On vision, visionaries and misneach

The third virtue on ADF’s official list is vision, defined as “the ability to broaden one’s perspective to have a greater understanding of our place/role in the cosmos, relating to the past, present and future.”

The goal, perhaps, is to be a visionary or a seer. While the latter is especially associated with divination or trance-work, it also derives its essential meaning from the visual sense: a seer is one who sees.

Visionaries, however, are simultaneously praised and damned. We admire the folks who engage in speculative or futuristic thinking — and then deride them as fantasists whose ideas have little grounding in fact or reality. Both aspects — the positive and negative — are part of the actual dictionary definition. At its core comes an essential value judgment: Which ideas are ahead of their time, and which are just plain nutty?

For an amusing cinematic depiction of the visionary dichotomy, watch “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” The protagonists — who attempt to use New Age concepts to create a New Earth Army of peace — can be seen as true visionaries or, more likely, as likable goofballs who had a few too many special brownies. As it happens, the military actually did form such a brigade — albeit under a different name — and did eventually use the ideas for the psychological torture of prisoners of war. The line between nuttiness and applicability breaks down in an uncomfortable way, quite possibly leading to the rotten reviews the movie had. (We prefer things to be all satire or all seriousness, not a complex mix thereof.)

The relationship a seer has with futurity and the cosmos seems to be a bit more personal. Both seers and visionaries can be called “prophets,” but seers are more intimately tied to religious or spiritual practices. Think of the volva during a seidr ritual or the oracles of the Greco-Roman world, who set self aside so as to become a mouthpiece for the Gods. Divination — when done in the oracular spirit by putting self aside and letting the divine speak — falls under the aegis of seership. While a visionary may use the arts of the secular (and popular) psychic, the seer is closer kin to the shaman, an inhabitant of a complex spiritual ecosystem with which s/he is in communication.

Is it virtuous to be a visionary or a seer? While you’d hope so, the frank answer is no. Some — of either kind — will defraud others, delude themselves or work solely for their own gain. Others may be diagnosed as mentally ill — and even truly be mentally ill, since there’s no set-in-stone standard. One person’s madman is often another’s prophet.

Is it spiritually valuable to be a visionary or seer? While I’ve never been a visionary, I can vouch for seership’s spiritual value. It deepens my relationship with the cosmos by allowing me to see and participate in the spiritual ecosystem. It allows me to help others in unconventional ways. But I can see instances in which “visionary” gifts turn out to be a curse — not being able to differentiate between fantasy and fact, Otherworld and this world — or seeing realities that one cannot avert. The Trojan Cassandra would be a case of the latter.

Of course, perhaps “vision” as a virtue doesn’t refer to spiritual vision, but what we would call “perspective.” Aedh Rua calls this misneach, or “right measure.” He associates such perspective with courage: “You have Misneach when you know that the most important thing is your own honor, integrity, and the Gods, and when you are therefore able to face danger calmly, knowing that your fate is less important than your actions” (Celtic Flame, 48). 

Of course, right measure doesn’t mean you give your life up for meaningless causes, even if you’re in the right. If you’re unarmed and a robber is pointing a gun at you, demanding your hard-earned cash, you’re committing no sin by complying. Perspective asks: “What’s more important, the $60 in my wallet or staying alive to provide for my spouse and children?” Perspective is never black and white; it takes into account the complexities of a situation, both the actors and the action.

Perspective, then, can be seen as a virtue. Someone who views things in correct proportions — mountains as mountains and mole hills as mole hills — is less likely to engage in petty acts of retribution, or drown in a well of panic. Perspective is more than just visual sense, however: it’s essentially comparative in nature. You can’t tell if it’s a mountain or a mole hill unless you look at some other object — a tree, a blade of grass, even yourself — and gauge the size differential. Similarly, a lost toy may seem like a major tragedy for a 2-year-old with virtually no life experience, but it’s nothing to her 35-year-old mother who has survived the loss of many toys, not to mention keys, a debit card and the beaded handbag that would look really great with that outfit.

Perspective, then, is based primarily upon proper comparison rather than simply “vision.” It’s certainly not limited to the physical sense, either; we compare textures with our hands and the loudness of sounds with our ears. It’s not simply enough to perceive; you need to process the input of your senses.

This can lead to a greater understanding of our place and role in the multi-verse, certainly. But that’s not why it’s a virtue. It’s a virtue because, first and foremost, it allows us to see our place and role within our families and communities — whatever designation of “humans in groups” you’d like to use. Perspective improves social cohesion by lessening the drive for extreme reaction.

At least that’s my take on it. What’s yours?

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About whitecatgrove

The musings of a Druid priestess, singer, poet and musician in Upstate New York.
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