Respect and Conduct at Public Sacred Sites

When visiting a sacred site, we can get carried away. We can often forget that at public sacred sites there are others there who are on their own quest, pilgrimage, whatever. We want to rush in, to do the work, to perform ritual, to connect, to sing, chant and celebrate. But we have to think more carefully about shared space.

I recently went to the White Spring with my Druid College Year 3 apprentices. I adore the White Spring; it’s such a lovely site. However, after about 15 minutes various people and groups piled in to temple, and the words “Pagan Circus” comes to mind…

At one point, we had some Druids chanting the awen softly one corner. Lovely. But then another woman began singing in another corner. In a third corner, a man was standing and singing at the top of his lungs (which in that space is really, really loud). Trying to get away from all this noise, I made my way the quietest part of the Mirror Pool in the middle of the temple. I gazed into the water, slowly collecting my thoughts and meditating upon the sacred water, when suddenly three women, two naked and one clothed, clambered into the Mirror Pool, stood in the middle of it and held hands, performing some sort of ritual between themselves. Needless to say, my meditation was, by then, a hopeless cause.

We have so little opportunity to be who we are, especially at such sacred sites as the White Spring. But we also have to bear in mind that this is a public space. There are other Pagans there who are attempting to commune with the energies, the gods and goddesses, the spirits of place, and who don’t need others crashing in on their precious few minutes in that area. These sites are not a Pagan free-for-all. We must respect others and the place. You would never see a group of monks from an abbey in the south of France rock up to Ely Cathedral and suddenly perform Mass, or chant their evensong while the resident monks and visitors alike are doing their thing. We have to bear this in mind, that other people’s experiences are just as important and valid as our own.

And it’s not just Pagans visiting these spaces. The White Spring is open to everyone, from groups of nuns visiting from Spain to families from Yorkshire on a weekend getaway. There are very practical things we need to bear in mind at such places. For one, it’s still illegal to be naked in a public space. For another, not everyone wants to see naked people, for various reasons. Imagine the Catholic nun trying to connect with St Brigid, and then having a group of naked priestesses splashing her habit as they clamber in and out of the sacred pool (there is, indeed, a separate plunge pool for people to dip in, should they wish!). Imagine a primary school teacher asking the young girl what she did on the weekend, and her reply was “Daddy and I went to visit a spring, and watched naked ladies.”

Many of these sacred sites have special out of hours timings for those who wish to hold private ritual. Both Chalice Well and the White Spring offer this, and it should be borne in mind by those who wish to hold ritual at these sites. That way, you won’t be intruding on anyone’s time spent at these sites, or offend anyone who’s beliefs are not your own. It requires advance planning and commitment, but it’s not that hard. I’ve done it myself, and had private time at the White Spring to plunge my naked self in the icy waters with a couple of friends, or visited the Red Spring after closing hours.

Let’s bear in mind other people’s experiences, which are just as valid as our own. Let’s not turn our sacred sites into spaces of competing rituals and rites all happening at the same time. Let’s honour the sacredness of the site, and remember that it’s not just there for us. The energy of these spaces is not only for our own spiritual nourishment. We take, take, take all the time. Receive healing, inspiration and more at these sites, by all means. But remember to give back, by respecting the site, and other people visiting it.

Make it an enjoyable and memorable experience for all.

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Revenge of the Druids

This is a reblog from my channel, DruidHeart, at Witches and Pagans for PaganSquare. To read the full article in its original form,  click HERE.

Treat others as you would like to be treated. Such a simple phrase, yet so hard to comply with when we’ve been hurt or wounded in any way. Our first reaction is to hurt back, to wound in return. Yet is this how we would like to be treated? What if the person who hurt you didn’t even know that they had? What if it was completely intentional? Is it then justifiable to perpetuate the cycle of hurt? How do we, as Druids, work with anger and wounding in today’s society? How do we work with honour?

