There was something else that got my attention in the Seiðr oracular ritual at Mystic South, and it has nothing to do with Loki.
From my position near the High Seat, I could hear most – though not all – of the questions the participants posed to the Seeresses. The specific questions and their answers were part of a sacred ritual and I cannot share them. I can, however, share a general theme I heard over and over again:
“Tell me what to do.”
And a corollary theme:
“Tell me everything’s going to be OK.”
Some of the responses from the Gods and spirits – as relayed by the Seeresses – were kind and reassuring. Some were rather harsh. This is what I would expect: different questions posed to different persons in different contexts should bring different answers.
I trust the questioners received the specific answers they needed. But I hear these themes fairly regularly when I do readings for people. So I don’t think they’re limited to this one ritual.
I think we need to look at why people ask these questions, and how we can learn to deal with them even if we can’t answer them precisely.
I respect these questions
Every time Mercury Retrograde begins, people post warnings and concerns. And then a smaller but still significant number of people mock them.
“You’re looking for an excuse.” “You’re blaming a planet for your own shortcomings.” “Just take responsibility for your life!”
I hear the same thing when people seek guidance from divination. “Why are you turning your agency over to a pack of cards?”
A few of commenters think they’re giving “tough love.” But most of their comments have all the subtlety of an aggressive atheist attacking “religion” using strawman arguments. They’re not intended to be helpful – they’re intended to make the skeptic feel superior to everyone else.
Whether I’m reading for a client or just listening to questions, I respect those who seek guidance, direction, and reassurance. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to feel lost, directionless, uncertain about how to proceed and downright scared about how things will work out.
As a reader, I do my best to emphasize that I can’t make decisions for clients. I can only tell them what I see if they make one choice vs. what I see if they make another. The right choice may seem clear to me, but ethics forbid me from saying “just do this!” Even if my reading is 100% accurate, their priorities may be different from my priorities. And if I’m wrong, they’re the ones who have to live with the consequences.
So why do so many people find themselves in this situation?
We aren’t taught to think for ourselves
Even progressive parents expect their children to follow their instructions. This is necessary – when you’re three years old you don’t know enough to know what you need and you certainly don’t know enough about the many risks and hazards in the world.
And then we go to school where we’re told when to be there, where to sit, what to study, and how to study it. Again, this is necessary – children don’t know what they need to learn (and neither do most parents, but that’s another rant for another time). I didn’t have an elective class until 7th grade. Even in high school most of my classes were required for everyone.
We’re inundated with advertising throughout our lives, as people use sophisticated psychological tools (and some use outright magic) to persuade us to buy and do what they want us to buy and do.
Is it any wonder that when people are placed in situations where the path isn’t clear and the consequences of failure are real that they feel the need for external direction?
“Know Thyself” is hard but necessary
For some of us, the experience and confidence to make decisions isn’t the problem. The problem is that we don’t know what we want.
This was my problem in my mid-20s through mid-30s. My professional career provided a decent living, but it didn’t make me rich – and it didn’t provide satisfaction. I wanted to make a change, but change to what? Even after I discovered my calling as a Druid, priest, and writer, I still had to accept it.
When you’ve been told your whole life that success means getting rich, accepting that what you really want doesn’t involve massive bank accounts and conspicuous consumption is hard.
What makes you happy? What allows you to live the way you want to live? What enables you to be a part of something bigger than yourself? What allows you to live a virtuous life?
You answer will be different from my answer, and likely, different from the answers of your parents, teachers, and others who were and are influential in your life.
How do you figure out what you want? Some of it comes through regular spiritual practice, especially meditation. Divination can help, but cards and runes can’t make your decisions for you. A lot of it is trial and error.
At some point you have to choose, and refusing to choose is itself a choice.
What do you really want?
Fear of mistakes: the bad and the good
Implicit in the request to “tell me what to do” is “I’m afraid of making a mistake.” As someone who is rather a perfectionist, I understand. The problem is that we’re all flawed humans and we’re all going to make mistakes.
So the choice is to accept that we’re going to make mistakes and move forward anyway, or to do nothing because we’re afraid of doing something wrong.
Mistakes will happen. But not all mistakes are created equal.
Mistakes that come from not doing things you know you need to do – or from doing things you know you need to not do – are entirely preventable. Mistakes that come from a lack of investigation and forethought are needless. Taking a calculated risk for a significant reward is a good thing – taking an unexamined risk for a meaningless reward is negligence.
Collect all the information you can. Study it carefully. Evaluate the risks and the rewards. Make a plan and then work the plan. Do all that and most times you won’t make a mistake, at least not a serious one. And when you do, you’ll recognize it sooner and be ready to correct it faster – and you’ll learn something useful in the process.
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Be afraid of making bad mistakes, and let your fear lead you toward prevention.
