Beginning Day 10 (or 11? See yesterday’s post!) of my 30-days-of-blogging challenge, I want to first acknowledge that the small actions I referenced at the end of yesterday’s post (including reaching out to the diversity training platform with feedback) have already started to bear fruit! I was deeply encouraged to receive an almost immediate response (on a Saturday!) from someone who clearly deeply engaged with my feedback and reassured me that disability and neurodiversity trainings are actively on the way. This was very refreshing and encouraging. Don’t lose hope. Those baby steps can matter. I intend to follow up when the trainings are released to request that my employer makes them required or recommended. One step at a time.
So for today, feeling lighter and optimistic, I’d like to switch gears to talk about what I had originally planned to talk about yesterday and perhaps combine it with the topic I had set aside for today. And that is the other half of this blog’s title: Animism. We’re approximately a third of the way through this 30-day challenge and most posts so far have focused more explicitly on the “autistic” side of things, but what about the “animist” part? What does that mean, or what does it mean to me? And why does it matter, why do I consider it such an important part of my identity as to be on par with being autistic (in terms of its inseparability from self), and how does it relate to being autistic, for me?
The topic of Animism (and the many related and intersecting topics and labels, for which I don’t have a better/broader overarching term than “animism” despite the potential for even this term to be incomplete or misunderstood) is overwhelmingly huge and I don’t intend to try to cover it in any comprehensive way in the space of just one post. But I want to draw attention to it today in the context of my identity, and how (for me) it has some distinct parallels with autism as part of my identity.
Among an animistic community I am part of, a common theme of discussion amongst newcomers is a sense of finally finding language to describe an experience they’ve had all along. Another common theme is feeling “out of sync” with other folks. Given that most of us in the community are situated in a culture of colonization, heavily overlaid with Christian ideals (or pseudo-Christian ideals) and/or an almost religious degree of dogmatic obsession with scientific materialism and atheism, it can feel ostracizing and uncomfortable to experience the world from an animistic perspective.
The language I’m using here is intentional. For me, animism is not “a belief system” or a religion or anything external that can be “bought into” any more than autism is. I don’t choose to be autistic, and I don’t choose to be an animist. I don’t choose to turn either one of them on or off (nor can I), but I can certainly mask or suppress the experiences.
I want to be very clear that I don’t consider these experiences to be the same and I’m certainly not speaking for all autistic people or all animists. In fact, I may very well only be speaking for myself. There’s a reason I started this blog (well, several, but there’s one really big one), and that’s because it didn’t already exist. I couldn’t find anyone talking about this, so I knew I had to.
Sure, I do find people talking about the neurodivergent experience within some pagan spaces (although I’ve also found it’s common to find hesitancy around the “a-word”, autistic). I don’t find much conversation about animism within autistic spaces--I find a lot of outspoken atheists and a handful of Christians and agnostics, plus plenty of folks who never bring anything up around these topics so I would never know.
So to come back to the parallels, keeping in mind that I am not claiming equivalencies or even correlations, just the parallels in my experience: I’ve known from birth (essentially) that I was “different”, that I moved through the world differently, that I experienced the world differently. It took me many years to find language to describe my experiences in the world (and consequently the communities who shared these experiences). I was in my twenties before I heard either of these “a-words” which so neatly described my experiences of difference. One word was “autistic”. The other word was “animist”.
I’ve talked about what it felt like to be an unrecognized autistic in a neuronormative world, but what about the other half of that? As an animist, I have direct experience of relationship with life force throughout everything. It’s not a moralistic or belief-based thing--it’s experiential, much like how being autistic is for me. I don’t have rigid, dogmatic beliefs about what other people should experience or believe or do, it is not like that. But I have conversations with my cats, with the trees, and I have deep respect for the traditions of folks who still live in close contact with the land itself. I struggle at times to differentiate between which of my experiences come from an autistic sensory system and which come from an animistic orientation to life. When I move into a space and I feel the space communicating with me, is it because I’m open to that communication due to my animistic perspective, or is it because my autistic nervous system delivers that information to me whether I’m open to it or not? I see it as a mixture of both and this is why I find the experiences (personally) inseparable.
