One of the key teachings in Druidry, at least as I have learned it, is that Druidry is at its foundation a path of service.
I’m not so sure…
Service has always been a concept I struggle with. From the strict Catholicism of my youth, service was drilled into me as a duty. It meant putting others first and yourself last. Always. It meant working hard, not complaining, not disagreeing, never taking time for yourself, certainly never putting your own needs or desires first – to do so was a sin.
As anyone who is a chronic people-pleaser knows, this is not a recipe for a healthy or meaningful life. This is a recipe for burnout, self-hatred, fear and anxiety. Even now, having long left that life behind, I feel guilty taking time out for me, for self-care, for hobbies and music and pleasure, because surely that’s selfish, right? Shouldn’t I be doing something for someone else?
The pursuit of happiness, that “inalienable right” enshrined in human rights law, becomes under this mentality of service an act of ultimate selfishness and egotism. How dare I seek to be happy when others are suffering?
The flip side of service is mastery. Embedded within the beating heart of any service ethic is an ultimately hierarchical view of dominance. If you become a servant, you must have a master, whether that is a god (or gods), a person, a group, a religion, an idea. The problem with having a master is of course that you stop thinking for yourself. You end up “just following orders”, or denying your own needs, and your own doubts, to better serve the master.
We may think of ourselves as free in modern society, but capitalism has just set up new masters for people to serve: governments, nations, bosses, money, greed.
Whether the religious ethic of servitude or the post-Christian late capitalist anti-ethic of dominance, the paradigm is the same: servants (the vast majority) and masters (the elite few).
The romantic Satan declares proudly “Non Serviam”, I will not serve. This is the Devils’s crime: not an act of violence or harm, but a simple declaration of independence. This Miltonian, tragi-heroic Satan is a symbol of rebellion against an almighty god, a figure who stands proud in the face of authority, even if it costs him his soul. In many ways, I think this version of Satan is perhaps a better archetype for the modern world than any authoritarian Father God, or indeed any overly-saccharine Mother Goddess.
In a more Druidic allegory, consider a well-functioning ecosystem, perhaps a woodland. A basic understanding of evolution will tell you that no creature in this wood, be it oak tree or flowering bluebell, tawny owl or woodmouse, earthworm or fungus, is there to serve any other creature. Even in mutualistic relationships like those between a tree and its Mycorrhizal fungi, each being is ultimately out for its own genetic benefit. Likewise, no creature is there as master of any other. The oak tree is not more important than the earthworm, the mice may feed the owls, but they are not their servants. And yet, not in spite of this, but because of it, the ecosystem reaches a balanced state where every creature (ultimately “selfish” at the genetic level) both contributes and benefits from the ecosystem.
Rather than service, what we see in ecology, in nature, is relationship.
A healthy relationship, be it between a couple, a society, a person and the natural world, is not in my opinion about service. My partner does not serve me, nor I them. We work together, as equals, in mutual respect, understanding and love.
I love and honour nature, but I am not a servant of nature. None of us are. Our heated homes, our clothes, our glasses, medicine, cars, lighting, agriculture, all these things are ways which humans have found to ultimately defy the limitations of a purely natural state. They are evidence of our species, even our earliest ancestors who first tamed fire, saying “non serviam” to the natural world of disease, cold, famine and death.
I am not a servant of any god. I was forced to walk the path of service to a deity before and I will not walk it again.
I am not a servant of my government or nation. Dissent is a necessary and virtuous act, and blindly serving “my country, right or wrong” leads to horrors.
I am not a servant of any teacher, guru, master, chief, priest or Druid.
I am not a servant of any person, nor do I wish to be master over any person.
But I am in relationship, and in relationship I work together with other people, together with the Sacred, together with the non-human community of animals and plants, together with the Earth itself.
The heart of my Druidry, then, is not service. It is relationship.
This relationship is about a soul-to-soul connection, standing together, not debasing oneself as a servant, but embracing the other as an equal. We are, all of us, children of the Earth and the Stars. We are all of us, human and non-human alike, worthy of respect and value, worthy of entering into true relationship.
A heart open to relationship is worth more to me than a mind shackled to service.
Relationship, in its truest sense, is worship – giving worth, literally worth-ship, to the other and to yourself, for all are as one in the heart of All That Is.
“Do not walk behind me, I may not lead. Do not walk in front of me, I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” (attributed to Albert Camus, probably apocryphal).