A sort-of-hiatus. One that involves staying.

Blah, Blah, Blah, 2008, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches

Those of you who are regular readers of my blog will have noticed the decrease in the number of posts recently. I’ve been struggling to find a reason to carry on doing what I do, and what I do has increasingly become ‘filling the gaps around the more ambitious and hungry’. 

This is probably going to come across as some sort of self-discovery blog post, but it isn’t intended that way. This isn’t me being enthusiastic in an attempt to convince people that I’ve got my shit together. This is just simply me being honest.

Way back in 2007, in a completely different form, my blog was created as a way of documenting my personal exploration of paranormal research. I was a person who had believed in ghosts for a long time who was just turning her back on those ideas and all the baggage that came with them. Today I look around and I don’t find much of that wonder I used to find and that makes me sad.

I’m tired of this weird cycle that I have become caught in these last few years. An ever increasingly toxic relationship with the ‘skeptic movement’ that welcomed me with open arms so many years ago has left me recently feeling jaded. Insistence that I was ‘whining‘ or ‘being contrarian‘ when I was moved to question authority figures within the movement left me feeling the same urge a rebellious teenager feels to smoke cigarettes – not really wanting to, but knowing it would piss mum off. That’s not a good feeling.

To stay ahead as a skeptic paranormal researcher it seems that you have to throw the same old tired skeptic cliches at these stories without actually bothering to investigate them at all. You must not question other skeptics and their analysis of a case either.

That isn’t a healthy approach.

Pigeonholing strange reports as ‘hoax’ or ‘delusional’ or ‘bullshit’ or ‘probably nothing’ isn’t at all exciting. Being a part of the ‘Skeptical Movement’ actually seemed to halt my development as a person, and this is a realisation that saddens me a lot.

There often seems to be too many elbows jarring ribs in an effort to stay at the top of the game (whatever the game might be, and whatever the top might look like). I am not interested in churning out skeptical take downs of paranormal news stories or the eye-witness testimonies of strange encounters people have had.

We, as skeptics, often blame belief-orientated people of confirming their own biases by cherry picking information that suits their desired view of the world, but non-believers are guilty of this too. Some of the skeptical authorities who are quoted time and time again as expert sources are the most guilty.

Skepticism, it seems, doesn’t take well to being organised.

When I recently read Greg’s ‘Stop Worrying! There Probably is an AfterlifeI cried when reading about deathbed visitations because I forgot how touching I’ve always found such stories. I didn’t agree with his conclusions, but the book was a joy. Just the other day while talking to a friend we exchanged stories of weird stuff we’ve both experienced despite both not believing in ghosts – these experiences of mine have always been things I’ve swept under the rug when around other skeptics and I’m no longer sure why I felt the need to do so.

I also had a sort of mini-revelation when I read Will Storr’s ‘The Heretics’. The message I took from the book (among others) was something I had known all along really, but had sort of put aside in my mind.

People are stories.

It’s a wonderful thing when you think about it. People are stories… and I came to realise that I was more interested in those stories than I was of being right. I don’t see the appeal in ensuring people know that you are right and they are wrong anymore.

I am a ghost geek. I sometimes investigate weird things and most of the research I do these days is conducted away from my blog where is remains confidential and ethical. I like it that way. It feels… better.

I am a ghost geek, and I don’t think you can call me a ghost skeptic anymore. I still use skepticism (or scepticism, if you prefer the c to the k), but the baggage the ‘skeptical movement’ brings weighed me down and stopped me realising what my own story was, and I fully intend to carry on discovering it. This means I probably won’t blog about paranormal happenings as much as I used to I’m afraid.

Of course, I’ll share my thoughts often enough, and book reviews when I have time… and should I feel compelled to write an examination of the latest ghost news then I will, but know this… I’ll do it because it interests me, because I want to and not because it’s one of my chores.

 

Clean houses: Mi Casa es Su Casa?

clean

If Bigfoot researchers wish to be taken seriously, they could start by cleaning their own house. The biggest threat to their credibility is not skeptics nor a ridiculing public but instead those who provide an endless stream of bogus claims and evidence,”

The above is a quote from Bed Radford featured in an article on the International Business Times website about the recent Rick Dyer photos of the alleged big foot body. Dodgy Bigfoot “body” aside, the thing that really grabbed my attention was the idea that other individuals were in some way able to rectify the problem caused by people like Dyer.

This is an impossible task because there is a lack of formality to bigfoot research, just like ghost research and other forms of paranormal research. There are no official guidelines or standards, and there are no membership requirements meaning that anybody is able to become a Bigfoot researcher, a ghost researcher, a Chupacabra researcher, and so on.

When we think of group moral responsibility we think of a whole group being liable for the morally wrong actions of one or several members of the group.  This type of responsibility typically involves groups possessing a significant degree of solidarity, and that just isn’t the case within paranormal research fields.

