Friday, November 15, 2013

Solutions, Tools, Sympathy, and Experience

Imagine for a moment that you are a mechanic, with an old, lovingly-maintained but still quirky car.  Periodically, some part on this car fails on you, and replacement parts are harder to get, but to you it's still worth it.  One day, this car won't start.

You investigate, and because you're pretty familiar with this car you quickly determine that the problem is a bad part in your ignition system.  You call around with no luck, but finally find one at a junkyard in another state; they tell you they're pretty sure they can have it to you early next week.  You're a little bummed out about this, because you'd planned a road trip for the weekend to see a friend and show him your car, but there's really no help for it.

One of your buddies, who is not a mechanic, drops by, and you invite him in for a beer because you've had a frustrating day and you could use some company.  You're telling him about having to reschedule your trip, and he interrupts you.

Him:  Why don't you just rent a car and go anyway?  I'll even lend you my car.
You:  That's really nice of you to offer.  But I wanted to show my other friend my car.  He's thinking of buying one, and wanted to get a feel for how working on it would be if he did.
Him:  Well, can't he come here then?
You:  No, that's not an option for him.  Next weekend will work.  I'm just bummed because we were gonna get awesome barbecue.
Him:  Are you sure the battery's not dead?  Did you try jump-starting it?
You:  Yeah, it's just a part in the ignition.  I've got another one coming, it's just inconveniently scheduled and frustrating.
Him:  Did you put gas in it?  Maybe it's out of gas.
You:  Uh, no, I'm pretty sure I learned to read a gas gauge at a pretty early age.
Him:  Well, you don't have to get defensive.  Hey, it is blue.  I read somewhere that blue cars break down more often.  I've got some time this afternoon.  Let's paint it green.  I'll help you!
You: ...
Him:  Oh!  Maybe it's out of oil.  You have to put oil in cars, you know, between oil changes.  I used to have this old Chevy, burned a quart of oil a week...let's go put some oil in your car and see if that fixes it.
You:  No, it's fine on oil, and by the way, if you've got a car losing a quart of oil a week, that's really long did you drive it like that?  Your current car isn't leaking like that, is it?
Him:  Well, it was running fine.  Anyway, why don't you just go to the part store and get the part?  I'm sure they've got whatever you need at the AutoZone.  I got headlight lamps there last week!
You:  This is a forty-year-old car.  It hasn't been made since the mid-70s.  There wasn't one at the local junkyard, but I found a guy who specializes in this model and he's getting me the part.
Him:  Well, but let's just go to the AutoZone and check.
You:  No, the AutoZone won't have it...who are you calling?
Him:  The AutoZone.  I'll just check for you, because you never know.  Hello, AutoZone, I need a...what's the part called?
You:  (specify part, plus make and model and year of the car)
Him:  (gives info)  You don't?  Since when?  Well, there's no need to be RUDE!  (*hangs up*)  The clerk laughed at me.
You:  No real surprise there.
Him:  Why don't you just let me take a look at it?  I might be able to rewire it for you.
You:  You know I do this for a living, right?  I know what I'm doing, and it's just a part I'll get replaced, OK?
Him:  Well, I'm just trying to help.  I do have a knack for mechanical things.
You:  Last year you set your workshop on fire 'fixing the toaster'.  Can't you just sit here and enjoy a beer and hang out with me?
Him:  That's your problem.  You always want to TALK about your problems, you never want to actually hear how to FIX them.

This conversation is how I feel when the men in my life talk about how "women just want sympathy instead of solutions because they're not invested in fixing their problems.  Men are solution-driven, so we have to just learn to listen tolerantly and not try to give any real help."

Generally, the 'problems' I am talking about are well beyond the three-minute understanding of anyone who's not me, and the last thing I need are simplistic, uninformed and unhelpful solutions from someone who doesn't have any idea of the full scope of what's going on, who then gets angry at me for the fact that his suggestions don't solve my problem, and accuses me of either 'not telling the whole story first' or 'just throwing up roadblocks' when I try to explain the complexities.  I don't 'just want sympathy' because I don't want solutions.  I 'just want sympathy' because you probably don't have the skills, experience, and tools to solve the problem right now, or because your goals and needs and expectations are different than mine and what would work for you in the same situation won't get me where I want to be.  Or because I've already set the solution in motion, but some part of that solution frustrates, upsets, or irritates me and I want to vent to a friend I trust to offer empathy.

If the solutions are that 'glaringly obvious' do you really believe I can't see them myself?  Or is it a more likely explanation that the glaringly obvious solution has a hidden cost, anything from incurring a social debt I don't want, to a hit to self-esteem I can't afford right now, to abandoning a larger goal that doesn't appear connected from your perspective, but is?

I'm not saying, guys, that I don't want your help or your perspectives.  But unless I've started the conversation with "I could use some advice..." or ended it with " what do you think I should do?" then accusing me of 'not wanting to fix' a problem I'm having just because what's readily apparent and obvious to you isn't a reasonable solution to me is pretty insulting.  And writing off the entire female gender as 'not really interested in SOLVING problems as much as talking about them' is a pretty good way to keep me from trusting you enough to talk to you about problems you can help solve.

