Adventure, Heroism, Religion

Why I Believe in Heroism

Last week I answered a lot of questions about what my temple teaches: a branch of polytheism firmly rooted in old Irish traditions. But one of the things I value about that path is that it allows members to have their own individual beliefs. My spiritual views go far beyond polytheism.

Although I will always honor the gods of nature, I don’t consider their worship to be my religion. The Heroic Life is my religion. 

Dreams and Distractions

When I was a boy, I believed I could be a hero. I knew that I wasn’t very athletic, and no good at fighting. I got scared easily by roller coasters, horror movies and haunted houses. But somehow, whenever I watched a movie with a hero in it I was sure I could be one.

Most kids feel this way.

As adults, we feel something very similar, but with a twist. We empathize with the hero but we assume it’s just fantasy. Adults think of heroic stories as an escape, an amusement, a moment spent in an imaginary world.

Kids don’t make that assumption. Being a hero is not just make-believe and definitely not a fantasy. It’s an aspiration.

Kids sincerely expect that one day, they can be heroes.

I think they’re right.

A Steady Diet of Fantasy

As a little kid I was into the normal stuff—ninja turtles, dinosaurs. I even went through a lengthy Greek Mythology phase. At the time, I didn’t know that was unusual.

By age 12 I had cozied up to my Super Nintendo and become a pretty serious gamer. The games I liked all had something in common: they were fantasy adventures with strong storylines, RPG video games. Since I was overweight and introverted, I found it a lot easier to play in those imaginary worlds than the real one. In the games I could go anywhere; I traveled the earth with Will, a psychic boy with a flute, and visited the Seven Wonders. In the real world I was in a house in Wisconsin.

These games had powerful motifs in common. The most important was that a small group of people, working for a common cause, could do anything. They might come from very different backgrounds and not even get along, but if they stood by each other in the hard times they were unstoppable.

And ultimately, that was the allure of the games. It wasn’t about completing quests and it definitely wasn’t about defeating monsters. It was about a journey with friends to places unknown.

These journeys were always a fantasy.

A Day at the Wharf

By college I was a different person, but I still felt this secret sense that something much bigger is possible. I threw myself into a variety of projects, not least of which was the Stone Circle Study.

But this was before that.

It was a beautiful spring day. The school year was almost over. I was with two talented artist friends, and we decided to walk down by the lake.

Lake Michigan is a sea. It extends far beyond the horizon and brews some fierce storms. Milwaukee is on the west side of the lake, which makes for delightful weather: the winters aren’t too cold and the summers aren’t too hot.

This particular day was warm, but not what you’d think of as swimming weather. We walked along the broken remains of a concrete pier. It had once run far out into the lake, and now it looked like a lost roadway to a sunken city.

We walked as far as we could easily go. Broken chunks of pylon sat before us, waves ripping over them. Another intact section of pier beckoned ten feet away. My adventure gene kicked in, and my friends weren’t far behind.

With some precarious balancing and a giant leap we successfully crossed to the farthest section of pier. We didn’t even get (very) wet. We chatted for a while, and learned that crows and gulls seem to get along pretty well. But I kept eying something.

That damned underwater road.

You had to do it. You would’ve done it, right? We sure as shit did.

Next thing we knew we were in the water, riding the waves to leap from sunken block to sunken block. Sure the air wasn’t that warm, but that made the water seem warmer. We were in full clothing but who cared?

We skittered, splashed, scrambled, waded and outright swam our way from block to block, buffeted about by waves and laughing as we went. That kind of moment is the very definition of being alive.

We had to help each other to climb back onto the pier. The waves battered at us and the broken concrete was at once sharp and slippery. But together, we were able to make it.

I remember the thought coming to me so clearly: This is the closest I’ve been to one of those games. 

And then: We could do this. We could just journey around and have adventures. 

Adventures? Was that a lifestyle? I quickly thought of the problems: money, food, shelter, weather, hygiene, and health.