The word ‘community’ when applied to most forms of paranormal research is often loosely defined. Even those organisations which seek to make a unified progress within such research fields often have debates within their membership about what approach and methodologies are best! Within all communities then – no matter how loosely or well formed – it’s safe to say that there will always be those who act irrationally or irresponsibly. There will always be hoaxers, there will always be peadophile ghost hunters, there will always be arsonists. Is it really the responsibility of loosely formed collectives who don’t see eye-to-eye at the best of times to own those problems?

Sometimes, perhaps, but I don’t think it’s necessary for researchers to take to a metaphorical podium and speak out against every hoaxer or irresponsible researcher.

Mi Casa...

From personal experience I know that within ghost research communities there are individuals whose behaviour is horrendous, irrational and unethical on a sometimes upsetting scale. However there are people within those same communities who try to discourage such behaviour and offer a way of learning to become good and rational researchers, but this doesn’t negate the the irrational and irresponsible individuals or teams and it never will.

That’s an impossible task. There will always be such people and their existence does not mark some sort of failure on the part of the rest of the community whatsoever.

To put this in another context, let’s look at skeptics. A large group of individuals that are so diverse that trying to organise them is likened to ‘herding cats’. When certain skeptics made claims that sounded suspiciously like Social Darwinism, or were accused of sexually harrassing others that was a failure on the part of the individuals and nobody else. Responding to such happenings by claiming they meant no skeptic could be taken seriously would have been a quite a generalisation and a lazy dismissal.

I think I’ve gone slightly off track from Radford’s quote at this point, but I, for one, think this also works the other way around. The world of paranormal research is messy, complex and not perfect but I don’t think it has ever claimed to be. Within smaller communities there are always people trying to make things better, but it’s a struggle. They’re up against a lot, and I feel bad for them when they’re dismissed out of hand for not keeping their houses clean.

Dr Jenner’s House: a betrayal of science?

Jeners ghost

Dr Edward Jenner is considered a hero of science. His work saved countless lives and his development of the first ever Vaccine (to prevent smallpox) eventually led to the eradication of the disease and the development of  the Science of Immunology which continues to save lives in the present  day.

Pity then that The Jenner Trust see it as appropriate to cheapen the history of Edward Jenner and his work by inviting ghost hunters to attend “paranormal investigations” in the Jenner Museum.

dr jenners house

The above is an image of a message posted to a paranormal Facebook page. When those interested make contact they are sent a professional information pack designed with ghost hunting teams in mind. The Jenner Trust says it’s aims are ‘to preserve the property and its contents, to promote the knowledge of Jenner and his work and the science of immunology that resulted from it‘ but it’s a shame they do not hold such high regard for science in general, and allow pseudo-scientific paranormal research teams to traipse around the premises to make some extra money towards their work.

I work for a charitable organisation myself and I know how difficult it can be to raise funds to maintain the work such an organisation aims to continue to do, but surely turning to ghost hunting as a form of revenue is unimaginative and scraping the barrel for a Trust that aims to promote the work of such a notable scientist? There is so much scope for the championing of such a cause that it seems such a let down that so much energy would be put into trying to attract ghost hunters to visit the premises.

Jeners ghost

As The Telegraph reported in 2009 [link], the paranormal interest in Dr Jenner’s House was started by a photograph captured by a BBC photographer that it was claimed showed an apparition sitting in a chair in one of the attic rooms. It was nothing more than a photographic artifact caused by the way in which the panoramic photo was taken, but it was enough to give ghost hunters a reason to flock to the house (which they have been doing ever since), desperately trying to communicate with or capture the apparition on their cameras too.

Ghost folklore sometimes plays an important role in the heritage of our country and its historic buildings. You can hear stories passed down from generation to generation and be provided with some insight into the way our ancestors thought of the world around them, but this new breed of paranormal tourism just cheapens it all.

Staying strong: When sympathy falls flat on its face

FB graphic

FB graphicI’ve noticed a number of people sharing the above sympathetic graphic on Facebook and Twitter. It’s a nice sentiment, but I think it’s completely rubbish.

It reads: Depression, anxiety and panic attacks are not a sign of weakness . they are signs of having tried to remain strong for too long. did you know that 1 in 3 of us go through this at some point in our lives? would you post this on your wall for at least 1 day? Most people wont but its mental health awareness week! Share the support. let those who struggle know there not alone…

This message is a contradiction. It starts by telling us that ‘Depression, anxiety and panic attacks are not a weakness… and halfway through tells us that the people who suffer from them aren’t strong. Ouch.

For a number of years I could not control my anxiety about everyday things. It felt like being trapped inside of another me. The rational me (trapped inside) could see the irrational me (in control of what I did and said) behaving irrationally, but couldn’t do much to stop it. I did and said things while, inside, I knew I was being destructive. I was on autopilot.

