When I started practicing Witchcraft 30+ years ago, I dove into it with all the fervor of a child with a new toy. I was (well, still am, really) a raving book nerd, and Witchcraft, in some ways, is the religion of the raving book nerd.
I was also a mentally unstable, self-medicating with whatever sex and drugs I could lay my hands on, teenager. I was angry, felt out of place with people my own age, felt cast aside by my family, spiritually adrift, and I was ripe pickings for one of those bad-afterschoolesque covens that was more than happy to cater to all my bad habits. And, I am forever grateful they found me, and for a few people within that coven because they not only set me on a journey of knowledge and understanding that shapes the core of my personal spiritual path, they set me on a journey to the importance of personal responsibility, and the realities of all group dynamics.
What's Mine is Mine
Spiritual belief is one of the most fundamentally personal things an individual has. At its core is an x-factor, a person's experiential relationship with Divine energies, and how they relate to Universal energies as a whole. Someone can explain their religious and spiritual beliefs to you, or you can read a book outlining someone's beliefs and practices, and you may get a good, general understanding of what their belief system may be. But, you will never truly “grok” how an individual feels/experiences/relates to their God(s)(ss), or even how they truly see themselves in the Cosmic scheme of all things.
This understanding becomes more significant when you look at paths such as Paganism and Witchcraft, which lack hardcore, centralized doctrine or dogma. In paths like these, personal experiences play a huge role in shaping an individual's spiritual path. My experiences are my own, as are yours. So, my spiritual path is different than yours.
This also means that my spiritual path is mine. I control what my spiritual path looks like, feels like. My own practices and experiences shape my path. And, I am strong enough in my spiritual beliefs and practices where extraneous, outside influences have little effect on it. I take in only what enhances my spirituality, and leave the rest at the door. I take personal ownership of my path. What is mine is mine.
Even Witches Have to do Their Own Laundry
Personal spiritual ownership also means personal responsibility. Though this fact was pounded continuously into my head very early on, I admit to being a woefully slow learner. I admit to wielding Witchcraft like a hammer rather than a scalpel. I admit to being angry with my Gods for not hearing my rituals, for not making Witchcraft the panacea I wanted it to be. I admit to blaming others for my own bullshit. I admit to lingering occasionally in my own victimhood rather than taking control of my life and working on my own healing. I admit to using Witchcraft to gain what I had no right to, and to intentionally cause harm. I admit to wielding power because I could, not giving any thought to whether I actually should. And, I admit my Deities have held me personally responsible for ALL of it. Age and hindsight make it poignantly obvious that personal responsibility is the core of Witchcraft, and Spirituality in general. There is no easy path. You have to do the work. You have to own your mistakes, and your bullshit. You have to clean up your own messes, and do your own laundry (I have always been very disappointed woodland creature do not come and do my woefully mundane chores). There are no panaceas here.
Navigating the Collective
Some people do walk into Witchcraft and Paganism seeking some miracle panacea that requires a minimal amount of personal responsibility and effort. They seek out mentors, circles, covens and communities with the hope of finding someone or something that will save them. They walk in vulnerable, and they occasionally become prey.
To say this only happens with groups of Pagans, Witches, etc is an absolute lie. We've all seen it with Catholic churches. I've seen it in AA. I've seen it in knitting circles (there is a woman on YouTube whose entire channel is an angry bitchfest at her knitting circle). I've seen it in the union I belong to, and the plant I work in. We see it everywhere in society. The vulnerable preyed upon by the predatory. All large groups contain a few predators. The Pagan “collective” is no different, and understanding that it's a collective and not a community goes a long way in understanding how to navigate within it.
Every time I see, and use, the term Pagan “community”, I laugh a little on the inside. And, I tell myself to stop using the word “community” because that isn't really what we are. The word community gives people the notion that something is a cohesive unit, functioning together under the same general idea of things, with reasonably the same beliefs, and some level of group cooperation. The reality is that is not how Pagans and Witches roll. I am telling you this as someone who has been a Pagan leader for a while. We are not a cohesive, cooperative community. We are very much a Collective.
Be clear that I am not speaking from the perspective of being involved with every Pagan, Witchcraft, etc group around the world. I am speaking as a leader of a largeish group in Kansas City. Over the years, I have stopped trying to beat the dead horse of crafting a Pagan “Community”. I didn't come to that realization in a sad way. On the contrary, I came to it from a place of respect and understanding for individual Pagans,Witches, etc, and all their unique personal experiences. We are, in truth, a Collective of individuals, study groups, meetups, circles, covens and Metaphysical businesses. When you stop trying to relate to this as one gigantic organism, and start seeing it as merely a collection of individual pieces, it becomes so much easier to navigate.
I am not at all saying this in a bad way. In some ways, the diversity and individuality within the Pagan Collective is an incredible asset. Nobody is towing some central party line, and everyone is thinking outside the box. As a leader, I can put issues out to the collective, and receive a diverse collection of solutions in return. By not trying to force everyone in a “community” box, we open things up to so many possibilities on some many different and beautifully unique levels, celebrating the individual along the way.
There is No Organized Pagan Axis of Evil
This also means we need to stop the fallacy of painting the “Pagan Community” with one brush of negative evil. There seriously is no organized Pagan Axis of Evil. No grand conspiracy of any kind. All those things require cooperation and cohesion. And, from a group that can't even agree upon the definition of Paganism, it's a freaking unicorn.
What you have are a few bad actors, predators and assholes. All groups have them. They are part of society as a whole. The Pagan Collective is no different. That's what comes with individuality and diversity. And, while as leaders we try to steer individuals around these bad actors, the reality is we aren't running a police state, and we aren't your parents. We do the best we can, but you are adults, and need to act accordingly, including learning to navigate society.
That may sound cold and callous, and may offend a few people. But, learning to deal with personal interactions, as well as taking ownership of the individuals you allow to be part of your life, on whatever level, is part of personal responsibility. There are people within the Pagan Collective I have chosen to not have anything to do with for personal reasons. I don't blame the Collective. I don't blame other people for not warning me about these individuals. I hold the individuals accountable for their actions and act accordingly, like an adult. And, I'm sure there are any number of people who feel that way about me.
There are people I do not like in the Kansas City Pagan, Witches, etc Collective, and would like to fenestrate from a great height. There are people I adore, love and think of as my family. There are friends and acquaintances there are somewhere in the middle.
Here is the thing, though: I really do love this crazy, diverse Pagan Collective I am honored to belong to, and be a leader in. I really do. And, it isn't because all of my experiences in it have been yarn and coffee (these are my happy things), but because I understand that each person is an individual, to be dealt with case by case, and not just some minuscule cog in a forced, fallacious “community” model.
We are a glorious Collective of individual weeds and wildflowers beyond the brush of any “community” garden box anyone tries to paint us with, a celebration of individuality and diversity, as well as an exercise in patience, understanding, and, that sometimes bittersweet morsel at the core of Spirituality, Paganism and Witchcraft, personal responsibility.
The Urban Crone