Seekers and Guides: Burnout

Seekers and Guides: Burnout June 10, 2015

"Rusted Tins and Ashes" by Lynn Greylin.  Public domain image courtesy of
“Rusted Tins and Ashes” by Lynn Greylin. Public domain image courtesy of

I officiated at a funeral for one of my first teachers in the Craft this week.  He was one of the first other Pagans I’d ever met.  He was also a good friend; when I was sharing my stories about him I realized I’d known him for at least twenty years.  He taught me how to channel and direct all the “woo” stuff; he taught me a focused meditation exercise, he taught me about journeyworking, he taught me about the power of stones and bones.  I included that meditation exercise in my first published book and I listed him in my dedication.

At the time of his sudden death he’d only just started to dip his toes back into the Pagan community.  When he’d left BC about five years before he was a licensed Wiccan minister and a High Priest with an active Temple and teaching circle.  It mattered a great deal to him to have done that; we made sure to talk about it at the funeral, and to display the certification papers from the government that proved it.  I wondered why he had not become more actively involved in the local Pagan community when he’d arrived in Saskatchewan?

I think I can guess.  I think that he was tired and he didn’t bloody well feel like it.  I think he was burnt out.

In my article Burning the Straw Men, I said that the “Hidebound Elders” of the Craft are likely a myth.  However, I can see how it might seem otherwise.  As Yvonne Aburrow pointed out to me in the comments there are many “self-appointed elders” out there who seem to thrive on repeating the same old Wicca-lite claptrap over and over.  So where do the real elders go; the ones who bust their butts and who really care?  I think they get worn thin and the demands and casual disrespect of their erstwhile students eventually becomes so burdensome that they disappear up their own navels.

I would not presume to call myself an elder, but I am beginning to get an idea of how hard it must be for them.  Take these recent examples from my own life:

My priests and I were invited to a Gardnerian Beltane celebration in the Kootenays a few weeks ago.  Because a coven led by a couple of our initiates was going to be there as well we thought it would be a good time to hold a teaching circle on some core Star Sapphire practices.  We requested a spot prior to the ritual to use for this.  Our hostess graciously conceded it.  There were delays. I patiently herded the cats.  Most of the newest members of the coven didn’t show up.  I didn’t worry about it much; I figured that the teachers would teach their students in turn.

All seemed to go well.  They told us about some work they were doing on a tradition-based teaching manual and we offered to help.  We had a great time and we left feeling optimistic about the future of the tradition and happy to have reconnected.

So three days later the whole Kootenay coven announced that they were leaving the tradition.  One of them told us “they’d been thinking about it for a while;” another told us that “they’d decided on this after Beltane.”  There was a message on the tradition forum by the coven’s High Priest saying that “paths have diverged and we know we don’t have to justify ourselves.”

Well, yeah.  Yeah they do.

Why?  Well, not because they’ve decided the tradition doesn’t fit them anymore.  Paganism is a very personal journey with lots of branches and options.  I don’t mind that and indeed, have come to expect it.  What I do mind is: why did they waste our time if they all knew they were going to leave the tradition when we came down there to teach? And that of the Witches holding the Sabbat?  Why did they talk about the future of the tradition as if they were going to be a part of it?  Which one of them was lying to me about when they’d decided all of this?

This is not the first time that something like this has happened with these particular folks.  When they hived off in the first place it was similar.  A sudden “we’re all leaving” out of the blue that had apparently been talked about secretly for some time.  One thing told to me and another told to me about the same situation by different people at different times.  Blaming of the person who was not present to defend herself.  I still don’t really know what happened there.  But hey, this is the Craft.  You kind of expect that with your second degrees.  This second thing . . . the way they went about it felt like betrayal.

I left a “wish you well” message on the forum but privately I was seething.  I reality-checked with my partners.  Was I wrong to be angry?  Was I wrong to feel put upon and used?  But my partners agreed.  If they were thinking of leaving before Beltane, simple courtesy and a modicum of respect would have dictated some warning.  We would have focused on having a good time at the Sabbat then and not wasted our time and emotional energy on teaching tradition practices.  If something had happened during the event that sparked the change, simple courtesy and a modicum of respect would have dictated honesty in telling us so.

In the meantime, just prior to Beltane I’d been convinced after a couple of years of on-and-off requests to start up a women’s spirituality group.  I volunteered to teach it for the cost of gas plus materials as a gift to my community, which I’ve been absent from a great deal over the past few years.  At the request of many of the students who live in Kelowna, which is a 40 minute drive from me, I agreed to hold the classes at someone else’s home.

Nominally in the interests of helping me out with my busy schedule a friend mostly put together the group for me.  She has been one of my most vocal supporters in the community and I owe her a debt for defending me in a previous snaggle.  She is running a women’s spirituality coven and some of the membership in her group and mine cross over.  We even talked about setting up my women’s group as a vetting agent to see if women who were new to women’s spirituality would be able to accept the greater commitment that a coven demands.

"Wooden Ashes" by Petr Kratochovil.  Public domain image courtesy of
“Wooden Ashes” by Petr Kratochovil. Public domain image courtesy of

While I was away at the very same Beltane celebration another event came up; a Buddhist nun came to the Valley to speak.  It was cross-scheduled for the same day that their coven was scheduled to meet.   When they couldn’t reach me, my friend the coven leader and a handful of my students decided, without confirming with me, that it would be okay to just bump my event along to the following week in order to reschedule their coven meeting for the date I had a class planned. Again without confirming with me they went ahead and informed our email list that this would be happening, which was possible because I had left the email list in the hands of a volunteer among the group, partially because my schedule is busy and partially because it’s important to invite contribution and responsibility in a women’s spirituality group.  I had no choice but to accept the change because the hostess was part of the group that wanted to change things.

