Michelle: Welcome to the second part of our “From One to Many” blog series on unpacking monotheist baggage. If you haven’t read our intro post, please do that before reading this conversation. It will give you some basic information you need to know. And if you missed part one, you can read Meeting the Gods here.
Today we’re going to talk about one of the heaviest pieces of monotheist baggage, and one that is really hard to put down: what we sometimes call “I’m special syndrome.” The idea that A) Humans are special and above/outside of creation and B) Some humans are more special than others is a deeply damaging belief that causes all kinds of problems everywhere, but especially in the polytheist community.
So let’s start by talking about some of the places it comes from. I think there are several.
The first one that comes to mind being that many monotheistic creation myths feature humans as the pinnacle of God's creation.
Raechel: Another place it comes from has to do with capitalism as much as religion, and that is the question of how else do I exist under capitalism if I'm not special - because if I’m not special then I'm just a cog in the machine and that's not great.
Michelle: Right? Capitalist baggage and monotheistic baggage are so tightly intertwined.
Raechel: Because colonialism was spurred on by capitalism, and religious conversion was a frequent justification for colonization.
Michelle: The whole go ye forth, spread the "good news", etc. And it brings with it not just religion but cultural norms and capitalism.
I also think most forms of monotheism have a sort of "God's chosen people" narrative that feeds into the idea of being special, too.
Jane: Manifest destiny and all that bullshit
Raechel: Missionary work is just colonization by another name.
Jane: Also, monotheism conflates being special with being worthy, when those are entirely different concepts
Michelle: So let’s talk about some of the ways this specific piece of baggage harms us.
Raechel: It makes people obsessed with having a "life's purpose.”
Michelle: One purpose. Instead of a set of values and an idea of who they want to be.
Jane: And only one. Only one love, only one god, only one purpose. There's no nuance to anything there
Raechel: And if you aren't doing something for that purpose every single day then you're failing, because why else do you exist? You must exist to fulfill a purpose because that's what makes you special. But that's all lies!
Michelle: Really toxic lies that have led to an entire culture in which, if we don't feel like we're very special, we feel like losers with nothing to offer the world.
Raechel: And that's just not true.
Jane: It also encourages competition in opposition to community. If we’re not special then we’re not worthy and must fight those who are special and therefore worthy to the death so we can claim their specialness for ourselves.
Michelle: There’ll never be enough special to go around! And that's one of the reasons it's so fucking damaging. Everyone can matter. Everyone can be important. But not everyone can be special. Specialness is exclusive by definition.
Raechel: Can you imagine how exhausting it would be to be the only one doing what you do, to be the only one who can do it, to feel like you have to constantly be the best, constantly prove why you deserve to exist.
Michelle: And then, when we try to turn to the Gods and develop meaningful relationships with Them, we trip over our insecurities and the need to be so special over and over again.
Raechel: And it comes up in such weird ways! Feeling like you have to wait for a God to choose you, to call you to a specific purpose before you can approach Them.
Michelle: Feeling like you must have some "great work" to accomplish with/for them.
Raechel: And yeah, some Gods won't want anything to do with you. But you don't have to be chosen to have a relationship.
Michelle: When we get past the panic at the idea of being cast out because we're not special enough, it's a huge relief. Because it means now what matters is being real, honest, and giving the best I can out of love. No more having to perform and be the most awesome.
Raechel: Honestly, knowing I'm not special makes it way easier to have a relationship with Them. I don't need to prove myself to anyone. I don't need to earn Their love. There is no gold star for the best polytheist that ever polytheisted.
Michelle: But “I’m special” thinking can also lead to the opposite of feeling inferior, which is thinking the Gods are just waiting around to bestow gifts upon you and love you best. And thinking everything in the world, including the Gods, exists for human benefit.
Jane: I’ve been thinking a lot about the myth of untouched wilderness. How humans are a part of the ecology with a job as a species within that ecosystem of tending, selecting and choosing the best places for plants and animals to exist within that ecosystem. We as a species have a job, but we've ruined that by thinking we’re more special than the hundreds of other animals and plants and fungi who do the same thing at different levels.
Michelle: Oooh yes, and by deciding we know better than the rest of the ecosystem how to do things! Always deciding things need to be tidied up, rearranged to suit our convenience, that technology is superior to natural systems, all of that. Because we are above nature instead of part of it.
Jane: We as individual humans are just one of many who all exist to exist, and to do the same job. Our purpose is to exist and to live in harmony with our surroundings.
Michelle: I love the thought that being a valuable piece of the whole is part of our purpose. It's such a healing way to look at it, so much better than the common ecological narrative that humans can only, ever, by default, be a damaging force on the earth.
Raechel: We do still have a role to play. The Gods do still want our love and worship. But it isn't because we are somehow superior or chosen or the only one who can do it.