We don’t really know how the ancient Druids worked with the concepts of honour or revenge. We have an account of how the Druids stood on the shores of their sacred isle at Anglesey, just before the Romans invaded, and called down their magic and their might, black-robed women with wild hair brandishing torches and running between the Druid ranks. What those men and women were doing we just don’t know, but we can be fairly certain that they were protecting their land from invaders. Whether or not their magics would have been invoked without provocation is a total unknown, but here we have an example of defence, rather than offense. Boudicca wiped out Colchester and London in retaliation for the rape of her daughters by the Romans. Whether or not that great queen in history was a Druid or not, or advised by them, is debatable.

But that is ancient history. How do we, as Druids today, work with concepts of revenge? How do we deal with people hurting us, with our rights being taken away? How does the word honour factor into our everyday lives?

It’s difficult, especially when we have such a quick means of communication in our world. Emails and opinions can be shared without a second thought. People can comment, cut down, undermine, say whatever they feel like in the virtual realm and not really suffer very many consequences in the real world. Government lie to us outright, and have been caught out in their lies, and still there is no justice. Even the most kind-hearted person begins the feel the anger and rage boiling within, battling with compassion and love for the world that they live in, for the world they would like to see. How can we deal with these emotions? If someone is attacking us, how do we as Druids protect ourselves and yet find justice? How can we ensure that the balance is maintained?

The first idea that we need to let go of is the idea of revenge. We do not need to hurt someone when they’ve hurt us. We would like to, we desire to hurt them in response, but we don’t need to in order to continue in our daily lives. We have to work out the difference between our desires and our needs, as with so many other aspects of our lives. It’s perfectly human to want to hurt someone when they’ve hurt us, or upset us, or someone we love. It’s up to us how we act on those feelings, however. We have to be emotionally responsible.

Pride is an oft maligned trait in the human race. Pride can be the reason many people seek out to hurt others, trying to “save face” or in an attempt to not to face those aspects of themselves that they so dislike, instead waging a war outside of their inner worlds so that they don’t have to own up to their own shadow selves. Yet pride can also be a good thing. Our pride can be part of our self-respect. In this way, pride will not allow others to walk all over us, but neither does it seek to destroy others who don’t agree with us.

As Druids, we work in service: to the gods, to the ancestors and to the community. We know that we have to give back, that we have a responsibility in this world to ensure that the ecosystem in which we live is functioning well. A balanced, diverse, healthy ecosystem is where there is a give and take, and where relationship is the key matter of the discussion. Those relationships must work together, must find a way to honour each other in order to flow smoothly, to be efficient and benefit the whole. It is this whole that concerns us, as Druids, the most. The whole is what we work in service to, rather than the self. When we heal the whole, when we work holistically, then we also benefit the self. It’s not altruism, it just is.

When we are in positions of power, acts of anger and revenge can be even more devastating to the whole. We must learn how to work honourably with our power, out of self-respect and out of respect for the rest of the world. Without all those relationships, whether it is other humans, the bees, the mountains or the rivers, we would simply not exist. We don’t live in a bubble or a vacuum. We need others in order to survive. We must learn to work with others, even if we disagree with them. When others hurt us, we need to ride the currents of emotion and keep the bigger picture to hand, in order to work honourably. We need to let go of our destructive sense of pride and ego, and build on the better aspects of both. We need to work from a strong and balanced sense of self, and yet be able to let that sense of self go into the light of utter integration for the benefit of the whole.

Author, activist and Wiccan Starhawk write in her book The Twelve Wild Swans: A Journey to the Realm of Magic, Healing and Action:

“We let go of vengeance out of love and concern for our larger community. To be a true leader, we must be able to look at each of our acts and say, “How will this affect the community? Is it worth dividing the community for me to be proved right? Would I not be destroying the very source of support and healing that I most need?

“And we relinquish revenge because we hold a vision of healing, for ourselves and for the world. Magic teaches us that the ends do not justify the means. Instead the means themselves shape the ends that follow. We cannot achieve healing through vengeance. We cannot serve a broad vision by being petty and spiteful.”

