
It took 140 pages before you used the word "vulnerable" and I find that interesting. Since Dr. Brené Brown's TED video went viral, vulnerability has been something I've been thinking about a lot. As humans we've been taught that vulnerability is somehow un-modern and unhealthy, and Pagans who have been burned by former faiths can have issues with being spiritually vulnerable. Do you think vulnerability is the answer to loneliness?
I had to watch the video before answering this question. If I understand Brown's work correctly, she describes vulnerability as the willingness to be oneself and to present oneself to others in an authentic way, even at the risk of judgment and rejection. In this sense there are similarities between her views about vulnerability and my views about courage and revelation.
I also appreciate how she correlated vulnerability as a social phenomenon to obesity, addiction, debt, and prescription drug dependency. I too found that such things were serious problems in our lives. Where I think her work and mine might diverge somewhat, is only in the different approaches to the problem: she is a social scientist and I am a philosopher. Where she is describing a personal and psychological mode of behavior as the solution, I would like to describe something existential and in some sense metaphysical. Hence the answer to the problem of loneliness, as I see it, is in the other half of my book's title: revelation. We must be willing to present ourselves to others, as who we really are, in the hope of creating a shared presence. As I state on page 133: ". . . .my questions become: Who are you, and who am I? Do I know who you are? Do you know who I am? Do we see each other clearly? For if we do, and if we take time to look closer and see the Revelation, we can enter into conversations, dialogues, and relationships with each other. And eventually we can create a shared way of being in the world."
A hopeless movie junkie, Star Foster believes that good movies are the mythic narratives of our times.