Am I a Giant Panda?

"Like" the Patheos Pagan Page on Facebook to receive today's best commentary on Pagan issues.

There are plenty of things I don't believe in—at least, things that I don't believe enough in to worry about. Astrology, for example, has never really caught my eye. I know many pagans, maybe even most, are at least a little interested in astrology, and believe it has an impact on their lives; not me. The fact that I'm a Gemini probably matters less to me than it would to the average denizen of a singles' bar.

Another thing I didn't believe in was the concept of a "spirit animal." I overheard many pagans casually discussing their spirit animals as I grew up, as though this were something issued to them along with their athame and a membership card. "I'm a wolf," they'd say, or "I'm an eagle," or, more amusingly, "I'm a mountain gorilla." (My father contributes the last of these, and as usual, his insight is dangerously accurate.)

I was never sure how to respond. I mean, I've always like ducks, I guess, and I loved my dog, but a spirit animal? I had never had some vision of an animal spirit during meditation, or found some wild creatures that became tame in my presence. The idea that everyone had one of these beasties seemed unlikely to me, and I suspected it was just another bit of special-snowflake vanity. Honestly, it's not like that's uncommon in the pagan community.

But sometimes Weird Stuff happens anyway . . .

I was a sophomore in college, and dating a girl I'll call Annie, who lived across the hall from me in the dormitory. She was a business major, and a Catholic, and an alcoholic—quite the opposite from me, the pagan teetotaler English major. I'm surprised we lasted as long as we did (about a semester).

One day, we were sitting around the dorm, not doing much. My roommate had just gotten back from class. With no apparent provocation, Annie looked at me and said, "You know what you look like?" I shrugged, and she said, with delight, "A giant panda!"

My roommate cocked an eyebrow and nodded. "You know, she's right. You do look like a giant panda."

I still have no explanation for what happened over the next month.

Somehow word of my ursine nature spread across the campus of Truman State University. I told a handful of people the story, but this defied even my powers of self-promotion. My friends all knew the panda story before I had a chance to tell them; soon even casual acquaintances, people who I only saw once or twice a semester, had heard of it. And they all agreed. "You really do look like a giant panda!"

This was in the nascent days of Facebook—it still may have been "thefacebook.com" at that point. In any case this was still when Facebook was exclusive to colleges and each college had its own blocked-off network. On a lark, I made a group called "Is Eric Scott a Giant Panda?" The group quickly had sixty members, and I had friends from other colleges complaining that they couldn't join. When Facebook's walls came down, I made a global group. That group had almost 150 people at its height. There were nearly as many people who liked the idea of me as a panda as there are fans of my author page, which I find both amusing and slightly embarrassing.

This wasn't a passing fad, either. By the time of my senior year of college, I had complete strangers asking if I was "the panda guy." My boss at the campus writing center yelled at me when I didn't come to work as a panda for Halloween.

Now, your reaction might be, "Okay, that's pretty funny—but what does it have to do with paganism? What's so spiritual about people thinking you look like a Chinese bear?"

Well . . .

The first religion I had studied in any depth, as I've mentioned before, was Taoism. Although I've fallen away from that path over the years, many of the things I learned about Taoism have stuck with me and influenced the choices I've made. At about the same time the panda meme began, I had taken up a Philosophy and Religion minor, mainly focusing on Chinese religions. That did not influence Annie's observation, as far as I know; I don't think I ever talked about Taoism with her. In fact, I think only a few of my friends even knew about my interest in Chinese religion at all, much less my long history with the Tao.

And yet suddenly everyone I knew identified me with an animal that symbolizes both Chinese culture and humanity's lopsided relationship with the natural world, a very Taoist concept . . . A strange synchronicity.

The Halloween of my junior year, I did, in fact, dress up as a giant panda. I even bought a piece of Lucky Bamboo at Walgreens to nibble on throughout the day. That happened to be the day I set up my first date with my girlfriend, whom I'm still with today.