Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Role of the Pagan Community With Regard to Solitaries

There Is Some Responsibility Involved Regarding The Pagan Community And Those Who Are Solitaries

In the old days ... solitaries (witches, Wiccans, pagans) generally existed simply because they couldn't find a group - any group - within a couple hundred miles to study with. These days there are quite a number of reasons for people to call themselves "solitary" but only occasionally that one. There have always been people who really do practice their religion in a state of complete secrecy and never with any other. While this is legitimately termed a 'religion' members of most religions practice their faith in a strictly personal way but also practice with a group.
One of the most destructive ways a solitary may be created is when a newcomer falls into the hands of a bad group or leader. Sooner or later most people realize they've been had and the pain of this realization crashes their newcomer's idealistic picture of what a group should be. This can make them extremely wary of groups of any sort. Some who experience this return to their family's religion, some seek even more esoteric paths, some give up religion and some hover around the edge of Pagan activities afraid to join in except in a very peripheral way but are also unable to turn their backs. Occasionally it isn't actually the case of a bad group or individual but a case of mismatch - unfortunately the resulting unhappiness can be almost as severe.
Other people are genuinely not "joiners" for good or bad reasons: some cannot cope with the give and take required of members of a group, some simply fear groups and others are unable to accept that they might benefit from the right group. Some people really do have too many things to do to devote much time to religion other than their personal observances. Some people are truly lazy and only participate very peripherally so they are less likely to be asked to do anything. And, of course, there are always those few who truly 'do not play well with others' and even the tolerant Pagan community refuses to let them hang around.
All this detail is simply to remind people that "solitary" isn't a particularly useful designation since such a wide variety is fitted under it. Of course, back in the old days, solitaries weren't something that we had to worry about. They were too far away from us to be in any way our responsibility. But with the vastly increased communications and community building possible on the Internet and the enormous increase in numbers, we find ourselves in the position of needing to figure out IF solitaries are a part of our community* and if so, how do we include them? Do remember, however, that solitaries are that by their own choice. Part of that choice is that they are not represented and that they have no vote. Of course, nobody has a vote but groups will always have more effect than individuals can.
*For the purposes of this article, I define the "Pagan Community" as those individuals and groups which consider themselves a part of it. An individual or group supports the community when they/it contribute money, sweat or other efforts to bring people together and/or provide services it needs or wants.

