I loved John Beckett’s post on purity, even if I did flinch uncomfortably on at the phrase “Purity is overrated.”
I pretty much agree with most of his post, but I want to emphasize an aspect of this discussion I feel is missing from his post: safe space.
I believe in all things in moderation, so I absolutely agree that isolationism can be dangerous, but so can overexposure. While there is value in having difficult discussions, constantly being the person with a different viewpoint is exhausting. For the most part I’ve stopped trying to explain the differences between how I believe and practice and mainstream Pagan culture. Instead of being believed and acknowledged, I have to defend a volley of questions designed to try to “trip me up” and prove me wrong. Attempts to be diplomatic in having these discussions often means I soften my opinions or views, and so they seem trivial and snobbish.
It is really hard, especially when you care about someone, to tell them their ritual made you feel dirty.
Think about that. Trying to tell someone the ritual they worked so hard on, the way they practice, the way they believe, makes you feel dirty.
Think about how they don’t see how offensive, disrespectful, and crass their ritual seems to you. Think about knowing that trying to explain this will get you labeled as a fundamentalist, snob, or, at the very least, way too uptight and serious.
Imagine being in a ritual and the anxiety builds as you feel deep in your bones that something is not right. You are being asked to say or do things that conflict with your most sacred beliefs. Maybe the point of the ritual is group psychotherapy, not religion, and you prefer to explore that with a licensed therapist rather than a group of strangers in the woods.* Maybe you aren’t given the option to consent to physical touching and/or kissing. Maybe the point of ritual is to inject some levity into the occasion by actively mocking the Gods with whom you have a close, respectful relationship. Maybe the ritual seems pointless, boring, and a parody of religious expression. Maybe the point of the ritual is to call you out and put you on the spot for daring to be different, to reign you into the Pagan mainstream via manipulative ritual.
People ask you what you thought of the ritual, and you force yourself to say something polite and non-committal while itching to take a shower and pray to bring yourself back into right relationship with yourself, your Gods, and the world.
After awhile, you just stop going. Why do something that makes you feel uncomfortable and unclean? Everyone heads to the ritual and you hang by the fire with a beer, and you know you are going to be labeled a snob, unsupportive, unfriendly, or just plain lazy. If you speak up about what makes you feel uncomfortable you are likely to be demonized. If you opt out you are just as likely to be demonized. People are only happy if you participate and keep your mouth shut, which makes you queasy. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t, situation.
In Hellenismos this is known as miasma, and a good bit of the religion of the ancient Greeks involved avoiding and cleansing yourself of miasma. In fact, the early Christians mocked this integral part of indigenous religion and shunned many of the cleansing habits of the pagan culture to stand apart from the “superstition” of purification.
The truth is we all need safe space where we feel supported, protected, respected, and have the opportunity to have a sacred, meaningful experience. For many polytheists this isn’t possible in most Pagan ritual. Rather than feeling energized and uplifted, you feel drained and dirty. It is no wonder that alternatives to mainstream Pagan ritual are preferred. If people are dropping out, avoiding mainstream Pagan culture, and preferring to worship in relatively isolated groups, it makes perfect sense to me.
I am once more planning to attend a Pagan event. As usual, my stomach is in knots over it. I thought it would be similar to a “shamanic” dance class I took, which simply provided safe, neutral space for you to have the experience you needed without imposing any kind of theme, structure or belief on you. But as the event gets closer I am seeing how it is going to be very Pagan, and thus very uncomfortable. It is seeming less likely I will be able to get the benefit I need from the event, and the anxiety is increasing that I will simply feel drained, dirty, and foolish afterwards.
I am entering into this event with a fragile optimism even as my hopes of safe space seem less likely. I am trying to make peace with the idea that I will feel weighed down with miasma at the end of the event and need some time until I feel clean and whole again afterwards. I am resigning myself to the possibility that I won’t feel uplifted, supported or safe, and hoping I am wrong. I am fighting to be positive and optimistic, while I rationally know this isn’t going to work out well.
I am not alone in this. There are plenty of folks who struggle with miasma at Pagan events. A lot of Pagan ritual is designed to push buttons, to force experiences, and to push past boundaries. People know that speaking up about what they need or opting out will earn them negativity, sometimes angry harassment. Many polytheists know that participating politely will just make them feel sick inside.
My dad loved this joke about a man who goes to the doctor and explains he has a lot of pain when he raises his arm over his head. The doctor tells him his solution is simple: don’t raise your arm over your head. While there are quite likely polytheists whose use of purity is ridiculous and manipulative, most of them who have issues with miasma find it easier to just stop lifting their arm over their head. They opt out and find their own safe space to explore their spirituality.
Everyone deserves safe, sacred space that meets their spiritual needs. No one deserves to be challenged, dismissed, interrogated, or insulted when they explain they are uncomfortable. And no one should feel they have to be uneasy and silent just to be polite.
There is no way every event can make everyone happy, but if someone speaks up and tells you that your ritual made them feel dirty and uncomfortable, believe them. Listen to them. And it may be that some pretty minor modifications can make your ritual meaningful for both Pagans and polytheists. For some of us, we simply don’t understand why it is so hard to do ritual without being a dick to the Gods. It isn’t subversive, edgy, or avant garde. It’s just rude, and makes us want to take a shower and stay the hell away from your events.
Maybe John is right, and purity is overrated, but I would counter with a reminder that miasma is real and grossly underrated.
*I often wonder if Paganism would be less popular if mental health services were more accessible and affordable?