I shoved the thought aside, reluctantly. We walked home soaking wet, and the day ended like any other. But that was the first time that I imagined a journeying, free lifestyle as an adult.

Every Day is Training

Although I did not run off to be a professional pier-climber, my perspective changed. Every time I did something adventurous I witnessed firsthand the powerful sense of self-determination and fulfillment it provides.

I stopped thinking of stories about heroes as fantasies that reality can’t match. They’re not. Stories about heroes are based on our highest aspirations.

And that’s the hook. The reason people naturally love those stories is because they are founded, however remotely, on the reality that humans can do virtually anything.

Heroic stories in their earliest form started off not as fiction, but as a code of values. Heroic Age cultures like ancient Greece honestly expected their warriors to emulate the heroes in the myths. The values of courage, endurance, honor, truth and generosity were the goals of real society. The myths are value narrative.

This approach gave us our most enduring mythic themes and the story structure that is used in epic movies to this day. Pop culture repeatedly confronts us with this narrative, which whispers to us: You are the one. You can be the hero. Be brave. Take action. You are the one.

Heroic myths are not meant to be stories, they’re meant to be instruction manuals. That’s what Joseph Campbell missed: analyzing heroic myth is beside the point. Understanding it means living it.

I didn’t realize all that at the time, but I intuitively began to plan and lead adventures of my own. And I continue to live that way. It might take years to be able to travel freely, but that is ultimately the next step. Every day is training.

You Want My Faith?

People are often surprised when I say I don’t have any use for faith. I’m a priest after all, and anyone from a Christian tradition would expect a priest to have faith.

The fact that faith doesn’t matter much in polytheism is hard to explain.

So I thought about it—is there anything I believe in with all my heart? Something that fuels my love, demands my respect, and guides my decisions? Is there anything that I, as a skeptical thinker, can feel that strongly about?

Actually, there is.

I believe that mortal men and women can do amazing things.

I truly believe that each and every one of us has the spark of heroism within us, that it is our heritage and our evolution, and that when ignited it is virtually unstoppable.

Bullets won’t bounce off of you. You will not shoot lightning from your fingertips or fly through the sky.

Heroes can be killed.

But those with the bravery to try can do incredible, mind-blowing things. They can change history and move hearts and minds.

And those without the bravery to try? That’s most people, and that’s fine. Heroes exist to look out for them, to act on their behalf.

It’s a choice everyone has to make. I believe in living heroically. That is my religion, and my only faith.

You can live heroically too. 

Which choice do you make? 

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My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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ExPostModern, Religion

Expostmodern Religion

I sometimes refer to myself as an expostmodern priest. Many of you asked what that means.

Here is the answer: How to Be ExPoMod

I wrote this thanks to Colin Wright as a feature post for Most Interesting People in the Room and it’s spreading like wildfire on Twitter. More and more people are talking about ExPoMod because it sums up the changes that are happening across our lives right now. Popular attitudes, technology, business trends, the way artists work, even the narrative that resonates most with people in literature (or ad copy) are all changing.

The core of expostmodernism is a culture shift in a direction that is pro-individual. As travel and communication become easier, people don’t have to feel alienated from their work or the people around them. Technology helps people connect with similar thinkers anywhere in the world, instead of feeling like an outcast in their own community.

Postmodern cynicism is giving way, and a lot of factors are making the world a slightly more optimistic place: the uptake in creativity-focused industries, growth of niche markets, ease of travel and communication, and access to high quality information without formal institutions of higher education.

In some ways this shift in culture is a drastic one. A lot of older institutions are having a really tough time adjusting, and some are not going to make it to see the year 2100.

So What About Religion?

One of the points I make in Announcing ExPoMod is this: by understanding expostmodernism we can predict what strategies and ideas will be successful in the next 50 years.

