Monday, 27 October 2008

Point of Empathy

It was with a certain sense of anticipation that I read a recent entry on Skepchick, entitled My Confession. Not because I thought it was finally Rebbecca declaring her secret crush on me, but because there had been rumblings that Elyse would be telling the tale of her time as a phone psychic. It did not disappoint; what followed was sad, fascinating, and heartbreaking. Go read it now, because if you don't then I'm talking to the wall - this post was entirely inspired by that one.

PentagramUsually when I hear something like that, I search for what might be called a point of empathy: something in my own life which I can use to relate to what's going on in the other person's life. In this case, the loss of her sister brought a comparison with the loss of my father, 6 years ago. Did I cope in the same or similar way that Elyse was trying to? My immediate reaction was no - I didn't consciously turn to anything for comfort initially. But then I remembered the Wicca Incident, and realised my story of loss may have a lot more in common with Elyse's than I had first thought.

It started, as these things so often do, with my girlfriend at the time (she will naturally remain anonymous here, but for the sake of all those potentially abused pronouns and synonyms, let's call her Alicia. I will not be speculating on her motivations). She was far more spiritual than I was, but being as I was young and in love, it didn't stay that way for long. I've always been fascinated by mythology and magic, so it was perhaps only natural that when spiritualism came calling, it was in the form of Wicca. Normally I would just take an interest, and study it objectively; but Alicia was of the belief that to fully understand you had to experience first-hand. So we became Wiccans.

It was only a matter of time before I applied my new faith in the supernatural (and hopelessly vague) concept of "energy" and some kind of spirit world to the recent loss of my father (for anyone interested in the chronology, Alicia and I started our relationship around 7 months after my father's death; the Wicca came a month or two after that). It was the first time I'd truly dealt with the emotions of it, and I don't know if it was the belief system or just having someone that close to me to confide in, but I finally cried. 8 or 9 months after his death, I finally started mourning for him. I will always be indebted to Alicia for that, at least.

It was the ouija board that finally did it. While I hadn't heard of the ideomotor effect, I was fairly certain that ouija boards involved some trickery, be it conscious or not. Yet somehow Alicia convinced me that we had contacted the spirit of my father, and that it would be a good idea to go tell my mum this bit of news. I will never forget her reaction, and we haven't spoken of it since - and not in one of those "unspoken agreement" things. She actually told me that we would never mention it again. I try not to have any regrets in my life - but it's hard to think of this incident any other way. Is it possible to feel ashamed but not count it as a regret?

I wouldn't go so far as to say that this was what set me on the path to what I now recognise as scepticism; like Elyse, I was already heading that way anyway - mostly because of a secular, open-minded upbringing. But I think this was when I first realised the harm that these practices can cause. My heart was no longer in the Wicca, and I gave it up completely when I split with Alicia; the only thing I kept was the name I created for myself and which I now use as my internet pseudonym.

It is because of this episode in my life that I feel able to empathise with people who turn to spiritualism and pseudoscience in order to cope with the loss of a loved one. I can also empathise with those who find it wanting. I am ashamed of what happened, yes, but I do not regret it; because, after the complex interplay of cause and effect had woven their magic, it turns out to have been another push along the road to scepticism and rationality. I cannot regret anything that has brought me here.

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