If we are to be leaders in our community, allowing our actions to speak as loudly, if not more than our words, we need to relinquish forms of revenge and focus instead on healing. We don’t need to make someone look bad, to punish someone, to destroy them or perform character assassinations. We can’t push out people simply because they disagree with us. People will be annoying, will try to pick fights, will be aggressive or antagonistic. We don’t have to respond like for like. If we are to work as Druids in the community, we need to let go of our desire for the above when we are hurt, and instead focus on the need for healing in the community as a whole.

This doesn’t mean that we allow people to walk all over us. Whether it’s an individual, the government, whatever, we can still stand up for what we believe in. We can speak out against injustices, we can march in protest or start a campaign, raising money and supplies to help those in need. When it becomes personal, we can simply ignore it and get on with our lives, doing the work that needs to be done, having compassion both for ourselves and for the person who is antagonising us. We know that the work still needs to be done, and getting distracted because of false pride or ego is not helping the whole. We can work with our feelings of anger and injustice, and then see where they fit in the grand scheme of things. Will this benefit the whole?

It requires us to look deeply at ourselves first and foremost. When we are able to do that, we can begin to work honourably. We see our own failings, and we have compassion for ourselves. We see those same failings reflected in others, and we have compassion for them. We know that we live in an extremely damaged world, and that perpetuating the hurt and anger will only damage it further. We will stand up for what we believe in. We will speak out against bullies and those who would tout their privilege. We will seek political and social reform. We will endeavour to find the balance, to find a fairer system where the term justice actually means something. We will work to nourish and strengthen this planet that we live on, even as it nourishes us. And we will focus on working in relationship with everyone around us, deeply immersed in our own sense of self-respect and honour.

And in doing so, we relinquish the notion of revenge, and instead focus on healing for ourselves and for the world. That is the power of the Druid.

© Joanna van der Hoeven 2017

The naked form

Beltane is fast approaching – the house martins are back, the bluebells are coming out, the earth underfoot is soft and the air is turning warmer. Many thoughts are turning to the coming summer, the long days, the short nights, the summer clothes, or lack thereof. I’ve heard it said that Beltane arrives when it is warm enough to make love outside without freezing your bits off, alongside the usual ‘when the hawthorn blooms’. But I do wonder, with a smile – is it ever the season in Britain to have your clothes off?

Don’t get me wrong – I love being naked. Without the restriction of clothing, the body moving freely, feeling the air upon your skin, swimming naked; all these are pure bliss. What’s not so lovely about being naked outdoors is sunburn, or bug bites, sitting on thistles or treading around nettles, etc. We humans (sadly, in my opinion) have evolved without all that much fur to protect us from the elements.

On the rare days that it is warm enough here in Britain to get outside naked, you’re more than likely to get sunburn, especially if you’re fair like I am. I’m not a big fan of slathering sunscreen all over my body (I don’t like the feeling of the lotion). I’d rather wear some lightweight clothing to protect my bits from the sun, wearing sunscreen on any exposed bits. That way, it also doesn’t interfere with any insect repellent that I might be wearing – I love lavender, as well as citronella, as they are brilliant at keeping away the mozzies and the midges. However, they can react with your sunscreen, making it less effective, so I try not to combine the two on my skin. So, if you’re not being burned or bitten, it’s probably cold and wet and rainy, which is nice, for a while being outside and naked in, but for a sustained length of time leaving you shivering and probably not terribly healthy in the end.