Based on the trend of ExPoMod, strategies that will see the most success include:

  • Less required use of physical spaces (use technology to get people out of offices and let them work from anywhere, people in different cities collaborating, etc.)
  • Emphasis on individuals managing and marketing their own work (consultants, independent artists, self-employment, etc.)
  • Collaborative arrangements where all parties have input, instead of top-down structures
  • Anything that helps people to depart from old “modern” structures without endangering their finances or security.

If we take these four basic strategies and apply them to religion, we see something like this:

  • Sermons or other routine scheduled meetings will not be effective. Less people will want to commit to a physical meeting on a regular basis. Religious activities will need to be available through other media. Religions that make their services inclusive of digital participation will see a surge of new recruits while those who don’t will lose ground.
  • Members will expect more face time with the priest/pastor and expect personal contact. Clergy will be on social media and make themselves available for personal discussion (in person or by Skype). Those who don’t will fail.
  • The presentation of multiple voices and viewpoints will be valued. Clergy will be more successful if they ensure access to other teachers and leaders in their tradition (or even from other religions). This can be done with guest blog posts and podcasts rather than with in-person visits.
  • Narratives that focus on self-empowerment, personal transformation, and experimentation will inspire people and speak directly to their concerns. Support structures for members who move or travel (maintaining an ongoing relationship with them while they are away) will become a valuable cornerstone of any effective religious organization.

One of the great things about expostmodernism is that, unlike postmodernism, it is not inherently cynical. It hasn’t forgotten that truth is relative and that authority figures are often hypocritical, but that’s beside the point. The individual is capable of acting on their own and forming collectives with like-minded people around the world. Thus, there is no need to rely on so many authority figures or a universal definition of truth, and their value is irrelevant.

This pro-individual spirit, in a world where individualists no longer have to fight against society as lone outcasts, means a new optimism for spiritual growth. People are open to religious ideas and practices. However, they have to adapt to a new form:

Religion has to consist of a personal journey in order to speak to the 21st century.

(You can bet that Walk Like a God will do this in spades.)

Some religions are already geared to encourage a “personal journey” spirituality. Buddhism can expect to continue to grow, and Orthodox Christianity will hold its own. Neopaganism will stumble unless it can more consistently offer support structures and guidance for this kind of “personal journey” approach.

Religions that are highly ritualistic, such as Catholicism, will continue to decline. In fact, any tradition that focuses around a single static practice (Pentecostal Christianity, for example) will decline. Likewise, religions that hold together because of strong community-centric structure will shrink unless they can find a way to empower individuals (and are willing to do so).

These are a few of my predictions for the next 50 years of religion. They’re based on the values of expostmodernism which are becoming dominant. People have new options and unlimited access to other ideas, groups, and practices. They don’t need church to give them ideas anymore. Churches and temples that offer an experience that speaks to the individual will thrive. Personal transformation is the new Jesus.

If this post made you think, please tweet or Facebook share it. I like it when you do that. Thank you.

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Adventure, Primitivism

When I Was Enkidu, pt. 3: The Great Kind of Crazy

I had my magician-knowledge. I learned from the land. And now it was time to put it to use. I did so with vigor, relentlessly.

Summer

The first trip was a simple, summertime affair. I took several of my students from the temple and we camped in a grassy field. This was nothing new; we had done outdoor retreats before. But this time, there was no tent. No fire-pit. Not even an official campsite.

I showed them how to find a place that would be naturally low-mosquito. We created a place for a fire and I began to teach them how to use a bowdrill. After we ate, we didn’t get out soap to do dishes. Natural materials sufficed.

We spread our sleeping bags on trampled grass. Surrounded by cricket song and tall prairie plants, we drifted off to sleep with nothing over our heads and no one buzzing in our ears.

Spring

The next such trip was not so idyllic. It was the most challenging experience I had ever thrown at my students.

In late March or early April, we parked our cars on the road and hiked through knee-deep snow to a secluded, wooded location. We had:

  • No tents
  • No food
  • A knife and a hatchet apiece
  • Five hours to create shelter before sunset

I could tell how nervous everyone was. The snow was a surprise; it had fallen the night before. We had the clothing for it, but hiking through it was exhausting.