Michelle: And the Gods don't want only human love and worship. They want the bonds and connection of everything. They aren't diminished if we turn away from Them. There's a whole world of non-human people to be in community and right relationship with.
Jane: Right? And if we’re unable to complete our tasks, then someone else can step up. There’s nothing wrong with someone else stepping up to complete a task we’re unable to do.
Raechel: It is such a relief to know that I have a whole community I can turn to when I'm just... Unable. And letting go of the idea that you need to be special is what allows a community to thrive.
Michelle: Partly because it means we’re allowed to need things, to not have all the answers, to say, "Hey, that other person is much better at this particular thing than I am, so I will step back now and let them get on with it.” Instead of viewing everyone else as competition who might be more special than me and make me unnecessary.
Raechel: Competition just prevents us from being connected to the world we live in. Because we're focusing so much time and energy on being the best. Can’t slow down to smell and talk to the roses if you're trying to compete with everyone.
Michelle: Can’t just hang out with that tree, because you have to be the bestest witch, so how can you use that tree to be the bestest witch instead of ... just having a nice conversation and a hug if they're into that?
Jane: It’s like we've been blinkered to not see how freeing it is to be worthy without being special. Gotta have 5,000 spells that you occasionally skim for info rather than 3 that you know deeply and that work. Gotta have a crystal grid instead of a couple rock friends …
Michelle: And they have to be SPECIAL crystals. ”I have more stuff than you. I am more special."
Raechel: Keeping up with the Joneses is like ... the whole schtick. But I don't want to keep up with the Joneses. I want to live in this world and feel content with my place in it. I want to find joy and whimsy in small things.
Jane: We have this compulsion to assign value to everything. Assigning value in a competitive sense, not a practical sense
Michelle: And value according to how much is it worth to the ones I'm in competition with, rather than, how much do I love this? How much joy does it bring me? How important is it in my everyday life?
Jane: The rotten apple has less value than the unrotton one for eating but the rotten apple has more value in the compost pile because it’s doing its job.
Raechel: And we really need to let go of that “perceiving value as a consumer” attitude. Which. Ugh. So fucking hard. Cause that's what we’re programmed to do.
Jane: value =/= worth. special =/= worthy
Raechel: And we absolutely cannot approach the Gods with a consumerist mindset.
Michelle: “Worth" is all about context. And everything has worth in some contexts and not others. Needing to be special really destroys our ability to see nuance.
Jane: We are not action figures for the Gods to collect and They are not statues for us to collect
Raechel: One God is not inherently better than Another. And you are not a better or more special person for worshipping any specific God.
Jane: We keep coming back to how little nuance there is in society lately
Raechel: And that lack of nuance makes everything feel like a competition. I don't see a way for everything to not feel like a competition if you’re clinging to the idea that you're special. That assigns value to you as a human in comparison to other humans. And that's ridiculous.
Jane: That lack of nuance is calculated, too. look at all the media: books, tv, movies, music that enforces it.
Michelle: Making it all about ranking instead of connecting. And ranking everything lends itself really well to excusing our bad behavior because we are not as bad as that person, so we are still more special and therefore we’re okay. It can take away so much personal responsibility.
Jane: Our religion is #1 in the world! And therefore we can do things that seem immoral because we are vindicated.
Michelle: We are God's chosen so everything we do is blessed!
Raechel: “I’m special because of my religion, so I don't have to worry too much about anything else. My religion has told me that if I follow all the rules, I’ll be fine. Never mind if those rules are at the expense of other people.”
I believed for a long time that my particular religious sect was the Most Special of All the Religions. And that really messed up my world view! It made me think other people were ignorant or willfully blind to the truth. And definitely got in the way of being a polytheist.
Michelle: Fundamentalism sets you up to think that way too: everyone else HAS to be wrong. And that attitude bleeds over into polytheism in so many insidious ways. Like making us think there must be one right way to worship the Gods. Or that if we make honest mistakes we will be punished for them.
Jane: That indoctrination keeps you from comparing your experience and point of view to someone who has had a different experience. Because if anyone else is right then ... What am I doing? Why am I hurting people? Is my life a lie? And you can't have those doubts creeping in or the whole system will fall apart
Raechel: That’s part of what made it fall apart for me. Realizing how harmful my "special and chosen" religion was even though it claimed we were the most loved by God. How could people who are loved most justify doing such awful things to other people?
Michelle: Seeing that "specialness" used as an excuse for so many atrocities was definitely a huge part of why I needed to walk away from the church too.
Raechel: And that isn't even a part of the religion! It's just the culture that has been baked in. And part of that is because of thinking if you’re special, you’re allowed to do these things because God said you can.
Michelle: Another part is having to prove you are special, even if it means you have to make other people support that idea.
So. Let's talk a bit about the ways we can work through this pile of "I'm special" nonsense.