There are also other considerations to bear in mind when being outdoors and naked – will others see you? It’s still illegal in this country, unless you’re in a designated naturist resort or camp. I’ve spent many summer days at nudist beaches and hot springs, revelling in the lovely feeling of freedom of being naked (bugs are less of an issue on the beach and around the hotsprings, though sunscreen is a constant pain). These are places where people know that they will be seeing other naked people – it’s not a surprise or a shock when they come across the naked human form. We have to consider other people’s issues as well as our own when we are exploring nudity – we can’t just think of ourselves in this regard. How would I feel if my nudity made someone feel uncomfortable? While it’s good to challenge people’s perceptions every now and then, pushing them into uncomfortable situations isn’t all that respectful. Think of the young girl who has been sexually abused by her stepfather, and confronted suddenly with a naked male stranger during ritual or at a pagan camp – that’s not a situation that is taking into consideration her story, her feelings on the matter. Working with compassion means we have to try to understand everyone’s story, even as we are telling our own, and realising that others’ stories matter, even if we haven’t heard them. If we are in a designated area where we know there will be nudity, and where everyone is in the same mindset, then we can be more respectful to the thoughts and feelings of others, whatever their situation.

It’s a great and liberating thing to do, to explore nudity outdoors, getting in touch with your body, spending some time around other naked bodies without a sexual agenda. However, I would say that there is a time and place for this, in order to respect other people’s feelings (and the law). My last trip to Avebury in March saw a couple just on the other side of the bank pleasuring each other in a field – a beautiful affirmation of their feelings, yes, but not entirely appropriate perhaps when walking around with a three-year old. And speaking of sexual agendas, making love in the forest, while perhaps being illegal (indecent exposure) can be a beautiful expression of our souls connecting not only with each other, but the earth itself (though do be prepared for possible bug bites in embarrassing places – or massage each other first with a lavender massage oil!). It all comes down to respect – will you be disturbing anyone? If so, I’m sure that there are other equally fine alternatives.

It all comes down to respect – respect for yourself, for others and for the land. May you find blessed freedom and comfort in your own body!

Reblog: The Coolest Kids on the Playground

This is a reblog of my post, The coolest kids on the playground, for my blog channel DruidHeart at Witches and Pagans.

There is a favourite saying of mine, “You do not have to blow out someone else’s candle for yours to burn more brightly”. Sadly, it seems that in our modern society, this is the way things “work”.
Watch a political debate. It’s just tossing around attempts to besmirch the other party, rather than actually getting things done. It’s infuriating. Sound bites on the news are all about how another party is crap, and theirs is better, without actually talking about the issue at hand.
See what happens on a school playground. Those who are different, who don’t fit in with the popular kids, are usually pushed around or gossiped/rumour mongered by those who are a part of the elite popular gang. I have no idea why it happens, but it happened over thirty years ago when I was in elementary and high school, it happens now and it will happen in the future, most likely. I don’t know if kids learn this from their parents, or television, or society – all I know is that kids can be cruel.
Even in Pagan circles, people put down or condemn others for various reasons: the “newbie”, the “fluffy bunny”, the rival coven, hearth or Order. All it comes down to, basically, is this playground mentality. Some people never got out of it. Even the most intelligent, articulate person can fall back into this frame of mind, to make themselves feel better.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t look critically at others’ behaviour, and especially our own. What I am trying to say is that we do not need to belittle anyone whose path may be different from our own.
I have known some popular Pagan leaders to put down other Pagans in front of their own group. This always leaves me with a bad feeling in my mouth – it is utterly distasteful. It does a disservice to everyone involved. Even the most militant, ethically-minded person I know has failed in this regard on at least one occasion, shuddering at the thought of once belonging to another group and verbally putting them down in front of a gathering of about a dozen individuals. This shocked me, but then I realised that we are all human, and we all have failings. We can all regress to the playground.

To read the full article, click HERE

When compassion is challenged…

Some people have differing opinions to ours.  That is their entitlement – we all may agree or disagree with each other, have different viewpoints and perspectives.  Only we can see the world through our own eyes, layered with our own experiences, trials and tribulations. Only we know our own story fully and completely.  No other can know us the way we know ourselves, the reasons for our actions and the choices we make.

