If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.
Does this sound like a description of the way you’ve been feeling or thinking about yourself as you go about your daily business? That you’ve been “called”, singled out to claim a new, counter-cultural path by whichever gods you work with or serve, and that the mainstream folx of the world—the majority of people who make up the cultural norm—look down their collective noses at you because of it? At the very least, shun you? At the very worst, harass you and try to ruin your life?
Some of you may be surprised to learn the above quote is from the Christian New Testament Book of John (Jn 15:19). In its original context, “of the world” means, essentially, valuing the things—material and otherwise—that the cultural norm reinforces as acceptable behaviors. Being one of the herd.
Dr. Michael E. Price, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Brunel University in London, wrote about herd mentality in 2013. In his article he writes:
We’re used to thinking of social groups as fundamentally cooperative entities, but with some kinds of groups, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the best-known biological theory of herding, William Hamilton’s “selfish herd” idea , proposes that herds are the result of individuals trying to ensure that other members of their species, rather than themselves, will get eaten by predators. According to this theory, in many social aggregations, the risk of predation is higher at the periphery than at the center. A herd’s form and movement can be the result of individuals competing to stay close to this center, so that other individuals end up between themselves and the predators.
Price goes on to write:
Another likely reason why evolution has favored herding is related to information access. By aggregating in groups, individuals can more easily benefit from knowledge that other group members have gained about, for example, the location of key resources. Herding can thus improve individual foraging success […]. From this perspective, as with that of selfish herd theory, herding is the by-product of individuals pursuing their own self-interest.
Now, granted we are not wasps or guppies or sheep (some of the foci of Hamilton’s study), but epigenetic memories have been scientifically observed in roundworms and, while Jung’s theory of collective unconscious may be considered as pseudoscience in academic circles, there has been growing interest in the role gut bacteria play in the collective unconscious. And of course most of us are familiar with the idea of there being strength in numbers, and possibly the aphorism (common in Japan), “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down”.
We humans seem to be people of the pack, or at least inheritors of a pack mentality. Those of us who are different, those of us who stick up—for our beliefs, for our ways of life, for our individual rights, for a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and in some cases for our very right to exist and be treated with fairness and equality—are often, indeed, hammered down. Hammered down and, in the case of marginalized populations, usually hammered into the surface of the board under all the rest of the conforming nails where they can’t really be seen.
It’s hard to meet a pagan or witch who hasn’t felt marginalized or persecuted at some point in their lives. In a very real sense, we don’t belong to the little-w world. Instead, we have given of ourselves to the World, to Gaia, in some form or fashion whether it be outright worship or honoring the Earth through the interventions we may be taking to rectify or ameliorate what humans have done to the Earth. We stick out, and sometimes we suffer the consequences of being outside the norm.
All that said—and acknowledged—I do find myself wondering about the possible effects a conspiracy-theory society might have on a population (in this case, pagans and witches) whose members already feel targeted. In The Rise of the Paranoid Citizen, an opinion piece written for The New York Times by Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies and permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, Krastev writes:
Conspiracy theories disempower people. […] An identity based in conspiracy theories subverts the need for self-criticism. […] The idea of truth appeals to our common sense. The seductiveness of conspiracy theories is that they appeal to our imaginations. A man can reach the truth on his own, but the secret can be only revealed to him. And for a secret to be compelling, it should be shocking and unexpected.
In mystery novels and crime movies, the obvious suspect is never the guilty party — but in real life it often is. Trusting your own eyes or your personal experience today has become a sign of naïveté. But ignoring personal experience and neglecting the obvious is not only making you ineffective at solving problems but also threatens your freedom of judgment.
I want to reiterate that last sentence and tease out some of its threads for further exploration: But ignoring personal experience and neglecting the obvious is not only making you ineffective at solving problems but also threatens your freedom of judgment.
A few days ago I was in a brief discussion with a mentor about newbie witches in an online community. I told her:
“I’ve been struck by the number of posts from folx newly self-identifying as witches lately. So many of the posts seem to be a cri du coeur (what do you see? what do you think? what does it mean? SOMEBODY HELP ME!). Through them all are threads of (what I perceive to be) disempowerment. It makes me further wonder about cultural norms around trusting our perceptions and claiming our own power.
“I also wonder about generational factors. It feels like an entire generation (or two) has come along that has as a commonality a fear of failure. As if even the very notion of trying and failing is just completely overwhelming and could cause disasters of untold magnitudes. Afraid to say what they think or see without being first vetted by an elder.
“I totally get that when you’re new on a path you do want to check in during the first few steps–I’ve totally been there. And maybe it’s just that so very many people are new on the path that it just seems like there’s a lot of tippy-toeing about asking for someone to essentially tell them what to do. Yet almost to a person, these posts rarely give any sort of information about what’s going on in the querent’s life, what (if any) particular meanings the whatever-it-is may have for them, or really anything contextual.
“It seems like it’s just sling a photo up to the group, write about your dream in detail and ask everyone else—really, total strangers—what they think without the querent giving any of their selves to the process. In the (or an) end, I do think we have folx–mostly women it seems, but perhaps not–who have been taught for generations that what they think isn’t important–or, I suppose to be more specific to the topic, folx who have been taught that they need to verify then trust (as opposed to trust, but verify). It’s like, “could I really be this special, this powerful?” and you want to say “yeah, yepperz, we all are (or have the potential); move along wee witchling, and do the work of the world.”
I’ve had a few days to think about that conversation (which, truth be told, probably doesn’t reflect all that well on me but there ya go—sometimes I’m the Cranky Crone). I do want to affirm that I really do understand that a person just starting out on a new spiritual path is going to want to check in with others who have gone before on that path, and rightly so. These aren’t the folx I’m talking about.
I’m talking about the folx who simply do not (or cannot) trust what their senses are telling them. The ones who ignore their personal experience. The ones whose freedom of judgement may be in some peril due to their unwillingness to trust their senses. There’s a difference between asking for a gentle hand to give you a little push in the right direction once in a while and hitching a long-term ride on the broom someone else is in charge of flying.
This isn’t intended as a Seeker Smack-Down. Instead, I am encouraging folx—newbies, and perhaps some others as well—to explore whether your lack of trust in yourself is somehow a byproduct of dominant culture herd mentality, of cultural disempowerment. We pagans and witches may not be “of the world”, but the world—and sadly sometimes our families and/or our employers and/or our communities—can most assuredly hurt us for being different.
While we may genuinely need our packs—our Tribes—in the end our willingness, our compulsion, to stick up and stick with our Practices is a deeply personal commitment to individual action. Supported by our Tribe, yes, but actions we ourselves take responsibility for initiating and seeing through.
Are we persecuted? In some form or fashion, isn’t just about everybody? I’m not convinced witches and pagans have a corner on that miserable market. That doesn’t make it right or OK by any means. What persecution can do, however, is spark in us a commitment to have compassion for whatever (whoever) the “other” is for us.
Is that possible? In some cases, no. I could list exceptions but I think most of us can figure out what they are on our own (and some of us don’t need to figure it out; we know from excruciating personal experience). Some persecutions are truly unforgivable. And yet, can compassion be an outlook that informs our actions even as we do not forgive? I actually think that’s doable. Not easy, but doable.
If you are a pagan or witch living loud and proud in the world, I salute you. If you are still in the back of the broom closet for whatever reason, I salute you as well. All along the spectrum of outed-ness, we know how different we are, and how persecuted that can leave us feeling. I honor you, I love you, and I wish only good things for you.
- Hamilton, W. D. 1971. Geometry for the selﬁsh herd. Journal of Theoretical Biology 31: 295-311.