Finally, we came to a place that looked no different from any other, except that I had scouted it and knew it well. I found a downed tree and showed my students the basics of building a debris shelter, or as I lovingly call it, a den. Heaping up pine boughs and armfuls of leaves onto frames of fallen branches, the structures slowly took shape.

The group of us built four of them: one built like an upright hut (too windy), one built like a tunnel (that was mine, pretty cozy), one that was more like living underground (worked quite well), and one that was too poorly constructed and had to be abandoned.

With an hour or so of sunlight left we successfully killed and butchered a porcupine, which would be our food for two of the next three days.

Often people ask what porcupine tastes like. It tastes delicious, like beef with a slight fishy flavor—but it’s not the flavor you have to worry about, it’s getting those quills off. We sustained a few punctures but managed to skin and cook her safely.

This kind of trip is a real dividing point for people. It was brutally hard, not because it has to be but because we were new. Think of how you did the first time you rode a bike. Now apply that same learning curve to living in the snow with nothing.

Some people, even seemingly adventurous people, will run away at that point. It’s scary. But unlike in my tent in the rain, I was no longer terrified. I didn’t feel a burden of leadership crushing down on me. Instead, leadership was a privilege—the chance to teach these worried, tired people that they can make a cottage with their bare hands. They can shape sticks and leaves into a base camp, and food will wander up for their usage.

That is magician-knowledge: the power to make something from nothing.  The power to rest easy outdoors where people in tents would be shivering and fighting off frostbite.

Winter

Then it was time for the greatest challenge: outside with no equipment in Minnesota in January.

For those of you not familiar, Minnesota routinely gets temperatures of -10 to -35 (with wind chill) in January. This isn’t recess ladies and gentleman. Fingers can be lost. It’s do or die.

Although a debris shelter would work, getting the debris out from under the snow would be vicious. This time we planned to erect those most miraculous of structures, snow caves.

A snow cave is more or less like your childhood snow fort, with a couple crucial design overhauls:

  1. The door needs to be narrow and face downwind.
  2. The entry tunnel should dip down and back up again before you reach the inner chamber—this traps heat inside.
  3. There must be a bed of sticks (pine boughs preferred) so you are not sleeping directly on the snow.

It was #3 that condemned us to failure.

After spending an afternoon building our very first snow caves, we cooked our meals and wriggled inside. There were five of us total, divided between two caves. When we first got inside, it was blissful.

So warm it felt okay to remove our hats and gloves.

But it didn’t last. In our race against sunset, we had gathered too few branches to put on the floor. What we had gathered was devoid of pine needles and, in many cases, covered in ice.

We were sleeping directly on snow with no insulating layer. (Note: your sleeping bag is not an insulating layer in this case.)

The heat drained out of our bodies. We began to shiver violently. Wrapping arms around each other, we made an effort to huddle for warmth, but to no avail. As long as we were on a slab of packed snow we were headed straight toward hypothermia.

With reluctance, I agreed we should bug out. Exiting our snow cave a few hours after sunset, we trudged to the nearby farmhouse. I saw the geese watching us as we walked by, their wings outstretched in the wicked wind like it was nothing. I swallowed the bitter taste of defeat (or the taste of learning) and we made ourselves cozy by the fireplace of our friend’s farm.

Again, this is a dividing moment. Most people at this point will decide, for life, that snow caves are no good.

I prefer this.

It takes a special type of mind to look at failure, dive back in and ask, “How can we do it right?”

Thankfully, I try to surround myself with such minds. After discussing our design failures, we built a new snow cave. This one featured a longer entranceway and more interior space (just for comfort). Most importantly, it featured lush, thick layers of pine branches forming a sort of natural mattress on the floor.

As night fell, one other intrepid soul and myself crawled in. We laid down.

