Elemental correspondences are some of the first topics covered in most introductory pagan texts. I love the elemental system: it's a beautiful method of organizing esoteric information and a great teaching tool. As I move deeper into my path (I've been studying paganism since 1999) I often come back to the ground-level topics and ask myself how they matter now that I don't, for example, need an elaborate liturgy to cast an effective circle. A few years ago I found myself asking how the elements matter outside of ritual circles and spellcasting. There are a few ways the four (or five) element system can be valuable to us.
Elemental thinking allows us to think about ourselves and others in terms of balance, rather than in terms of morality. So we can view the one who is too quick to anger as having an excess of fire energy, rather than thinking of her as a bad person. Which means the angry person can find a way to mitigate the effects of excess fire by working with other elements. Personal work then becomes a matter of seeking wholeness by identifying what we need, and learning how to incorporate it into our lives. And that means we can see that we are still good people, even when we aren't perfect.
Additionally, elemental thinking offers us an alternative to the strict male/female concepts of gender. Our culture has been assigning aggressive, active qualities to males and needy, passive qualities to females for far too long. This deeply entrenched binary has done untold damage to people of all genders, and deviations from gender norms still lead to ostracism at best and violence at worst far too often. As our culture becomes more open to concepts of sexuality and gender as a spectrum rather than a binary, elemental thinking will be more and more helpful. Instead of thinking of feeding children as a womanly task, we can consider it an earthy action. Crying can be viewed as watery instead of a girly, and so on.
And speaking of gender, I like removing gender from my magical and spiritual practice for a couple of reasons. One, as a lesbian I'm uncomfortable with too much symbolic male/female union in rituals. I'd rather embrace a balance based on elemental associations than on heterosexual metaphors. Two, I have pagan friends whose gender identity doesn't fit neatly into either of the two most commonly accepted options. Elemental thinking allows us to create rituals in which people of many sexual orientations and gender identities can be comfortable.
It isn't only the gender binary that can be troublesome. All sorts of either or, black and white thinking does damage in so many ways. Take, for example, the pervasive perception of white as a representation of good, and black as a representation of evil. Then think of the way our government and society treats people of color. There is, at least, a strong correlation here between black and white thinking and racism. I know language alone can't eliminate the ugliness of racism, but I think the words we use shape the way we think and the energy of our dialogue. What if we learned to use different language? How might that begin to shift our internal landscape?
My thoughts on this idea are still evolving, but it's refreshing and liberating to examine our assumptions and definitions through a different lens, one that allows a more nuanced exploration of human nature.