Monday, November 4, 2013

On Magic and Magical Thinking

Fairly frequently, the disputes I run into over the validity of witchcraft happen because one side or the other has conflated magic with 'magical thinking'.  'Magical thinking' is the idea that if you just believe in something enough, it will come to pass.  You can visualize that weight loss without ever cutting a calorie, wish your way into that loving relationship without working on communication, and believe that a better job is coming instead of working at the one you have.

People on both sides of the faith debate seem to buy into this, and so non-practitioners become confused when people who practice more practical forms of faith-based work refer to it as 'magic' or even 'prayer'.  So allow me to explain the difference, as I see it, between magic and magical thinking.

I'll use a story to illustrate it.  Several years ago, on finding out that I'm a witch, one of my friends asked me to do a spell to help him get a new job.  He hated the one he had, he said.  I told him to spend half an hour writing out a list of the general criteria he wanted in a job, and to bring me that and a copy of his updated resume.  He arrived with a listing he'd printed out from a job website, and explained that he wanted me to do the spell to get him THAT job.  I said that no, that's not how it works, and asked him about the resume.  He hadn't had time, and besides what did I need it for?  I explained that I was going to use the resume as a focus, to create a spell asking that when he applied for a job, his resume would reach the desk of the person most likely to hire him, be seen by the right eyes and represent him well.  Basically, I was offering to use magic to remove obstacles and allow him to more easily get the right job for him.

I will never forget the look on his face when he said, "What do you mean APPLY?"  Yes, honey, you have to actually APPLY for the jobs, and go to the interviews.  You can't just wish for it and believe hard enough that you should have it, and expect it to happen.  You can't just buy a witch a piece of pie and sit back to let job offers rain upon your head.  If it were that easy everyone would do it that way.  And I would have SO MUCH PIE.

He'd fallen prey to magical thinking, because he believed that if he focused on a thing, wanted it enough, wished for it, then it would 'just happen'.  Magical thinking is based in a sound principle, the first thing they teach you in driver's education: where the eye goes, the car will follow.  However, it completely ignores the mechanical connection between eye and head, head and body, body and hands, hands and steering wheel, steering wheel and car.  According to magical thinking, the eye controls the car and no other effects have to follow through.  You don't need any understanding of the process of driving, because the only thing that matters is where you focus your eye.  You don't even need to gas up the car or turn it on.  Just keep *looking* at where you want to be, and someday you'll just be there without crossing the intervening space.

There's a good deal of evidence that focusing on positive outcomes improves your life experience.  Thinking about what you want, instead of what you don't want, increases the chances of getting what you want.  Lots of people make ridiculous amounts of money hosting workshops and writing self-help books that expound upon this premise -- and stop there, creating a class of frustrated self-actualized theoretically empowered people who still don't understand why they're not getting anywhere.

Actually acting to *get* what you want increases those chances even further, and that's where practicing magic comes in, and that's the part a lot of people (pagans, Christians, and atheists alike) don't want to talk about.

For me, magic is best described as "an act of will backed by the will to act."  It's a bargain you make with yourself and whatever divine entity you're petitioning.  You say to the entity, "If you will act upon the world to assist me, I will commit to the technical part of the process and do the physical work."

If I want a new job, I'll polish my resume and apply for jobs.  If I want a new romantic partner, I'll actually ask people out.  If I want better health, I'll improve my habits.  That's my part of the bargain: the daily work of what I want.  Driving the car.

Sooo...where does magic come into it?

Luck.  Intuition.  Coincidence. Reinforcement.

Nothing is assured.  I know people who work hard, do all the right things, perform every right action to get to what they want, and they don't get it.  A flat tire on the way to an interview means they miss out on a job.  They don't notice the attractive person sitting at the next table reading their own favorite book.  They turn left, instead of right, and miss out on an opportunity.  I know people whose doctors have made bad decisions, with terrible consequences.

When a friend goes into surgery, I know the gods aren't holding the scalpel.  But do I believe they can be the voice of intuition that helps a doctor make a wise decision.  They can be the second glance a nurse takes to see that a medical dosage was written down wrong, confirm the number and get the patient the right treatment.

I have asked the gods to be the voice that whispers to me "refresh that jobs listing one more time before you log off," so that I didn't miss applying for a great job.  To inspire me to try a new coffeehouse or restaurant and strike up a conversation with the attractive man whose table I ended up sharing.  To help me find the strength and focus to keep acting towards what's important to me, even when I'm exhausted and demoralized.

Magic smoothes the way.  You still have to travel the distance.  That's the difference between it and magical thinking.  Magical thinking genuinely believes that you can convince whatever forces direct the Universe to give you a miracle every time you want one, with no investment or work on your part.

As a famous squirrel taught me when I was but a child, that trick never works.