Everyone is on their own path, fighting their own battles, making their own decisions according to the principles that they live by, the culture and society they grew up in, and their own soul’s calling.  We should never berate another for following their own path. We can certainly disagree, and stand up for what we believe in, whether that is against a political party, a company, an abusive relationship – but we must always remember that belittling someone is never the right thing to do.  People will make bad choices, people will not care about the same things that we do. However, making fun of them does not solve anything. Looking down on someone means that you have placed yourself in a position of authority or power over them – an illusory pedestal.

meat coThe photo here is an example of a meat company who are putting down vegans in order to gain more people to their “side”, using “humour” as a unifier against some perceived threat to their way of life. What we have to realise is that there are no sides in life – only differing choices and opinions.  There is no Us and Them – there is only the human experience.  The entire Us and Them mentality has led to the most atrocious human behaviour possible – war and genocide, murder and rape, crime and racism, just to name a few.

Those who choose to become vegan or vegetarian have their own reasons – health, weight loss, environmentalism, religion.  It is wrong to belittle someone for any of these reasons. In fact, it is wrong to belittle anyone – end of story.  I disagree with people all the time, and I know I’m not perfect, but when I catch myself belittling someone I do my best to stop it, to realise that they are on their own journey, and to have compassion for them.  I do not want to be like the person who wrote this sign. I choose to behave differently.

I chose to become vegetarian twenty years ago, and am currently in the switch to vegan. This is my personal choice, based on research and religious reasons that ring true to my own soul. This may not be the same choice for other people, and I understand that.  However, I do tire of people making fun of my choice – I have had to endure that for over twenty years.  It is inevitable at dinner parties where someone who doesn’t know you very well, and who is a self-confessed “meat lover”, will question your choice at the dinner table, confronting you on your life path when all you want to do is eat with a good conscience and enjoy your meal with your friends or family, in harmony.  The ubiquitous “screaming vegetables” always comes up, and I must explain my reasons for becoming vegetarian or remain silent. Sometimes I choose to, other times I simply let it be. For the sake of peace, I make a decision based on compassion for all those who are sharing the meal with me. I only wish certain others could do the same.

Would it be correct to challenge someone on their religion at the dinner table? I don’t think so.  What about their decision to join Amnesty International, or Greenpeace?  Would it be right to poke fun at someone because they looked different? We must appreciate each other’s diversity, and in that appreciation realise that we are all human beings on our own journeys- that unifying factor within the diversity is what compassion is all about.

looking downThat is why in response to the photo above, I am posting this other photo.  It reflects and is only my opinion, but it matters to me in my spiritual journey.  Zen Buddhism tells us to hold to our opinions lightly, and indeed I see the wisdom in this. Our opinions are always changing – we are always learning and growing.  However, we must do so with compassion and awareness of the journey of others as well, even those who challenge us and our opinions.  I must have compassion for the people who own that meat company, realising that they have their own reasons for writing this sign, however much I disagree with them. I can voice my own opinion against it with this blog, with my words, with respect and as much understanding as my situation allows.  I don’t have to think it is right. I don’t have to agree with them. But I shall not belittle them for their opinion.

Watching Parliament in full swing makes me cringe – I remember the first time I saw a “discussion” which never let the other side finish what they were saying, instead making so much noise as to drown out the current speaker’s voice in a wall of derision.  This was how our country was and is being governed. It saddened and enraged me – this so-called civilised way of government.  How much better could it be if we just took the time to listen to each other without judgement, allowing the other person their say, and respectfully choosing to disagree if it does not ring true to our souls?  If the government cannot govern their behaviour in Parliament, why should the people? I found it so saddening, and still do…

Never be afraid to speak out against what you think is wrong, or for what you believe in. However, do so with compassion, with respect. Otherwise, you are simply acting and reacting to the bad behaviour of others. Remember also that acting with compassion does not necessarily elevate you above these others – you are not “good” for acting compassionately. You are simply acting compassionately – that is all.

Live with honour and dignity. Act with love and compassion. It’s not that hard. Blessings on your journey. X

Animism Today

P1040954 (1024x768)What does it mean to be an animist in today’s world? Druid Emma Restall Orr describes animism as that which acknowledges the inherent value in all things.  This description, for me, is the best offered so far.