At no point did I think I was weak. At no point did I think I was failing to remain strong enough.

My anxiety required medication treatment. It did not require me to become stronger in order to cope with it and deal with it. People are often afraid to accept they might have a mental illness because they view it as a weakness. It’s a terrible stigma that stops many seeking the treatment that might help them.

Having overcome my anxiety problems I do feel like I battled something and have grown, as a person, because of it. Maybe some people would describe that as ‘becoming stronger’, but personally I just think of it as overcoming an obstacle. I had to dig deep to find the ability and willingness to do it. It wasn’t that I wasn’t strong enough, it’s that I wasn’t able.

But don’t be mistaken in thinking that those who haven’t been able to overcome or cope with their illness or their problems haven’t because they’re weak, because there is nothing weak about battling with mental illness day in and day out. There is nothing weak about going toe to toe with the other version of you in your head. There is nothing weak about trying your best to function within society when every part of you is screaming ‘no, no, no!’

Suggesting that those with mental health problems have them because they weren’t able to stay strong isn’t very supportive. It feeds the narrative that mental illness is a weakness. It’s great to be sympathetic to those who have to try and cope with mental illness, but the language used when talking about mental illness can be devastating when it isn’t thought through.

With that in mind, I wanted to share this RSA Short called ‘The Power of Empathy’. In it, Dr Brené Brown reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities.

Whatever floats your godless boat

paper boats

I am non-religious. I always have been despite the best efforts of a Church of England Primary School, and those two or so years I spent in the company of Spiritualist friends, seduced by their ideas of an afterlife. I’m a happy non-religious, non-worshiping, atheist human being with as much good as bad to my name.

When I turned my back on tempting religious ideas I didn’t find it a struggle and I know that I am fortunate because of this. I know that many people are isolated, excluded and cast out when they doubt religious teachings. For some, identifying as an atheist is a life changing event – sometimes even a life endangering event. I think it’s important not to judge people who approach their atheism in different ways than I do, but sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes other atheists make it difficult.

When Sunday Assembly became a thing, and when it’s popularity soared, it made me feel uncomfortable. For as long as I have been open about my atheism I have been questioned about my ethics and morals and what I live for. The person that I am is the person I became without religion and I am proud of that. I have personally never needed church and, in some ways, find the concept of belonging to a church congregation – being a part of a ‘flock’ – creepy as fuck.

I have read horror story after horror story from friends about the awful things they had to endure growing up in families who heavily relied on the church, and I vowed to myself long ago to never take the good and ignore the bad. The sense of belonging offered by the church must be lovely, and the giving-back-to-the-community aspect is nice and all – but can that good ever erase the terrible? No.

When I encounter people on the streets offering to pray away cancer, aids, crippling disease and more… or trying to entice people to join their congregation and speak in tongues I feel angry and disgusted. There is nothing appealing about organised religion and it’s traditions for me, and that includes church congregations – even parody, feel-good, ‘we all love the universe‘ ones.

I don’t believe in any gods, but I do believe in humanity. Unlike gods, humanity isn’t perfect and has never claimed to be. That’s why I like it. When tragedies occur I am always moved by the selfless acts of people who run towards the danger to help those in need. When there is a natural disaster, a famine or some other global crisis, I am moved by the generosity of those who don’t have much to give. When I do my food shopping I am moved when I see the basket at the front of the store collecting food for the local Food Bank always overflowing onto the floor with donations.

I get the need to belong. I’ve tried belonging to atheist and secular organiations but they never felt enough, or they tried too hard, or didn’t represent atheism in the way that I identified as being non-religious. After spending so long trying to find belonging I realised that to do so I needed to look away from organisations and just live.

I’m an old-fashioned atheist. I’ve never needed my atheism to make friends or to feel a sense of belonging or meaning, even though for a little while I thought the opposite. I am not defined by what I do or do not believe in. I don’t feel a desire or need to congregate with others on a Sunday morning and give thanks or to celebrate life. I celebrate it every day, and I get meaning from the people around me, and music, theatre, art, the cinema, a good book, writing, my job, going for coffee, libraries, museums, my community, learning new skills and many, many more things.

I have never felt the need to clap, dance or sing about these things that are touching and moving and inspire me.  It doesn’t seem satisfying enough, and I have heard people sneer one too many times at the atheists ‘who need church after all’. I don’t.

Yet, some atheists need church, and as mind boggling as that is to me, and as physically uncomfortable as it makes me, I understand that. Whatever floats your boat, right? Leaving religion is difficult. I understand the need for a support network for those who have started to doubt their religious teachings, or those feeling isolated or lost after leaving their religion. I just hope, deep down, that one day that celebration of what we are, and that sense of meaning, belonging and wonder can be found away from religious traditions – secular or not.

paper boats