Careful planning brings two big advantages.
First, it insures you evaluate your situation thoroughly. It allows you to think through things in depth, weigh positives and negatives, and make decisions without the pressure of the moment.
Second – and perhaps most important for those saying “tell me what to do” – it forces you to walk through your journey step by step. It helps you visualize what things will look and feel like at each step along the way. Is this something you like? Is it something that will be helpful? If so, good – you’re headed in the right direction. But if not, you still have time to make changes: either tweaking your plan, or throwing it out and heading in an entirely different direction.
Good planning gives you the confidence to try something new, because by the time you actually do it you’ve already done it in your mind multiple times.
Be ready to improvise
In the Anglicized words of Robert Burns “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Or as boxer Mike Tyson said “everybody’s got a plan till they get punched in the mouth.”
Nothing ever works out exactly as planned. There’s a wreck on the expressway so you have to use surface streets. The weather upsets your outdoor plans so you have to move indoors. The high priestess catches her sleeve on fire so you have to put it out and then figure out how to restart the ritual. Things go wrong (or at least, unexpectedly) and so you improvise.
Sometimes these disruptions are trivial. Other times they’re serious. Your reaction may not be proportionate. Honestly, I tend to handle serious disruptions better than I handle trivial ones. The serious ones demand my full attention on the problem, while the trivial ones allow me to cling to my fantasies of perfection.
Expecting that something will go wrong isn’t pessimism. It’s mentally preparing yourself to deal with getting punched in the mouth.
Trust your ability to improvise.
Have a backup plan
Sometimes you don’t just get punched in the mouth. Sometimes you get punched in the mouth, kicked in the crotch, and thrown out of the ring onto the concrete. Sometimes your plan flat-out fails. Now what?
This is when you need a backup plan.
Sometimes things go badly. Other times they go OK but you realize you don’t really want to go where this plan is taking you. Why you fail and whose fault it is isn’t as important as the fact that you realize you’re failing and something needs to change.
So you need a new destination, a new job, a new career. Know what you will do (or at least, what you can do) before you need to do it.
Backup plans are easier for those who are young, healthy, and have financial resources. They’re harder for everyone else, but that makes them all the more important.
I’ve only had to break out my backup plans a few times in my life. Most times my approach has been “just work through it.” But knowing I had a backup plan made it easier to keep working through a difficult situation, because I knew that if it became untenable – by my own evaluation or because of the actions of others – I had other options.
Backup plans mean you don’t need someone else to tell you what to do, because you’ve already figured it out.
Confidence comes from doing
I know, it’s easy for me to talk about all this at my age, with more years behind me than in front of me. But with age comes experience, and I have a brain that will not let me forget my mistakes. Any of them.
Figuring out what we want, making a plan to get it, and then actually achieving it is hard. But once you do it – even on something small – it gives you first-hand evidence that you can do it. And so next time, you’re a little more confident, a little more sure that things will work out.
And then when you have to improvise or you have to go to your backup plan and it works, you build even more confidence for the future.
When in doubt, climb the hill in front of you
But there will still be times when you really and truly don’t know what you want. Or you know what you want but you can’t see a way to get there. Or when the way seems blocked. We’ve experienced a lot of that over the past three years.
I talk a lot about the importance of setting good magical targets – vague targets yield vague results. But if all you have is a direction, then move in that direction. I’m all for good research and maintaining optionality, but at some point doing anything is better than doing nothing.
Particularly if you don’t like where you are right now.
If you really and truly don’t know what to do, then do whatever is in front of you. Read a book, take a class, learn a skill. Take the job that’s available until you can find the job you want.
Vote for the least worst candidate until you can find a good candidate. November 8 will be here soon enough and it’s critical to keep moving away from Trumpism and from the horrendous rulings of the current Supreme Court. Yes, I had to slip that in.
When in doubt, when your preferred route is blocked, when there are no good choices, do something to make things better, and to build a foundation for making them better still in the future.
The problems are real – so are the solutions
I sat quietly at the Seiðr ritual while person after person approached the High Seat and pleaded “tell me what to do.” In the back of my mind I heard people mocking them, telling them “grow up” “take responsibility” and “you think you have problems?”
I know the problems are real. I know the fear and uncertainty are real.
Sometimes our Gods or ancestors will tell us exactly what to do. But not often. Most times they tell us to keep moving, keep working, and to keep climbing the hills in front of us. They remind us that to live heroically isn’t to do great things so much as it’s to live virtuously no matter our circumstances.
We aren’t taught to think for ourselves. But if we are wise, we learn how to do it. Through meditation and reflection and through trial and error, we figure out what we want. Through research and study and exploration we develop plans to get where we want and who we want to be.
And then through determination and perseverance, we get there.