Because there comes a point in every (literate, thoughtful, aging) Wiccan’s life where you realize that you just aren’t living between the pages of The White Goddess.
I keep sitting down to write an essay entitled “D is for Disillusionment” and I just haven’t been able to get beyond the first couple of sentences. I think it’s because there are so many ways in which to be disillusioned by Wicca and Paganism more broadly. And I’ve been through a lot of them.
So here are some stories of my own youthful disillusionment (in the form of bulleted realizations) followed by a final uplifting message of triumph that inspires the will to carry on.
Oh, wait, no. Sorry, I’ve been reading a lot of Elevation Church literature lately and got confused for a second. I’ll just be doing that first part.
1) Life isn’t as magical as I think it is.
Remember reading your first book about Wicca and deciding that every fucking thing that happened after that WAS TOTALLY A SIGN OMG? Every dream had significance, every bird that flew overhead was an omen, and every dollar bill fished out of a gutter was karma. The world was just so magickal. It’s like the Lord and Lady (or whatever) were talking just to you. And you got a little older, gained a bit more experience, and started hanging out with other woo people and they all claimed to have super powers. It is physically impossible to go to a Pagan event anywhere and not meet at least one person claiming to be an empath, a psychic vampire (or an actual one), a hereditary something-or-other with übermojo, or at least claiming to have some kind of unusual (unverifiable) magical prowess. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been told by some asshole somewhere that she/he “knew I would come” because of destiny or some shit.
To be clear, I’m not discounting magic or woo people generally. I’m not saying those things aren’t real (but I’m also not necessarily saying they are). What I’m saying is that, when you’re new, it seems like every person you meet is just so special. The world is magical! And some people are magical! I COULD BE MAGICAL. But then you go to more rituals, meet more people, try more things, and find yourself…maybe a little disappointing. It’s a little like being Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Lots of clocked field time, no super powers. I remember going to my first open rituals (beginning at fifteen or so) and hearing people say things afterwards like, “Wow…that ritual was so intense. I could really feel the energy.” And me thinking there was something deficient about me because my experience was pretty mundane. Sure, I could be moved by good singing or chanting, powerful pageantry, or just the thrill of being involved finally, but I wasn’t seeing orbs or hearing voices. And other people said there were. Other people seemed to be having really intense experiences (auras! colors! shadowy shapes! divine messages! chills!) and I was working so hard and getting nothing. I fucking meditated and built altars and did woo exercises and talked to everyone and read all the books and even tried to make a crossroads deal (Seriously. I was twelve and enormously disappointed when it didn’t work.) and I got jack shit out of ritual with other Pagans.
And life still had all the crap in it.
SO WHAT AM I DOING. WHERE IS ALL THIS MAGIC I WAS PROMISED.
It took a long time for me to realize that sometimes “altering consciousness at will” is less about altering physical reality and more about altering perspective. The good news is that oftentimes the latter leads to the former. Just like in The Secret.
I also had to realize that, sometimes (actually, a lot of times), when you don’t get anything out of ritual with other Pagans (especially at open rituals), it’s not because of you. Good group ritual requires good facilitators and good facilitators are rare. I was so busy trying to “feel the energy” in other peoples’ circles that I often failed to appreciate the very tangible energy (if not glowing orbs) I could generate alone, on my own terms. I also didn’t allow myself to consider that, hey, maybe there just wasn’t any energy there to feel.
Also important is the fact that some people are just goddamned liars. People claim to have special abilities (or resources, or titles, or connections, or whatever) because it garners social capital and creates the illusion of authenticity. No one wants to be the guy who suggests that maybe the ritual didn’t work because the implication is that maybe that guy just isn’t magical enough to have felt it.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, it’s okay to be Xander. Xander is awesome. Xander keeps Buffy flying straight, is a lot better at keeping his head on his shoulders than his magical friends are, and saves the day pretty routinely (even if it’s rarely acknowledged and doesn’t involve fireworks). Xander, though he lacks super powers, is no less critical a member of the Scooby team. In fact, it’s his lack of super powers that make him so valuable. He doesn’t lose perspective constantly the way his “special” friends do. Xander demonstrates that there are other ways to exist happily and effectively in enchanted worlds without being yourself particularly enchanted.
2) Everyone is smelly and horrible.
That’s an exaggeration. But this has absolutely run through my mind more than once while hanging out with other Pagans.
And we don’t need to get specific; insert whatever adjective you want. But you know how sometimes you just look around the room (or field, or whatever) and think, “God, we’re all fucked up”?
Lately I’ve been hearing and reading a fair bit of conversation about why Paganism is dominated by poor people (usually people don’t define what “poor” means, so don’t ask me). And why is it so easy for something like Fox News to pick on us? Are we really just a bunch of unwashed, overweight RPGers?
No, of course not. But, hey, some of us are. I occupy at least one if not all three of those categories every day. I posted a video a year or two ago asking about all of these Pagan doctors and lawyers I keep hearing about (Silver RavenWolf and others have told me they’re out there) and no one stepped forward. Are we really everywhere and anyone the way the bumper sticker claims? Because from where I’m sitting we mostly just look like a bunch of white people, occupying the same kinds of (blue collar to barely-white-collar) jobs, wearing the same kinds of clothes, thinking the same kinds of thoughts.
