photo courtesy Geordie O’Brien, 2011
written by Lauren Ouellette-Bruchez
I find myself worrying a great deal these days. Where are we heading and what kind of world are we leaving behind for future generations? How do we expect to tackle such widespread and pervasive injustices when our own communities suffer from many of the same intrinsic mentalities that allow those same injustices to be seen as “just the way things are.” With so much to do, where do we start?
Our Pagan communities could really use some help. So many of the annoying, divisive and damaging behaviors that have been allowed to flourish in our own neighborhoods are small examples of what isn’t working elsewhere. It is my belief that shedding some light on these ineffective thought processes and behaviors will allow us to create more functional communities, and a jumping off point for more effective activism.
Most people hate getting into a fight. We are raised to “white lie” to maintain peace, forgive and forget and to not start trouble. On a situational basis, these are all decent ideas. It does no good to tell your Aunt Gladys that you think her beloved dog Fifi is hideous beyond all reason, and holding a grudge with a friend because they forgot your birthday is just not worth it if the friendship is in good shape. But burying our heads in the sand over legitimate issues has caused so much damage in our community, and there are times when facing things head on is the only way to handle it. Conflict avoidance presents itself in many ways. Here are just a couple.
Ostriching: Cats are notorious for this. If you’re looking for them, they assume that if they can’t see you, you can’t see them and all is well. Eventually I always find mine, usually because they’ve gone under the chair but left their tail out.
I think we’ve all been there. I know I have. A member of the local Pagan group tells you that there has been some manner of conflict between themselves and someone else. While this isn’t exactly life or death, it could be a sticky situation and you just don’t want to go there so you say, “I don’t want to get involved”.
Not getting wrapped up in other people’s problems is not always a bad choice. Perhaps the facts don’t seem like they check out. Maybe this person has a history of stirring the pot and creating drama or you couldn’t imagine the other person involved doing what they’ve been accused of. It could also be that you don’t have the bandwidth for the trouble. But what happens when you see the problems and the damage but choose to disregard it? What do we do when the conflict is more than a basic disagreement? Do we turn a blind eye? Do we assume someone else will handle it?
Over the past few years stories have come out about any number of Pagan leaders abusing their positions of power. I have heard about coven members bullying other members and stealing from the coven’s fund. These are high stake issues and as such have the most potential to get out of hand when addressed. But they absolutely can’t be swept under the rug.
As Shauna Aura Knight mentions in her Pagan Activist article, Sins of the Whistleblower it is always more than possible that if you call someone out for their behavior you will find yourself the recipient of social backlash and that backlash can range from slightly annoying to threats of death. In our Pagan communities, everyone knows everyone. Almost any person who presents themselves as a leader can build a following of people who will support them. Many Pagans find themselves in places of disenfranchisement from society and their families, so when someone gives them a sense of belonging, they will protect it.
It is because of this that it is even more vital to face the truth when we see it, even if it is an ugly truth.
How this affects our interactions with the world community: It’s simple; pretending that something is not happening doesn’t mean that it isn’t. Recently, as more and more people become active in the #BlackLivesMatter movement I have seen so many people who are unwilling to accept and understand that America is not in fact post-racial. Some people believe that inequality between men and women no longer exists and frighteningly enough there are still climate change deniers despite the overwhelming evidence to support it.
This is pro-level ostriching.
For those of you that already have mindfulness practices, you know the difficulty of carrying through with a meditation or yoga pose while experiencing extreme discomfort. That’s almost entirely what ostriching is about. It’s not comfortable to think that we aren’t as safe or as enlightened as we thought we were. It’s truly frightening to face the reality that we are destroying the only world we have and so many people don’t care. Even more terrifying still is the thought that if we stand-up for what’s right that we will find ourselves potentially jobless if our views don’t coincide with the values of the company who employs us, alienated from loved ones who disapprove of our views or even beaten or arrested.
I won’t try to convince you that those consequences don’t matter. They really do. They matter to me, too. However, it is at times like these that we have to remind ourselves that discomfort is feedback. It’s the world letting you know that something is wrong. The good news is that you notice. But once again, if I’ve learned anything from my yoga and martial arts practices it’s that you can’t run away from discomfort. You have to breathe into it and teach yourself to think through your distress. When you learn to conquer your own desire to ignore or run away and you can then begin to progress.
Wheel-spinning: In the Pagan community we have a well-known and specific variety of wheel-spinning called witch wars. Most of us have encountered different people or factions who shake fists at one another across the room at events and claim to be the victims and perpetrators of magickal warfare. Sometimes this is the result of a simple perceived slight and other times it is due to more serious conflicts.
I do not wish to disparage the use of all spiritual methods to address problems across the board. Occasionally when someone cannot be reasoned with, there is no legal recourse to be had and a person or group’s behavior is problematic enough to be causing real damage, doing something can be better than doing nothing. But how many situations honestly leave us with no additional options for resolution?
When we are angry but feel vulnerable it is easy to claim to have the ability to call upon the forces of nature to back us up. At our weakest, seeking the solution that feeds the ego can allow us to feel powerful again. Knowing that we can try to hurt them or “take away their power” in turn can trick us into thinking we are really doing something.
How this affects our interactions with the world community: In our new world of social media it is not uncommon for people to rant and rave over that which angers them on their personal accounts. Each day we wake to a feed full of horror stories displaying the worst humanity has to offer and it is hard not to be irate over what is happening. When we see that article or watch that video it’s nearly impossible not to be moved. We want to do something.
So we hit the keyboard as hard as we can as we type our vitriol for the world (our friends) to see. We let loose our anger with words chosen to wound wrongdoers. This isn’t necessarily bad — so long as it doesn’t stop there, but also doesn’t get out of control.