The new date was not a good one for me and so I sent an email to the group saying “There has obviously been some misunderstanding and I am going to try to find out what’s going on.”  But that was a lie.  It was no misunderstanding; I knew perfectly well what had happened because I came home to the Facebook messages urging me to change the date and the email that had been sent.  But I didn’t want to start leveling accusations until I knew for sure who was involved and who was not.

Am I upset at them because they wanted to change the class date?  Well, no, especially since the hostess was one of the people involved.  It’s her house; she can decide if it’s available on a particular day or not.  I am upset because, first of all, it is clear that the classes are the lowest priority for them; and secondly, because if they want me to reschedule, they have no right to tell me when I should be available to do that.  Obviously they have misunderstood our relationship.  I am the teacher and I am a volunteer.  I am not an employee who is told when and where I am to show up for work.  Obviously they do not value what I have to teach.

Now, aside from my personal outrage at this display of disrespect and disregard for me and what might be going on in my life, I was saddled with much more work than I had initially agreed to.  There’s a lot of hidden costs in time and energy that teachers spent towards these efforts.  Aside from reading, preparation, scheduling arrangements to make sure the time was available to me, access to the car, etc., doing about half of the photocopies required took me about two and a half hours.  And as I’ve said in a previous article, most of us teachers pay our students for the privilege.  Aside from the time already spent related to this particular course and its preparations I also spent a weekend training in how to teach this course and spent more than $300 between the cost of the photocopies, food for the weekend and the cost of bringing my instructor up from Vancouver.  I spent more money buying the materials and the books.  I spent two more years ironing out the bugs in my presentation of the program.  And they also did not inform everyone in the group, which made it incumbent upon me to do so, thus taking up even more of my time and energy.

The hostess has been wanting me to call her to discuss it.  She says that she had the impression that I had agreed to the change and was sorry I had not.  Would I be willing to talk about it with her?  I believe her; and I really should.  I should go over and have tea and a good chat.  But I haven’t.  I’m tired and I don’t bloody well feel like it.

A couple of days ago my friend who runs the women’s coven sent me a message to chide me because she did me a favour by setting this group up for me, and I have made commitments, and I am letting her and the group down by not fulfilling them.

Wait a minute: she thinks she’s doing me a favour?

I am not the one who requested women’s spirituality classes.  I do not need them.  Nor am I looking for followers or new friends (not that I won’t welcome new friends if they happen, but I’m not looking for them.)  She, and my extended family who just moved to the area, convinced me to do the course for the first time in seven years because that’s what they wanted.  I allowed myself to be talked into it and to look forward to the possibilities that could result, but she certainly did not do it for my benefit.

What about my students commitments and my friend’s disrespect?  Am I beholden to an agreement when they have already broken it?   If I tolerate this, I surrender my personal empowerment, which is not only contradictory to everything I’m teaching but disrespectful of my teachers.  Furthermore I would be setting a poor precedent for them in allowing their future students to disrespect them.

We blur the lines in the Craft and we treat our students in an egalitarian way.  “In other religions the postulant kneels, as the Priests claim supreme power, but in the Art Magical, we are taught to be humble, so we kneel to welcome them . . .”  I believe in that.  But there’s a contract between student and teacher and so few seem to understand this.  Our teachers are not vending machines who exist to provide us with information when we demand it.  They are people.  They have real feelings and independent lives that continue when we’re not around and they are not endless fonts of patience.

If I feel this way at this stage, how much worse is it for my elders?  How much energy does it take them to look into the landscape of our instant-gratification, mass-media culture and drag their exhausted spirits once more into the fray?  Especially when people think that they can get the skinny on Paganism by reading Tumblr?

I still don’t know what I should do about the women’s spirituality group.  I just think about setting another meeting and all the energy drains out of me as if someone has opened a vein.  I think about talking to the hostess, or to my friend who leads the women’s coven, and I sigh and find excuses to stay home. I consider options, such as relocating, or continuing the group but only working with the people whom I know are not members of the coven; or perhaps requiring participants to choose whether they will be a member of one or the other group from this point forward, since they obviously run at cross-purposes.  But then I consider all the backbiting and snarling that is sure to happen on a local political level if I exclude them and I think, “Do I care enough to deal with that garbage?  Do the other students care enough to make it worth it?”

As it is, I expect there will be fallout.  There will be accusations about my ego.  My “failure to meet my commitments” will be stockpiled for ammunition the next time there’s a conflict.  Somebody will seize the opportunity to discredit me and advance their own political position at my expense.  People will phone me and demand to talk to me regardless of my plans or emotional state to cry about their hurt feelings.  How do I know?  Because I’ve seen it all before.  And none of them will do what they ought to do, which is call me or message me to apologize.

I’ll never get an apology from the Kootenay coven either.  I’ve seen that before too.  They’ll avoid me for three months, or six months, or a year, and then they’ll start up a conversation with me again like nothing ever happened, never once accepting responsibility for their behaviour.  Only this time, they’ll find only silence when they do.  The last service that I can do for them as their teacher is to show them that dishonour has consequences, and forgiving and forgetting requires that first there by an admission of wrongdoing and a genuine desire to make it right.

Do I sound a little bitter?  Yes, perhaps I am.  But don’t worry: I’m not about to give up yet.  For me, teaching witchcraft is a sacred charge, and the truth is, I care too much about the future of the Craft and about empowering others to surrender.  I’ve already started a new teaching coven in my tradition, and they are few, but they’ve been really good thus far at showing up and respecting me as a person.  So I’m going to keep going with that and hope for the best.

But if I value the Craft – and I do! – I must teach my students to value it too.

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