Sometimes it seems, out here in the Pagan blogosphere, that people spring from nowhere fully formed, armed and armored, like Athena from Zeus’s head. We speak of our traditions as we wish they would be, shaving down our experience to what we think is critical, what seems to make the most progress, and what is (to be honest) coolest.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t spend years and decades as naïve beginners? But of course, we did. Years of self-doubt and struggle aren’t a cruel joke played by the universe. They’re the necessary price we pay for anything worthwhile. Those faltering first steps that we so casually downplay or ignore are sometimes the most important steps of all.
When we tell our stories, it’s easy to only tell the good parts. Sometimes, it’s like our lives have been forced through some Hollywood filter.
Yes, there’s value to a soaring narrative about how the World of the Spirit guided me to a teacher who saved me from madness and taught me to go deeper than I imagined possible. And how, upon mastering his teachings, I dove back into the madness to go deeper once more. And how those practices saved me from death.
There’s also value to the story of the spiritual struggles of the dozen years before that, of my trying to grow and falling flat, flailing blindly in the world in search of something larger. Of the many smaller victories, and of greater ones I couldn’t understand at the time.
The occult community is fringe now. When I was a kid, that was even more true. Finding a path, and finding our place in the world, is hard for anyone. How much harder is it when we’re never told that path exists?
When I was a teenager, I felt a spiritual calling I couldn’t understand, didn’t have words for, and had never seen. I imagine that in lots of cultures, people would have taken one look at me and sent me for spiritual training. But growing up back then in American suburbia, that wasn’t really an option.
It was the 80s. I’m sure there were cool places where you could send your kid for training. But those places might as well have been on the moon, for all I had access to them.
My family’s church was less than helpful. When I asked about the nature of the Holy Spirit, I got blown off by the minister. It was probably because I was a cocky teenage know-it-all. That moment drove a wedge between me and organized religion, though I couldn’t have articulated it at the time.
The world I was raised in was unable to help me. I couldn’t even explain the problem, and I probably sounded like a crazy person for trying. But fiction is a way of telling the truth through a lie. And it was through fiction that I found a path to my salvation.
TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION (BUT LESS ACCESSIBLE)
When I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, all of my being went into becoming that: a wizard who could wield power, not to break the rules of the world, but to understand the deeper world I could feel, but not express.I couldn’t articulate what I wanted, or why I wanted it, but there it was. Imagine seeing a painting of a place your soul thirsts to go, and being told by everyone that it’s just a painting. I didn’t want magic superpowers to fix all my problems. I just wanted to know that magic was real.
There was more going on in the world than anyone was telling; I just wanted to learn the words for what I was experiencing.
At fourteen years, I read Clan of the Cave Bear for summer reading for school. It’s about a Cro-Magnon girl growing up among Neanderthals 25,000 years ago in the Middle East – which is about the most unexciting description one could give the book.
Jean M. Auel’s book is a coming-of-age story with cavemen. The setting is all about survival and growth in a harsh ice age world. The religion in the book, such as it was, is pretty much what Westerners thought shamanism was in 1980.
I read that description of shamanism, and it just clicked. There was no Internet. I only knew what I saw on TV and read in school. Everything I knew about anthropology was being a Raiders of the Lost Ark fan.
I did what people always do. I acted as if the animistic thinking in Clan of the Cave Bear were true. I didn’t know what a shaman was. I didn’t know about Mircea Eliade, anthropology, colonialism, or cultural appropriation.
It didn’t matter. What I knew was that these fictional people lived in a world that was seamlessly integrated between the spiritual and the physical. Maybe there weren’t answers in these books, but there were implications of answers, and that was more than anyone else was offering.
WE CAN ONLY START WHERE WE ARE
As much as we might shake our heads at such behavior, holding onto a piece of fiction isn’t that different from taking to heart the idea that the world is about 7,000 years old. Or that Wicca comes from an unbroken tradition descended from Iron Age practices. We take the myths we have and we pore over them, sift through them, search them for meaning and for the words to articulate the truths we need.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying, we all start somewhere. And that somewhere is probably embarrassing.
So much of our posturing in life is just denial of the truly foolish things we really did to get here. In my late teens and twenties, I “found my path.” But realistically, I never would have made it there without being the headstrong fool I always was. I can’t honestly say that falling on my face a million times wasn’t more important to my spiritual development than the years I spent in formal training.