Many people can see animism as a throw-back to times when people were not so intelligent; the cavemen who believed in spirits imbuing inanimate objects. What I would offer is a redefinition of inanimate for, in my worldview, nothing could be inanimate.

How is this so? Well, I’m not a physicist however I’m pretty sure that everything is composed of atoms that are constantly moving (atomic theory).  Ancient philosopher Heraclitus theorised this yonks ago, claiming that everything is in a state of flux. Therefore, how could anything be inanimate? Most people, when considering the word inanimate, seem to think of things that don’t move, that aren’t “alive”.

So how does the dictionary define inanimate? There are a few: 1.not animate; lifeless. 2.spiritless; sluggish; dull. Synonyms: inorganic, vegetable, mineral; inert, dead. 2. inactive, dormant, torpid. Considering these descriptions, we must also consider the word “alive”. Oxford English dictionary describes it as 1.(of a person, animal, or plant) living, not dead; 2. continuing in existence or use.  Not very helpful, is it? Animate is something that is not lifeless, and alive is something that is not dead. So what is dead then?

I could go on.  Is the desk that my computer on dead? When did it cease to live? It is still in existence and continuing in existence and use, as the OED states something that is alive does.  The only change has been in the form of the matter. When someone dies, they change through the processes of decay, returning to the earth.  So have they truly died, or merely changed form?

If we cannot define what is alive and what is dead, what is animate and what is inanimate, then in essence everything should be treated equally.  With such loose terms we cannot and should not push aside what we do not fully comprehend.  Yet every single day millions of people do so, declaring that something is merely a tool, a resource, something to be used for their personal benefit.  The inherent value in something is in relation to its usefulness. Again, usefulness is such a broad and subjective term.

If the oceans are merely a resource, if a chicken is only a resource, then it loses its inherent value in the fact of it simply being.  We can then abuse it to our own purpose – mostly selfishness and greed.  We are able to pollute the seas because we no longer respect them. We cage hens and kill them once their usefulness in egg-production is up, or dairy cows when they have “dried up”.  They no longer have any value.

Animism honours each and every thing for what it is, whether it is bird or bee, human or cat, tree or rock, mountain or lake.  Each thing is made up of millions of other things. Each individual thing on this planet contains parts of other things.  Not only is everything inherent in its own being and value, but everything is interconnected.

Everything is made up of nothing – the essential building blocks of everything is nothing, if we go deeper in physics.  In this, we are all connected. We are all made up of things that are constantly in motion – energy always moving and creating different forms that we recognise as sibling, house, lorry.  For me, this blows my mind.

So does this mean that I need to bow down and worship the lorry that takes away our recycling?  Well, no, not really, though it’s an interesting concept.  Many pagans who also are animists have an apprehension or dislike for bowing down to anyone – but that is a separate issue. I have no problem in bowing to my gods.  We then have to define what constitutes deity. Again, I digress.

Recognising the inherent value of everything does not mean worshipping it. So, in seeing that the blackbird is energy taken form as a black-feathered bird with glorious song, I can see its inherent beauty and value.  But what of things we do not consider to be beautiful? I would posit that as beauty is so subjective, there can again be no limits on value.  Is a virus beautiful? For me personally, I think it is a remarkable thing. For someone who is dying from one, they may not see it in such a light.

Animism today is not walking around believing that the Moon is a goddess (though it may be for some, to each their own). It sees the inherent value of the moon and acknowledges it. We can honour as deity what the moon does to our planet, to ourselves. We can attach godlike qualities to these phenomena, creating a relationship with it through seeing them as archetypes.  We can lose the whole archetype consideration altogether and think of gods as things that can kill. Deity has far too many definitions and is again so subjective. It can be hard to have a relationship with something as vast as a mountain, so we create gods that we can relate to on a human level. It is difficult to have a relationship with an abstract, such as love, or anger. We relate to these as gods when we see the value of them and how they affect our lives.  The thunderstorm is simply a thunderstorm, yet it is also a wondrous coming together of energies that can change our lives forever.