But the problem is usually where I’m sitting. I learned real quick, for example, that Wiccans in the South are not like Wiccans in other regions. I also learned that there isn’t just one Pagan Community. The fact that I usually just see more of the same often has more to do with me and where I’m looking than with some sort of inherent quality to Paganism as a whole.
3) So many books, so few critical readers.
I hate it when people go on about how well-educated Pagans tend to be. How Pagans are “readers.” I hate it because “well-educated” doesn’t really mean anything. I teach college classes where students literally cannot read. I live in a state where school funding is determined by graduation rates, so mostly all you have to do is show up to pass. The possession of an “education” doesn’t actually tell me anything about a person beyond their ability to afford (in terms of time and money) to go to school. I certainly can’t count on much in terms of critical reading abilities. I am surrounded by college-educated people who are not critically engaged in the world.
So, yeah. Pagans are more likely to have gone to college than members of many other religious groups (thank you, Helen Berger). Statistically speaking they also buy and read more books.
But they are bad at it.
I know this because we still usually think that things in books are objectively true and don’t warrant questioning. We’re still citing bad history. We don’t know how to engage with material outside of the comfortable New Age section. We’d rather read history as described by fellow witches than by actual historians. And if we do venture to read the actual historians, we often aren’t equipped with the intellectual tools necessary to be critical about that, either (because everyone with a PhD is infallible).
I know this because I’m constantly listening to Pagans lament that there aren’t any “advanced” books available. Fucking seriously? I have never run out of things to read. There is a ton of material out there on witchcraft, magic, ritual, ancient practices, ethics, philosophy. You just have to reframe your search terms and not limit yourself to occult and New Age publishers.
None of this to imply that I think all Pagans should be scholars. Different strokes and all. But some of us are scholars, and we need to find each other and hold on tight. I have spent some serious time feeling like I was completely alone in my own Community because nobody could talk to me about anything that wasn’t in a Llewellyn or a Weiser book. Everybody reads the same things. Everybody thinks the same things. Good, engaging, useful conversation is out there, but it’s rare and requires way more seeking than anything I ever had to do for a specific tradition.
4) Seriously? This is a coven?
Remember that moment when you realized that high priestesses were just people?
Not my high priestess, mind you (because she’s beautiful and perfect and might be reading this), but other peoples’.
My first high priestess spent a lot of time trying to make ends meet and convincing her landlord not to evict her family. Other group leaders I know struggle with going back to school, raising beastly children, not murdering their bosses, and fucking up every romantic relationship they stagger into. Hell, I carry around a stuffed animal and sleep with a Dean Winchester nightlight (and, yes, it is exactly as awesome as it sounds), when I’m not drinking to avoid my problems.
I don’t always know how we got to be in charge of anything.
Coven leaders are still just people, with all of the flaws and foibles that go along with just being alive. Sometimes we say stupid things, fail to take care of ourselves or other people in the best way possible, make poor decisions, and otherwise fuck things up.
Good coven leaders are cognizant of these things, however, and quick to rectify them.
Same goes for covenmates. Some of your covenmates are going to be assholes. They just are. If not now, they will be someday, even if it’s only occasional. They’re human beings, so being assholes is unavoidable sometimes. The solution might be to find a new group (but other groups just have their own assholes), but usually you’re better off learning to deal, loving them anyway (understanding that you, too, are an asshole sometimes), and trusting that (if they stick around) they will become less so.
5) Something horrible just happened and nobody can tell me anything not idiotic.
Wicca (and Neo-Paganism broadly) is generally pretty terrible when it comes to dealing with hard life stuff. We just don’t have a lot to say. Or, maybe worse, we pretend that vague conceptions of “harm none” and “karma” are at all useful where suffering and horribleness are concerned.
I spent three years in an abusive relationship and had my fill of idiots telling me that it was part of some kind of “law of return” bullshit. Usually, they said this to reassure me that he would be punished (FYI, he is doing just fine), but sometimes I was told that this was an opportunity provided by the Universe (or, worse, chosen by me in some previous life) to grow and overcome challenges.
“Fuck you,” is pretty much all I have to say to those people.
Overcoming challenges and bettering the self are all well and good, but nobody belongs in a bloody heap on the bathroom floor. We might learn, become stronger, whatever, but those are hopeful (and sadly uncommon) side effects, not some kind of terrible purpose.
Horrible shit is horrible and there might be no reason for it at all. And sometimes that’s really hard to deal with.
That’s as far as I’ve gotten with this particular bit of theodicy, guys. And the only uplifting thing I can offer is that being involved with Wicca just makes me feel better about it all. It doesn’t answer all of my questions, but it does create a place for me in the world and helps me to feel less adrift and alone. So yay.
So there. All kinds of things to create dissonance and disillusionment. What else can you come up with?