Felt good.

We waited.

Felt really good!

“Hey,” I said, “Do you think we should take our coats off?”

We did. It was warm enough to put them aside. In fact, it stayed above 50 degrees all night in there, with no heat source other than our own bodies. We slept peacefully—some of the best rest I’ve ever gotten. It soothes me just to think about it.

In addition to our night of warmth, we ran some tests. We checked to see what works better: removing coats to huddle together, or keeping coats on to maximize insulation (under these circumstances, keep your coat on). We checked to see if someone walking on the roof will collapse a snow cave (answer: two people jumping on it may not collapse it) and whether it’s possible to dig out from a collapse (yes, at least enough to make an airhole and then rest before working your way out).

It was one of the most amazing educational experiences I’ve undergone.

Enkidu

I’ve titled this series Enkidu for a reason. Many of you may know that Enkidu was Gilgamesh’s best friend and companion. More than that, he was a wild man, raised by animals. Gilgamesh had to have him civilized in order to stop him from raiding the farmers. Once he was civilized the two went on great adventures together.

Except…

On his deathbed, Enkidu forsook the goddess who had civilized him. In his final moments he missed the birds and wild beasts and running where he would. He regretted choosing the luxuries of civilization over the freedom of the wild.

There is a part of Enkidu in all of us. Humankind was wild and nomadic far longer than settled and agricultural. Society wants us to be civilized so that we won’t cause trouble—but a part of us will always regret it.

This is true of computer programmers, New Yorkers and stay at home moms. This is true even if you’re out of shape or afraid of bugs. We are evolved to live in the wild, roam over long distances and go where we please. That is an impulse that still burns away in all of us.

In the Gilgamesh Epic, Gilgamesh was able to defeat terrible monsters only with the help of his wild friend. I would humbly suggest that we all need Enkidu to overcome our greatest challenges; without contact with the wilderness, we are doomed to a vague sense of being caged, unfulfilled, or held back.

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My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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Adventure, Primitivism, Travel

When I Was Enkidu, Pt. 2: How to Live Wild

Today’s soundtrack: here.

The sun was shining. The breeze was blowing. And a stark naked woman stood in front of us, smiling.

This isn’t the start of a romance novel. It’s the true-to-life account of my three weeks living at a hunter-gatherer camp. Specifically, at Teaching Drum Outdoor School in northern Wisconsin.

Go deeper

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Adventure, Primitivism, Travel, WDS

When I Was Enkidu: Nothing But the Rain

It was June 2002. Rain hit my tent. I heard it clattering against the dome and it was not comforting. It was chilling.

A clammy cold fog had already drifted through, dampening everything. We were camped in a swamp. I hugged my sleeping bag tighter around me, but it was cold and wet. It couldn’t help me.

At that moment I was filled with fear. Not because of bears or shrieking leeches. Not because of the storm.

I was scared because this was Day One.

I had planned a seven-week trip to Beaver Island, Michigan. It was a field study to map stone circles located on the island. Most people don’t know there are stone circles there, and they’re quite unusual for Native American construction. There was talk that maybe they had been built by early European explorers long before Columbus.

But that wasn’t what I cared about, not in that tent. There were three things on my mind:

  1. There is no way I can do this for seven weeks.
  2. I am miserable. This is the worst.
  3. I am responsible for two other people. They will look at me to make things better.

It was the last one that was hardest. Two women, my study co-author and our photographer, were in a second tent just yards away from my own. They didn’t come complain to me, and I didn’t go complain to them. None of us wanted to go out in the rain just to gripe. But I know we were all thinking the same thing.

I want to go home.

Home was a million miles away. Actually it was about 450 miles, but that was no closer. My father had graciously offered to drive us from Milwaukee all the way to Charlevoix where the ferry departs for Beaver Island. Earlier that day, on the ferry on the copper-blue lake, with the sun shining, the trip still seemed like a great idea.