In Druidry, we often hear the term “the song”. This is a poetic phrase to mean the energy and quality of a certain thing, whether it is the song of the wind through the leaves, or of the cat hunting in the backyard. It is the coming together of energies creating something that has its own inherent value simply by its matter of being. In animism, the song is what defines something as different from other things.

Through animism today, we can learn to create better relationships with the world around us. We learn of compassion and understanding, of differences and similarities.  We learn a new sense of gratitude and wonder. In my opinion, these things are not childlike or primitive, but the essential parts of being an evolved being.

This blog post is my contribution to The Animists Carnival: http://lifthrasirsuccess.wordpress.com/animist-blog-carnival/

(This month, blog Eaarth Animist is the host)

Beware of Trolls

Can we look for reasons behind why some people behave the way they do?  Psychologists have been attempting to do that for hundreds of years, perhaps priests and other members of the community who wanted to help said before that.  In today’s day and age, we have the internet phenomenon of “trolling”.

According to Wikipedia, trolling is when someone attempts to sow discord on the internet by trying to start arguments and upset people.  They can do this in a variety of ways – posting off-topic messages to detract from the original intention, or posting inflammatory words on groups and online forums in the hopes of kicking things off.  From the wiki site:-

“Early incidents of trolling were considered to be the same as flaming, but this has changed with modern usage by the news media to refer to the creation of any content that targets another person. The Internet dictionary NetLingo suggests there are four grades of trolling: playtime trolling, tactical trolling, strategic trolling, and domination trolling. The relationship between trolling and flaming was observed in open-access forums in California, on a series of modem-linked computers in the 1970s, like CommuniTree which when accessed by high school teenagers became a ground for trashing and abuse. Some psychologists have suggested that flaming would be caused by deindividuation or decreased self-evaluation: the anonymity of online postings would lead to disinhibition amongst individuals Others have suggested that although flaming and trolling is often unpleasant, it may be a form of normative behavior that expresses the social identity of a certain user group  According to Tom Postmes, a professor of social and organisational psychology at the universities of Exeter, England, and Groningen, The Netherlands, and the author of Individuality and the Group, who has studied online behavior for 20 years, “Trolls aspire to violence, to the level of trouble they can cause in an environment. They want it to kick off. They want to promote antipathetic emotions of disgust and outrage, which morbidly gives them a sense of pleasure.” Adams, Tim (24 July 2011). “How the internet created an age of rage”. London: The Guardian (The Observer).

“Trolling is a game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of most of the players. The troll attempts to pass as a legitimate participant, sharing the group’s common interests and concerns; the newsgroups members, if they are cognizant of trolls and other identity deceptions, attempt to both distinguish real from trolling postings, and upon judging a poster a troll, make the offending poster leave the group. Their success at the former depends on how well they – and the troll – understand identity cues; their success at the latter depends on whether the troll’s enjoyment is sufficiently diminished or outweighed by the costs imposed by the group. Trolls can be costly in several ways. A troll can disrupt the discussion on a newsgroup, disseminate bad advice, and damage the feeling of trust in the newsgroup community. Furthermore, in a group that has become sensitized to trolling – where the rate of deception is high – many honestly naïve questions may be quickly rejected as trollings. This can be quite off-putting to the new user who upon venturing a first posting is immediately bombarded with angry accusations. Even if the accusation is unfounded, being branded a troll is quite damaging to one’s online reputation. “ (Donath, Judith S. (1999). “Identity and deception in the virtual community”. In Smith, Marc A.; Kollock, Peter. Communities in Cyberspace (illustrated, reprint ed.). Routledge. pp. 29–59. ISBN 978-0-415-19140-1. Retrieved 2009-03-24.)

The term trolling these days can refer to not only those people who have a clear agenda in creating discord or playing identity games, but also those for whom bullying is an enjoyable pastime.  Online bullying tends to fall under the category of trolling, perhaps because it is simply easier to call all those who misbehave on the internet with a single label.