This is why I bring both perspectives together in my writing. I fully recognize that not everyone who finds my work will be interested in both sides, but for me they are not separable. I can only make sense of my autistic sensory experiences through the lens of my animistic perspective. And I can only engage in authentic animism by honoring the reality of my autistic nervous system.
In fact, as I’ve alluded to before, my impetus for seeking formal diagnosis and recognition as autistic came from animistic prompting. If not for my desire to work through the shadows in my inner cosmology and come into right relationship with all aspects of myself and my environment, I would not have been willing or able to see the significance of formal recognition. I was poking along eschewing labels but seeking to be of greater service to community, and I was hit in the face with the awareness that I couldn’t do so fully without properly naming and coming into explicit relationship with the nature of my atypical neurology. For me, accepting and embracing this “label” was an act of forging intentional, animistic relationship and it was a stepping stone to serving community.
And I do feel the parallels on a daily basis. I’ve spoken recently about neuronormativity creating stumbling blocks for me as an autistic person. There’s also inherent disconnection associated with living as an animist in a world that’s not predominantly animistic. It can be jarring to interact with folks on a daily basis who aren’t in intentional relationship with their environments, and aren’t even aware of that. I make no claims to be Indigenous or even close to it--my recent ancestors are all colonizers, and this too informs the way I approach life, actively working to undo or at least reduce harm done wherever possible, knowing my life itself represents a debt which can never be fully repaid.
At the same time, I feel it in my body when a colleague makes a casual remark comparing an expensive medical procedure required to care for one of the animals I’ve accepted responsibility for to some luxury consumer item, as if these are equal ways to spend energy and resources. I feel it in my body when a friend casually suggests that I remove some trees or place kill traps or use poison. We are all in relationship, and sometimes death is part of that relationship. I eat meat. I am not naive about the reality of the suffering that occurs for me to live. But, for me, part of having an animist’s perspective is to recognize these relationships and understand the sacrifices being made. I may not have the spoons to reduce the harm as much as I would like, and I am constantly locked in questions of disability rights and environmentalism and where these intersect. I believe we all belong, and I will adamantly speak out against anything that verges into ecofascism or eugenics territory. But none of this is casual, and that’s where the animism piece comes in.
I recognize myself as part of a larger community of life. In some ways, I “take” from that community a great deal just in order to survive. In other ways, I “give” as much as I can--and sometimes too much, which is its own kind of “taking”, martyrdom. What being an animist means, for me, is not so much that I follow specific rules of moral behavior, but that I stay in relationship and I stay conscious. I study and examine the harm done by capitalism, and I participate in it for survival as that’s what’s necessary in this place and time. I recognize the significance of taking a life, no matter how “small”, and I still engage in it for survival. We all must--humans cannot eat without killing.
But this is where I end up feeling “out of sync” in a world which is not predominantly animistic. The same way my atypical neurology gives me experiences which most others do not, cannot, recognize or accommodate adequately, my animistic experiences keep me disconnected from others operating from a set of rule-based morality vs. relationship-based morality. Whatever choices a person ends up making, I feel in my body the difference between making those choices in relationship with those affected (human and more-than-human) and making those choices while disconnected from those impacts.
This has been a meandering, perhaps subdued post, which may or may not resonate with folks. So I will wrap things up here with just one more quiet note: Animism is just one more label, and it’s a label I’ve found to describe my experiences. You might feel resonance with your experiences and yet feel strong dissonance with this label. That’s Okay. I’m not here to tell you what labels to use or not use, this is just the one I have found. There are many beautiful souls doing a wide range of beautiful work in this world, living in conscious relationship with others (for a wide range of definitions of “others”) and I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of that in what I can offer. I love when I see someone making concrete, positive change in the world to dismantle systemic oppression for humans (while ultimately having a positive-to-neutral impact on the more-than-human world) who feels zero connection to what I describe as animism. That person is likely having a much bigger impact than I am, so who the heck would I be to judge, even if I wanted to? It’s just the case that, for me, I can’t conceive of a way to approach justice, liberation, community health, or anything else I might advocate for that doesn’t grow directly from my animistic experience.
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