Experience: It’s Not a Contest

Experience: It’s Not a Contest July 22, 2016

IMG_7869“How about this one?” Acacia asks. “It looks like it’s about grounding after ritual possession. It’d be cool to see what other people think about that. But it looks like it’s at the same time as that rune workshop, and that sounds good, too.”

“I’m going to the rune class, but if you want we can just swap notes when we see each other later,” Corvus offers.

“Well, you know, the best way to ground is to simply connect to the earth. If you have any questions, just let me know. I’m a teacher, and I’ve been practicing for a long time. So just ask.” The woman smiles and tilts her head sagely, then goes back to unpacking. It’s the first day of festival, and she’s caught us in the cabin, poring over the workshop schedule.

She’s older than us, dressed in what I’ve come to think of as “festival uniform”: a sarong, loose t-shirt, Tevas, and a long braid. Cabins are open to everyone, and one of the best things about festivals is this kind of opportunity to meet new people and make new friends. In this one moment, however, that opportunity has evaporated. The woman introduces herself with a power differential.

“My students are here with me. This is my, oh, fifth or sixth year here. I’ve been a witch for almost twenty years. I brought some books with me if you need some recommendations. I can’t help it—that’s just the teacher in me! You know, in Wicca it’s so important to take every opportunity to learn.”

My coven locks eyes with each other, scattered around the large room. Acacia can’t help wrinkling her nose, while Corvus smiles to herself, looking down and feigning sudden absorption in the festival program. I cough to cover my chuckle at the scene. Wren—the only one of us who hasn’t been practicing for at least a decade—is openly taken aback at our cabinmate’s bizarre assumptions.

Yes.  Welcome to the wider community.  This is a thing.

Paganism, of course, is not actually a contest, though we sometimes talk like it is. It’s not like hitting a quarter-million miles on your Volvo or passing your black belt test. No one sends you a plaque when you hit your 1000th ritual, and there’s no class pizza party when you’ve read your 100th book. Running the same coven for twenty years? Now that’s impressive. But simply being Pagan? Twenty years will pass one way or another. Hell, all of us nineties Teen Witches are coming up on twenty years. Does that automatically make us wise? Fuck no.

Actually, one of the things I love about Pagan communities is how little emphasis we tend to place on physical age. People come in at all points in life, follow different paths, pursue their own experiences, share with relative openness, and, generally, respect that we have different ideas and values. In Wicca, a first degree is a first degree, regardless of whether they’re twenty-six or seventy-two. An elder is someone who has a particular kind of adepthood—who’s worked to build a tradition, been through the joy and heartache of leadership, who has the sort of insight that only comes with experience, who serves their community…among other things. You’re not an elder in our tradition by virtue of age alone.

But, more importantly, it’s not a competition. Your progress doesn’t come at the expense of others. There’s no prize for having more students, being initiated first, practicing longer, reading the most books, or whatever. Your path is your path.

But some of us still act like we’re competing.

I don’t know if it’s the blonde ponytail and Hot Topic dress or the fact that I’m unpacking a stuffed animal, but Cabin Lady has already decided that I’m new here. That we’re all new here. I’m sure she just thinks she’s being polite, but on some deeper level, she’s also gone out of her way to assert her authority in the room. She knows nothing about any of us, yet she was compelled to inform us that she’s a teacher, that she’s been practicing longer (she thinks), and has directed us to a pile of classic beginner books. Over the week, she will periodically explain my tradition to me, criticize my reading choices, and offer unsolicited advice on how to rearrange the small altar on our window ledge to “draw the most energy.”

What she will never do is ask any of our names.

While more amusing than irritating, this is just one of countless such stories I could tell you. This kind of thing happens practically every time I go to an open event or otherwise encounter my fellow Pagans out in the wild.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was out at a coffee shop when another patron noticed my pentacle necklace and proceeded to woosplain its “true meaning” at me. Apparently it’s an ancient symbol used by a religion called “Wicca”—which is a religion—and not evil the way people assume. Well phew for that.

I’ve had people spot me browsing in the New Age section at Barnes & Noble and volunteer Scott Cunningham to me. “It’s’ hard finding reliable books, you know!”

They’re trying to be helpful. I should be more charitable.

But I can’t shake the feeling that part of the impulse behind this unsolicited help is the need to feel important and authoritative. Cabin Lady only ever described herself and her experiences; she never asked about our own. She just needed me to know that she was a teacher, at this for years. Teaching and sharing were, in fact, not her objectives.

Power was her objective.

I once sat next to a guy at a potluck who spent ten minutes telling me about how there used to be something called “Gardnerian Wicca”—but that was before my time.

Another time, a guy showed up to Moon Circles (our local open group, RIP) and immediately offered to lead ritual. He was a high priest, after all.

Mostly, these are just stories we laugh about later. But I also take them as a reminder to not make assumptions about people when I meet them. Even when I’m confident that someone is new or confused or could genuinely benefit from something I have to say, I’m careful to learn more about them first. I would rather err on the side of assuming that they have more experience than they do. This is an easier mistake to correct than impolitely talking down to them. In a room of practitioners, how could I possibly assume that I am the most knowledgeable? Aside from the simple matter of courtesy, how would I ever learn anything if I already placed myself above others?

You cannot look at someone and know for sure what they know. Most people can’t even accurately guess age (my stuffed animal certainly doesn’t help anything). And in Pagan communities, age doesn’t reliably correlate with experience anyway. With more and more Pagans practicing a bigger variety of Paganisms, who could so confidently say they were the most proficient? Or devout? Or experienced? And even if you were, why assert the fact to a stranger?

Much better to begin with a hello.


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