I have been subject to various trolls over my online lifetime – both those who simply wish to sow discord on online forums, those who have a hidden agenda and those who are simply bullies.  The question remains – why on earth would someone want to do such a thing?

In a way, I’m not sure this question can ever be answered, for we cannot get inside someone’s head. We can understand some of their motives, but unless we have access to every single second of their lives which may have influenced their behaviour, we are still making assumptions, which may never be proved.

Some of “my” trolls have sought to change the topic of conversation, for reasons only known to them. I can speculate that they didn’t like my opinion, or that they may be working with those who are on the “other” side of the situation, debate or discussion.  Trying to return back to the subject time and again can be futile, especially when there are several trolls working together. In this case, I have simply walked away from that discussion, forum or group if I feel that the moderators are not doing their job correctly in keeping things going forward on topic, troll-free.

Other trolls have been bullies, such as on this blog where a particular troll was attempting to silence me from any further posting for whatever reason.  Swearing and telling me that I should seek psychiatric help among other things led me to believe that the individual in question was projecting their own fears and anxieties onto me, a faceless person (they may or may not have known me personally).  At any rate, any of my thoughts on this person’s behaviour would simply be speculation.

So, what can we do about it? Are we simply to accept that there are trolls online, and we are to ignore them, as many people have suggested – “Do Not Feed The Trolls”? Or is there something that we can do?

For moderated online communities, I feel the responsibility should like with those who claim to be moderators. Some moderators may have their own agendas, however, and so are perhaps not the ideal people to perform such a task.  If a moderator on an online forum, group or community was part of a company, and a discussion was taking place in where the objectives of that company were in question, they may simply close down the thread or delete it for no apparent reason.  In this instance, freedom of speech is being impinged upon, and there is very little we can do about other than try to work around said moderators, to try and go over their heads to a “higher source” who may or may not listen to our opinions, suggestions or queries.

If it is a “personal” attack, such as on a personal blog, what can we do? Do we delete all the posts that this person has made, and simply ignore it?  I haven’t – I have left these person’s posts in place to show how life is for some people – it is a testament to human interactions, to human behaviour and to society and culture as a whole.  Only when the remarks have become so antagonistic as to resort to swearing and using violent terms have I decided to no longer accept posts from these people.  I am using these trolls as an example to other readers as to how some people behave, either in an online community or, heaven forbid, in real life.

In a way, I have a very real sympathy for these trolls.  This may be totally imagined, and it is only a personal assumption, but I believe these people to have very unsatisfying lives in general.  Why else would someone want to do such a thing?

In our world of ever-increasing virtual interaction, it is my fear that more and more people will not be able to engage with others in a respectful and honourable way. Without that face to face interaction, will we see an ever-growing increase in such bad behaviour, which could also impact upon real-life situations?  Will this bad behaviour, ingrained and learnt from an early age be taken out into the real world, where this will occur more and more in face to face situations? I sincerely hope not – it’s bad enough that it is occurring online.

So, what can we do about it?  We can make people aware of what is occurring, for starters.  We can then deal with each interaction with as much respect and honour as we are able.  We can make points known, and then if the discussion falls into chaos and disrespect due to trolls, we can refuse to engage, simply stating why we are refusing and then walk away.

Sometimes walking away from a bully doesn’t work, however. Sometimes they get their best shot when your back is turned.  All we can do is to remember that, as the heathen saying goes, “We Are Our Deeds”.  Whether these are online opinions or not, I feel that this saying is applicable to everything that we do in our lives.  Sure, not everyone of us is a shining example of humanity, and simply because we have done less than honourable deeds in the past does not mean that we continue in dishonour – we can work to gain that back through everything that we say and do today.

And so, for all the trolls out there who may be reading this – remember this saying. We are our deeds.  It’s not too late.

And for those who are being plagued by trolls, I offer up a previous blog post which may help to overcome any feelings instilled by this abhorrent behaviour:  https://downtheforestpath.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/is-that-so/