But after he saw us to the ferry, Dad took the car and headed home. And by now, ten o’clock or midnight, he was already home. And warm.

I considered asking him to come bail us out. Drive back up, rescue us. The trip is a bust. Forget the stone circles.

It wouldn’t have been easy. No cell phones (2002, remember?) but we could have used the phone at the biological research station we were camped near. He would have come for us, maybe even that night, but it wouldn’t have been till nearly dawn he’d be at the ferry. And, oh yeah, the ferry wouldn’t leave till morning anyway.

Like it or not, we were stuck out there for one night minimum. But it wasn’t the minimum that terrified me. It was the maximum. Seven weeks is a lot of goddamned nights if you can’t even make it through just one.

Admitting that sleep was not going to happen, I reviewed my options. We could bug out tomorrow and go home. It would be an imposition, and it would waste hundreds of dollars already spent from our paltry budget of $1,900. It would be a blow to my reputation, and it would feel like I had personally failed my companions who had counted on me to plan and organize everything.

Or we could stay. A decision that might be even less popular than bugging out, or might even result in outright mutiny. I knew my companions well enough to be certain that if I was panicking, they were more than panicking.

And that was my first in.

What if the reverse is true?

If I stay calm, will they stay calm too?

I fixated on that. I planned what I would say the next day (or that night, if they burst into my tent wanting to go home). I made a mental list of things that might get better, and things that we can change, and things that aren’t that bad. I planned these things mostly to distract myself from the growing pool of water in the corner of my tent. I decided that I would speak with positivity and confidence, even though it was a complete sham over inner terror, and hope that it caught on.

I didn’t realize it at the time but I had just hit upon one of the most important strategies of a good leader. When the going gets tough you keep calm and carry on. When there’s a a blitzkrieg of shrapnel butterflies in your gut—you keep calm and carry on.

Fitfully, I survived the night. The morning brought mixed feelings. It was the least comfortable of all: the cold wind off the lake had chilled our low-lying swamp all night, and the thick trees wouldn’t let the fog burn off. It draped on me, on everything. Getting out of my sleeping bag was an exercise in shivering. But at the same time, the very sight of sunlight and the knowledge that nighttime was over gave me a sort of courage. I opened my tent door and went to check on my colleagues.

“How’d you sleep?” I asked.

They looked at me with zombie-like faces. I nodded as they debriefed me on how horrible the night was. I didn’t disagree on any particular. When they asked me what I thought, I began to talk in terms of what could be fixed or how we could improve things.

We did improve things. We re-sited our tents and did some waterproofing. We strung clotheslines to dry our bedding. We adapted.

It wasn’t perfect. Nothing we did would change the freezing miasma that hung over the swamp each morning. Nothing we did could stop it from raining every. single. day. of June on Beaver Island. I’m not sure that my companions ever were happy with our living situation, but they did it for my sake and I did it for their sake. In time we got used to it and I slept soundly and well many nights.

There are a lot of great things that I could tell you about from those seven weeks. There were Ottawa elders who visited and asked me to be their guide on their own island. There was the peace pipe ceremony they invited us to on the summer solstice. We even spent two days on a (truly) deserted island.

The moral of this story could be: don’t ever fucking give up.

That’s a good one. I like that moral. It’s true, mostly.

But that isn’t the moral of this story. Nor is it the fact that this was the day I learned what it felt like to be a leader. Those are tangential.

No, this story is told because that was the day I knew I could do more than just “camping.” I was beyond camping now, vacation-style, with s’mores and a car and a get out of jail free card.

I had gone deep. Balls deep in mother nature. And I found that I could make it, be steady, even comfortable.

I was comfortable dating the outdoors, even when she was in one of her moods.

I was changed forever. If you want to hear about why a grown man with a normal life would go off to live with hunter-gatherers, it starts here.

If you’ve enjoyed this story so far, please tweet or Facebook share it. Questions, thoughts, stories of your own? I love stories. Hit me up in the comments.

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