The Trouble with Dichotomy

Either–or Thinking

Someone is saying it—whaddya mean, dichotomy? Dichotomy

So let’s start with an image: Two circles, one black labelled A, one white labelled B. They are identical in size and shape, completely separate in position, and have no shared content. This is a pictorial representation of a dichotomy. Oxford Dictionary defines dichotomy as “a division…between two things that are…entirely different.

So why does a witch care? Simple. The absolutism of either–or thinking, a concept that goes back at least 2500 years in religion to Zoroastrianism and affects all modern religions “of the book” also permeates occult writing of the past two centuries. For example, Theosophy, a religion (or “esoteric religious tradition,” to quote Joseph Campbell,) was promulgated by the Theosophical Society with Helena Blavatsky primary among its 1875 founders, In Theosophy, the atma (Sanskrit, “soul”) is the Higher Self so often taught in New Age self-help practices to be the individual’s source of true wisdom.The difficulty with the term higher self becomes evident when one asks the obvious question, “Higher than what?”

The notion that a lower self (or consciousness) exists within us all and must be overcome or improved by a higher self (or consciousness) pervades the New Age assumptions drawn from 19th and 20th century esotericism—which, in turn, borrow extensively from Hindu and Buddhist concepts that buried the Old English vocabulary of the witch, and even the Latinate vocabulary of the ceremonial magician. Even the religion of Thelema, product of Aleister Crowley (and Rabelaisian fiction) presupposes that practitioners have a “True Will” that manages their ethical dictum: “Love is the Law, Love under Will.”

Where Witchcraft Meets Dichotomy

Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?

—The Wizard of Oz, Glinda the Good the witch of the north, to Dorothy upon her arrival in Oz

Glinda’s question mirrors a more modern one, often posed to me: “Do you do white magic?” And the questioner invariably looked nervous while asking. Twenty-odd years of teaching, and I reflexively reply, “Is a hammer good when it hits the nail and bad when it hits your thumb?”

Magic is a tool, just as is a hammer. It is a tool used by witches, and a great many others; goodness or badness is a matter of perspective. More to the point, it is not a dichotomy, a division, at all. Goodness and badness as qualities are two ends of a spectrum, and less than that, or more. For a spectrum implies a line, or a series along a line, and goodness and badness do not fall into such a narrow space.  Good magic may mean effective magic, or helpful magic, or healing magic. Bad magic may mean baleful magic, or ineffective magic, or selfish magic. And sometimes selfish magic is beneficial, just as sometimes good magic is interference.

Outside of deliberately contrived fiction, witchcraft connects us to each other, to nature, and to balance. At the solstices, dark or light, humans yearn for a return to a balance. Summer solstice having just passed in the North, the 16 hours of daylight begin to interfere with needful sleep. Walking for fun or exercise is done at times of day when shadows fall broadly, and one instinctively chooses to walk on the shadowed side of the street. In the same way, at winter solstice, with daylight throttled to a scant 8 hours, dry moments of daylight are cherished, and the sun-warmth on skin is welcome, if rare.

labyrinthNorseWicca celebrates the Wheel of the Year, and yet the wheel we speak of is not a wheel but a spiral, for when we reach a point along its cycle, we are in a different time and space. Ancient and modern petroglyphs depict such spirals and their cousin–labyrinths.

Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel…

“The Windmills of Your Mind” from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

 

 

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