February 09, 2006

Value, Significance, & Perspective.

Recently I have been contemplating the meaning of words like "valuable" and "significant" in terms of how we view the world around us and our relationship to it. This issue comes up every once in a while when I read an essay or book about witchcraft, or when I am in conversation with a fellow practitioner, and the claim is made that, because we are all connected, every little thing is important and has significance. Now, personally, this statement bothers me--you might even say it is a pet peeve of mine. I find that such opinions tend to result from people exaggerating small events or ideas all out of proportion. A strange sensation or extra energy while traveling to work becomes a portent of doom or wild success; a dream about a loved one turns into evidence of a fated bond or an impending death. Such claims lend credence to the perception of New Agers and witches as being rather silly, forcing meaning where there isn't any and imagining omens in every stray shadow or chance movement in the clouds. This is why I think it is important that we learn to make a distinction between what it means for something to have "value," versus what it means for it to have "significance." I could sum up my feelings on the matter by saying that, while everything has value, not everything has significance, or at least not the same amount or in the way in which we might imagine. Let me use a well known example to illustrate what I mean.

We are all familiar with the little factoid about the butterfly and the hurricane--a single beat of a butterfly's wings may set in motion a series of events affecting wind currents and atmospheric changes that eventually produces a hurricane on the other side of the world. We might say that, in such a case, the butterfly was not insignificant in causing the storm. Indeed, that given butterfly may have been quite significant in creating a given storm. However, in order to make such a claim, notice that we are thinking about the relationship between the storm and the butterfly in a very peculiar way. We are not saying that the butterfly is significant or important in itself, but only that it has significance in relation to the storm. If this given butterfly did not beat its wings to cause the storm, we would have no way of measuring its supposed significance; likewise if we were unable to determine which butterfly, if any, was involved. The butterfly's meaning or value, in this case, is not treated as inherent, but as incidental.

Now, if we are restricted to only this way of understanding the value or meaning of individual events or beings, such as the butterfly, we might have a tough time. We may want to believe that all things have value, but in order to prove this to others and even to ourselves, we get caught up in a game of connect-the-dots, trying to pin down all the various causes and effects and sometimes making huge jumps in logic without much evidence to go on. The result is that we often come across as silly and unconvincing. We may even do damage to our claims by reinforcing the view that all ideas of interconnection of any kind are ridiculous and unsupportable.

The remedy, I propose, is to set aside our insistence on significance for the time being and instead focus on value, more specifically, on the value of beings and events in themselves and for their own sakes. You may never be able to trace Tropical Storm Gary back to the cabbage butterfly you saw in the park yesterday, not even in theory. But you can learn to appreciate that butterfly's mere existence as valuable and meaningful in and of itself. You can learn to acknowledge both the awesome potential of such a small creature, as well as its harmonious existence within the rest of nature that expresses that potential in ways that we may take for granted because they are too normal and familiar to notice. We may acknowledge that the world will not collapse around our ankles if this butterfly here, or that daffodil over there, ceases to exist. They may not be "significant" in that particular sense. But they do each have a unique meaning which they are quietly expressing, if we are wise and humble enough to stop forcing obvious, overblown superpowers onto them and listen to the songs of their true being. We can also learn to understand ourselves in this way, and such an effort truly becomes a lesson in humility. Can we understand ourselves and our loved ones as valuable even if we do not presume shocking divinatory or empathic powers? Can we find the value in chance and subtlety as much as we see it in secret knowledge, focused intention and obvious results?

I sometimes think this might be part of the reasoning behind the Biblical sanction against "cloud-watching" and weather prediction. In modern times, we understand these processes as natural and even scientific--we do not exaggerate the significance of being able to forecast light snow tomorrow evening, followed by a clear night and a slight temperature rise the following morning. To us, the ability to predict the weather is not mysterious; indeed, we treat it so lightly that we often tease weathermen about how much they are wrong, ignoring all the times we have relied on them being right! This was not always the case, however, and it is easy to imagine ancient conartists trying to use such predictions, even if based on an intuitive but accurate knowledge of weather patterns, to wow, amaze, intimidate and swindle. Nowadays, weather and climate conditions, though perhaps not well-understood by the common layperson, are understood well enough to be accepted as a natural system which can be studied and utilized effectively. The layperson watching the nightly weather forecast would not be impressed by special effects surrounding accurate predictions because he would be able to recognize them as a way of obscuring what is really just a basic understanding of and appreciation for natural patterns in nature.

The same is true today of many witches' and magicians' claims to mysterious secret knowledge or powers that allow them to tap into the psychic realms. Powerful dreams, reading omens in tea leaves and experiencing strange visitations become the modern equivalent of reading the shapes and movement of clouds in order to predict the weather. Perhaps these practitioners are aware that what they are doing is interpreting an intuitive understanding of natural patterns in order to gain otherwise unavailable information, but I have a feeling a good many of them have fooled themselves as much as they have fooled others. We do not see dreams as meaningful in themselves, as the way in which our subconscious expresses itself while our conscious minds rest and rejuvenate (understanding that subconscious knowledge, as well as spiritual intuition, will naturally come to light in this way without being supernaturally "planted" in our brains). Instead, we revel in the thought that we have "read someone's mind" while asleep or have "visited" them in a ghostly but literal way, manifesting like a see-through spirit in the physical realm. We lend undue significance to events like these because, honestly, it's fun and exciting to explore new talents and intuitions that we are normally discouraged from exploring. But we also do a disservice, just as we did to the butterfly when we viewed its significance only in terms of the storm. What will happen if our empathic abilities are not screamingly successful, accurate or simply not showy? Many of us become discouraged when we don't have startling visions and experiences, even though many books on magic warn us not to expect such things.

In truth, we should not expect every revelatory or magical experience to feel like a smack over the head, something that we can run back to our circles or email groups to report with awe and pride. Instead, we need to learn the value of everything, whether they are powerful dream-visions or the usual wish-fulfillment nonsensical excess our brains sometimes spit out, or a simple night of peaceful, dreamless sleep. We must learn to appreciate the butterfly that does not cause a hurricane, as well as the one that does. By attending to the value inherent in all things, we may actually find that we are moving more naturally and in harmony with the rest of creation; as a result, we may even have fewer startling or unexpected experiences, simply because our inner and outer balance prepares us for many events and illuminates the natural patterns which guide them. We may discover that events or experiences that others react to as mysterious or unexplainable strike you as perfectly normal or unremarkable; at the same time, however, you may also find yourself appreciating the value and beauty of small things that slip by others unnoticed.

Learning to see the subtle but powerful value in all things is a step towards learning to appreciate our interconnection without sacrificing our uniqueness. Above all, it teaches us about perspective and wisdom, and breaks us out of the ingrained pattern of only valuing those things which have obvious or unexplainable "power." Magical practice depends upon entering into a healthy relationship with the Divine as manifest in the world, and such a relationship depends not on power-relations but on mutual respect and love. When we love and value the world and its Creator on their own terms and not for the sake of special effects or the power to impress others or ourselves, we are on our way to the most meaningful magic of all.


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