This same logic applies to political debates with friends and family with whom you disagree. Debating across the kitchen table only does so much good. Often these discussions take on a life of their own and depending upon the cause and the person you’re debating, you may choose to reign it in, find a creative way to present your case or let them have it. But it is distinctly possible that you will not get through to them regardless of your method. If you’re not going to change their mind and they would never do more than shoot their mouths off in the safety of the living room, it’s still wheel spinning.
Whether it be performing a ritual to limit the reach of a problematic practitioner or a blog entry about a great social injustice, the ritual and the post can’t be the end of it. If a community member is causing significant trouble and you fear that there is nothing you can do today, keep an eye on it and if it is getting out of hand, let people know. Don’t stand by quietly while they walk into a bad situation but respect everyone’s right to make their own decisions. Be supportive if things turn ugly. If a cause inspires you to speak out, find the motivation to take it to the next level. Sign or create petitions. Get in on community action meetings. Organize a demonstration and speak with your representatives. That’s how things get done.
And if by chance you do have control over the elements, don’t waste it on curses and hexes. Send it to the North Pole. There are some polar bears who would be eternally grateful.
Unhealthy leadership dynamics
Pagans have a strange relationship with authority. Many of us came from more organized religions. I was raised Catholic and began studying Paganism when I was 13. I frequently had contempt for the structure of the church and disliked the lack of upward mobility for female clergy. You will hear many such stories from any number of practitioners. Many people over time are drawn to pursue practice with a coven, circle or grove. While the highly organized systems we came from no longer appeal there is something to be said for having leadership and form. But our lack of a centralized religious body leaves many without a reference for what they should expect from Pagan leadership and clergy. Some of this can be addressed in our approach to accepting leadership.
Putting people on pedestals: Leaders are often predisposed to being charismatic. They can command a room. They can be funny, inspiring and knowledgeable. In order to have maintained a position of leadership they must have at the very least impressed upon others, some manner of competence.
I consider leading a group or ritual similar to performing. I have a background in acting and music so I draw upon my theater experience to create the necessary mood for the work at hand. Charisma is an important part of being able to take people on a journey with you. But that very same trait taken to a difference place can be misleading and misguided.
We sometimes idolize our leaders and clergy. When someone is interesting and spiritual it isn’t unheard of for the imagination to build them up to superhuman standards. Sadly some leaders encourage this.
It’s crucial to remind yourself that clergy members are just people. They may be people you respect, but that doesn’t somehow make them infallible. They have their own flaws and personal motivations. Sometimes they’re petty, rude and make mistakes. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad people, but just like anyone else they have to be held responsible for their behavior and need guidance sometimes.
How this affects our interactions with the world community: Activist leaders, politicians and figures of community authority are people who in general, have worked hard to find themselves in positions of leadership. They may have insight and knowledge but they make mistakes. They also can’t speak for everyone all of the time.
If you want your voice heard, you have to be the one to speak. We each have to take a position of responsibility for being properly represented. It’s a bad habit to assume that everyone else knows better than you do. Too many people with real experiences of injustice give up their voice to others and while some representatives may do their stories justice, others will not.
Learning how to tell people in authority that you don’t agree with the way they are handling a situation is an invaluable life skill, but it does take time and practice to develop. Not seeing them as superheroes but as fellow human beings is a good start.
Ask for proof: Without a centralized religious organization, Paganism is well-known for having countless traditions and practice groups, many of which have been started out of someone’s living room. This is not to say that this is good or bad on its own. It’s an is. However, ordination and other forms of official leadership are different from coven to coven.
Some clergy members claim that their tradition is derived from hundreds of years of witchcraft. Others would say that they have a number of “degrees”. Some offer services among which they charge and offer certifications or they offer counseling.
If you doubt the veracity of any such claims or you’re simply curious and would like to know more before pursuing that tradition, ask them to qualify their credentials.
This once again places us in the uncomfortable situation of questioning authority however any legitimate leader who claims degrees and skills should be able to somehow back them. This especially applies to those who say they can offer counseling which includes specific degree requirements and certifications. A good leader will not be offended if you ask. Be prepared that some people who have a great deal of skill may not have a book full of testimonials or a doctorate in theology. Much of Pagan practice is experiential. But if someone is basing their credentials on less officially documented and supported resume points, they should be willing to share that information. Misleading the people who put their faith in you is a blatant violation of trust.
How this affects our interactions with the world community: Almost anyone can run for an office or present themselves as a community leader. During any campaign people affirm their qualifications for the desired position or want to insure voters and community members that they represent their values. We are all told what politicians promise to do once elected, but what proof do we have that their campaign is not just a stepping stone for greater power and more money down the road?
Research their track record. Challenge their claims. Find out what businesses they own and or support. If they’ve held office, verify their success and approval ratings. Don’t just take their word for it only to be disappointed.
For those already in office, don’t be afraid to hold them to the promises they made during the election. If they claim to support one thing but have voted against it in the past, make sure you’re aware that they aren’t to be trusted. It’s not as if someone with a history of deceit is likely to suddenly have a change of heart.
I feel that as Pagans we are already part of a movement of questioners, seekers and game changers. Our very existence after all that Pagans have endured over the course of history is a clear example of how we have the ability to right wrongs and make great things happen. That begins with us, in our communities. These few points are only the tip of the iceberg but it is my hope that they encourage everyone to pursue more critical thought. Testing ourselves on the microcosmic level teaches us what we need to know to enact macrocosmic improvement.
Know that your voice and story matter. Know that you deserve better than to be misled because of someone else’s power trip. Always face reality, even when it stings. Self-deception hurts far more.