Raechel: I think this is a rip off the band-aid situation. You just have to radically accept that you. are. not. special. And then go from there.
Michelle: Yeah, you have to sit down with yourself and SAY IT. "I'm not special.” But getting that truth to sink all the way in takes work. And making peace with it also takes work. So once we start at "Well shit, I'm not special ..." then what? For me, one helpful thing was learning just how many different religions there are in the world, and learning what made them all similar and different from one another. Perspective is tremendously helpful.
Raechel: Another balm for the total world view meltdown is finding whimsy in the world. Sinking yourself into it in such a way that you can't help but feel your place in it. See how you are just one of many. One who still deserves love and attention, but not more so than anybody else.
Jane: But also? Really sitting with the fact that everyone is worthy. Even though no one is special.
Michelle: Appreciation is a great antidote to competition.
Jane: I used to sit at the bus stop and just look at everyone waiting and think to myself, “these people have lives that are just as rich and valuable as mine is.” Just to mess with my own head. But also, to teach myself it's true! And it's really hard to do
Raechel: We aren't all the main characters in every story. Sometimes, it really isn't about us.
Michelle: And when I really, really don't understand what is happening, that can be so helpful to remember!
Raechel: It still sucks when people are needlessly rude or angry, but then they are probably operating from that "I'm special so my needs are most important here" perspective, and that's another reason to try to rid ourselves of it.
Michelle: Collectively letting go of needing to be special would make such a huge difference in every part of life.
Raechel: And that doesn't mean you have to be a doormat and let other people use you. You have worth because you exist.
Michelle: And, also, if I can recognize that I’m not special, then someone being an asshole to me is no longer a threat to my self-perception. It's about them and not me, and I can make a choice about how to deal with it that can include deciding it isn't my problem. Whereas if I need to believe I’m somehow special, someone not being awesome to me is hurtful and threatening to my specialness. It's twice as bad.
Jane: I think aggressive compassion and trying to understand why other people are acting the way they are (while maintaining healthy boundaries) is a really good way to realize our place in the community.
Raechel: Aggressive compassion for everyone except racists and other bigots.
Michelle: Yeah you don’t owe those assholes anything.
Jane: And racism is dug deep into the foundations of society, overculture, monotheistic control, all of it.
Michelle: That’s an entire series of conversations all on its own, and outside of the scope of our explorations in these posts! But is an important set of conversations to have too!
Another thing that has helped me immensely is really digging into animism, to thinking, a lot, about the aliveness and agency of everything. It helps me catch myself when I'm acting like I'm special.
Jane: The value and worth of all things as beings in their own right.
Raechel: Asking for consent from everything I use, touch, talk to, interact with. It reminds me that I’m not the jury, judge and executioner of everything in my life.
Jane: Consent is so important! For dogs and spoons and spirits and humans. All the consent!
Also seeing people as having value and worth in their own right gives me a sense of my own worth, but a worth within the community and not above it. Because when you accept that your car, your pets and your clothing all have worth as autonomous beings, you start seeing other humans in the same light.
Michelle: A big piece of that is looking at our language. Things like, calling a plant or animal or object "them" instead of "it", saying "oh look who is here" instead of "look what is here", etc. Language changes our thoughts and vice versa. Really look at the words we use. Look at what they mean, and how they shape our thoughts and actions.
Jane: Changing our language is essential. I think it might be the biggest tool we have. And changing the language we use with ourselves is even more important. It’s possible to value someone else with language and still use damaging language internally
Raechel: Redefining personhood to apply to all spirit beings as well really puts it into perspective how we as humans are not special.
Michelle: And how it's not all about - or for - us.
Jane: Once you start seeing your "possessions" as worthy of value, then you can move out to the land you live on, the trees and rivers and all of the other beings in our ecosystem have as many rights as you do, if not more.
Raeche: So… Start small. Talk to everything in your house.
Michelle: It's one reason why I kind of like the hype over Marie Kondo. She's making viewing our “possessions” as beings who deserve to be loved, thanked, and cared for - even if that means we let them go - more mainstream. That's powerful stuff.
Raechel: And she isn't a minimalist! A lot of people miss that. It's not about having few possessions. It's about loving everything you do have fully.
Jane: I think the reason people see her as a minimalist is they don't value their stuff, and therefore to remove everything that has no value to them is to remove everything.
Michelle: It’s all about focusing on joyous relationship with everything in your home.
Raechel: Joy seems to be a common theme we've been having. As the antidote to feeling special. Finding joy outside of yourself.
Michelle: And finding joy in recognizing the value of everyone else. It's hard to celebrate the wonderfulness of others - human or non-human - if we are constantly evaluating whether they are more special than us! But real connection, real love, real joy - these are all powerful antidotes to that pain of needing to be special.