Time after Time Life to Life ... the Path Continues

Used with permission courtesy of Esta Weiss, Pagan and Proud of It Art.
Source: Esta Weiss
For one thing, I think we can revise our language a little bit and recognize that there are "solitaries" and "currently unaffiliated people" that look somewhat alike but actually are rather different. The "currently unaffiliated" are folks who are still checking out the groups available but who are not solitary by conviction. This would include people new to Paganism as well as people new to the area and people who have realized that whatever strand they had been working with was no longer the right one for them and are looking around. The currently unaffiliated don't have any problem with groups as a concept; they merely aren't ready at the moment to join any of those currently known. They rarely are much of a problem because they have some idea of what they are looking for and generally they are going to work towards community harmony and put some sweat equity into community building because when they do find a group that seems right, they want the group to welcome them.
We can further sort through the general sorts of solitaries we need to deal with as the same actions aren't going to please them all. The "bear who walks alone" - a person whose religion is so personal and secret they can't even talk about it, much less do an observance with someone else - is surely only participating in the Pagan Community for its social aspects. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this but it does greatly reduce the amount of time and consideration we are in any way obliged to give to them. At more or less public events (assuming they do play well with others) they should be pretty much as welcome as anyone.
There is still such a thing as the "orphan solitary" and there's very little we can do about that. However, if someone who practices in (for instance) a Finnish style invites the community to their ritual, so long as scheduling is handled well, I suspect they will have a cooperative group turn up. In most Pagan communities, public or open rituals are done in a fairly generic form specifically to avoid offending anyone. However, I've seen many times that most of the community really enjoys finding out how others do things - I think that's part of the attraction of open rituals.
Too-busy solitaries can't really be helped (although, if appropriate, arranging child care for all parents of rug-rats is a real boon) but can be welcomed when they can dig out an hour or two. When they get whatever they are currently concentrating on done they may very well bring that energy and determination to the service of the community.
Shy and/or frightened people can be fairly difficult to help. I think the most positive thing we can do is to really concentrate ion improving the safe-space quality of our events: safety not only from actual violence but also from harassment, teasing, insult and snobbery. To do this we must first give some thought as to how to build an atmosphere that encourages some manners and which actively discourages people who can't abide by some basic rules. Safety requires that childcare should always be provided by two unrelated adults - never just one - for the protection of the adults as much as the children. Hosts of activities must be sure they are easily available and receptive to any complaints and in most cases the transgressor must be clearly informed that such behavior won't be tolerated. At open or public rituals, energy levels must be carefully monitored as well as human behavior and experienced people should ensure that beginners are properly grounded at the end of any ritual. Beyond making a safe and friendly place for them to meet people our responsibilities cease. Their fear and/or shyness are their stuff and their cure is not our job.
There is quite simply nothing to be done about the lazy except to attempt not to let them get away with it. Make a point of giving them jobs and seeing to it that they actually do them. Otherwise, tell them there will be a fee so you can pay someone to do their work. Lazy people are seldom a useful addition to any community and I doubt we'll miss them if they take themselves elsewhere.
The "damaged solitary" i.e. the person who was once a part of a group and it didn't go well for them; is frequently the most vocal of a community's solitaries. They may still be trying to build the perfect world they imagined in anticipation of joining their first group and you may feel that nothing done to accommodate them can satisfy them. I do not recommend bending over backwards in order to make them happy. We're all sorry that they had such a painful experience but we didn't do it and we aren't responsible for healing them or letting our own group get twisted into some sort of dream group to satisfy them. In fact if we ask around the groups in the community we're likely to find out that a lot of group members and leaders have been through similar experiences and have let them go and either found a new group which better filled their needs or organized their own group. We can sympathize the damaged people but we don't owe them anything. In fact, the only way for them to recover value from their experience is for them to understand it, accept it and move beyond. And that's simply their job.
My students will assure you that I spend plenty of time trying to help them realize that to take Wiccan initiation - or to assume a position of any sort of leadership in the Pagan community - one must accept a great deal of responsibility. However, I do take a few minutes off now and then to suggest that perhaps it's also a good idea to be absolutely sure it is your responsibility. We must take responsibility for our own actions. If we accept students, we must accept the responsibility to teach them to the best of our own knowledge and ability and to find other teachers to teach anything we are unable to teach. We are not, however, required to accept responsibility for their love lives, their economic stability or their housework.
If we lead ritual, we must accept responsibility for the whole thing; before, during and after. We do not have to accept responsibility for the whole Pagan community - we don't control it and we therefore cannot be responsible for it. None of us has any control over who presents themselves as some sort of great Pagan guru and therefore we do not have responsibility for that guru's actions. However, as people who want to make it a better community, it is reasonable to try to provide opportunities for their victims to learn that there are good groups and good people in our community. But the victim's pain is their stuff. Don't let yourself take responsibility for what's not your stuff.
You've probably been making a mental note to ask me just what or whom I mean when I say "we" and "you". Describing or identifying the leadership of a geographical Pagan community isn't a simple matter. And the word "leadership" carries a great deal of baggage. Many people interpret it as meaning that there are people who can tell everyone in the community what to do. Holding this conviction as a member of the Pagan community requires either total lack of experience or extremely poor observational skills. My definition of the leaders in the Pagan community is simple: they are the people doing the work. Some of them are "clergy": the teachers, ritual designers/leaders, group leaders, counselors etc. Others are not clergy, but they host open rituals on a regular basis, or are on the short list of those who put on a festival or Pagan Pride Day. Sometimes the owners of the local "occult" shop are also leaders - if they host meetings, workshops and other events specifically targeted on the Pagan community, they are leaders. Occasionally one or more of the leaders is some variety of solitary - the test is still "who does the work"?
The "leaders" from/in a Pagan community may or may not "represent" (as in cast a vote for or speak for) their group - that depends on the structure of the group and isn't anyone else's business. No leader from the Pagan community will ever be authorized to represent "all Pagans". Pagans just don't agree enough for that. However, we have in the past authorized an individual or group to represent us for a specific occasion or purpose. The elected board of the Covenant of the Goddess, along with the administrators of Circle Sanctuary and a very few other Pagans did a completely awesome job of representing all of us at the World Congress of Religions held in Chicago in 1992 (I think that was the year). And I heard infinitely less complaining about them then I anticipated.
I use the phrase "leaders from the Pagan community" to attempt to emphasize that they do not lead the community as a whole. It can't be done and I'd really pity anyone who managed to do it (for 10 to 15 minutes). They are not leaders "of" the Pagan community. They certainly aren't leaders "for" the Pagan community - there's a hint of "imposed from above" in that structure and unless some deity cares to step in, there isn't no above to impose. Conferences among these people do not result in laws or even decisions. What they can do is discuss problems and/or situations and possible solutions. They can keep each other advised of possible problems. They can develop a useful, if not deep, atmosphere of trust among the group with the result of making everyone's job easier. These conferences cannot result in making rules for the community or for the members of it. All it can do is suggest solutions and leave it to the individuals and groups that make up the community to accept them or not.
No Pagan community will ever be united save on a single, limited issue. Anarchy is built into the Pagan worldview and this pretty well insures that we don't have to worry deeply about "popes". But we CAN unite for a day or a week in order to address a specific topic.
As a community, we don't owe anything to solitaries in particular, no more than we feel we "owe" to the community as a whole. I'm sure that there are many reasons individuals work to build Pagan community. Luckily in most cases people's motives aren't in question - what is important is that there are people who do this work. It is not only hard work; it also places the individual in the spotlight that occasionally evidences in the form of a bulls eye on their back. As a group we do need to develop mutual support and assistance. Among the benefits of this atmosphere is the fact that this will make it much more difficult for a bad apple to work freely at defrauding members of the community.