Raechel: Make witchcraft and religion whimsical again!
Michelle: Bring the joy and wonder and whimsy back to religion challenge!
Jane: I think a lot of the issues with unpacking monotheistic baggage (and I know I've said this before) is the vacuum. How do we fill the void that’s left when we no longer see ourselves as special and above everyone else? I suggest by filling it with valuing everyone, human or not, who we encounter and interact with
Raechel: And love for the Gods
Jane: And valuing Them because They are People and not only because They are bigger than we are.
Michelle: Entering into a joyful, loving relationship with Them. Letting ourselves be important to Them, but not special to Them, means we can love them for who They are, not just what They can do for us. And we can accept Their love even when we are living outwardly unremarkable lives.
Raechel: And even though we are flawed humans who make mistakes. We don't have to be perfect to worship Them. Don't even have to worship Them perfectly.
Michelle: And we can offer our best to them, without worrying that our best isn't grand enough.
Raechel: And loving yourself, even though you aren't special is important too.
Jane: Loving yourself because you’re valuable and worthy instead of because you won the special game.
Michelle: Which brings me back to the relief piece. If you can accept you aren't special? Then you don't have to be special, or prove you are special, to deserve love.
Raechel: Oof. And that's such a thing with mental disorders. I sometimes feel like because I fail at taking care of myself, and taking care of my relationships, that means I don't deserve to be loved. And that isn't the case! The Gods have shown me time and time again that They won't abandon me just because I have depression and can't worship Them "perfectly" all the time.
Michelle: And it's one reason we are always harping on the fact that witchcraft and religion are NOT the same as mental health care. We will always have to deal with our issues right alongside doing the spiritual and magical work. It's all intertwined.
Jane: Doing the therapy alongside the witchcraft and religion is doing the personal growth work.
Michelle: And dealing with depression and anxiety makes the need to be special so much more insidious. So in this case, letting that shit go makes for better mental health just as much as it makes for better religion and witchcraft.
Raechel: And therapy is one of the best ways to process baggage. It isn't always accessible though. Which is unfortunate. But if you can do the therapy, absolutely do the therapy.
Michelle: And if you can't do the therapy, then look for other tools to help you process and deal with your feelings.
Jane: At least a trusted group of friends to show you the parts you aren't seeing for yourself as you work thru your baggage.
Raechel: Community. Again. So important.
Jane: Community isn't just grocery stores and city councils, it's good friends and connections with your neighbors, too. And we need to connect and understand as well as being understood. Community is active, not passive
Michelle: It's a way of living, not a thing to point to.
Jane: It's everyone doing 100% of what they can do as well as asking and receiving help.
Raechel: And not putting a specific price tag on help. It won't always be an even exchange. But you have to trust that everybody will do what they have the capacity to.
Michelle: And speaking of even exchange, in approaching the Gods, especially, looking at relationship as a flow of reciprocity helps us get past the whole thing of needing to be special. Am I relating to Them with vulnerability and honesty, as well as with offerings and prayers? Am I accepting the gifts They give me with real gratitude? It isn't an account book that has to be balanced. It's a cycle of gifts and love.
Raechel: In Hellenic traditions we call that kharis. The giving because we love Them, and They give back, and so we give again not expecting anything in return, but just because we can. That's an oversimplification. But it's a concept that I love.
Jane: And heathens call it the gifting cycle. You give within your means and freely.
Michelle: And what you give, you don't have to compare to what anyone else gives. It's from your heart to Them, and has nothing to do with anyone else. (Well I mean, unless the offering is service, but still that's not a competition thing)
Jane: Giving is also not a competition. And removing competition from life is such a huge hard thing!
Michelle: But once you do, damn if life isn't so much more happy and relaxing.
Jane: Competition can be fun and motivating, but more often it's destructive and alienating.
Raechel: I personally hate competition. Once again, feeding into that "earning your place in society" thing.
Jane: It’s a way of feeling special and better than others instead of using it to bond and feel close to people. It seems to me the opposite of competition is compassion. It's really hard for me to see competition and compassion in the same place.
Michelle: Because competition means you have to not care about the other person's well being, you have to care about beating them.
Raechel: And sometimes at the expense of everything else.
Jane: And look at that wording too. "Beating" is competitive and also violence.
Michelle: Back to language being an important tool in this process!
Raechel: So to sum up: compassion, community, animism, joy, whimsy, and love for others, ourselves, and our Gods are all ways to combat "I am special" syndrome.
Michelle: And changing our language, including our self talk.
Raechel: And therapy.
Michelle: Along with long, vulnerable conversations with friends. Which is how this whole series of posts began! We encourage anyone reading these posts to start (or keep) having these conversations so we can keep unpacking all this baggage, to make our community and our religion stronger and more worthy of the Gods. Thanks for reading, everyone.
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