Are we Pagans just cosplaying here?

No.

But. There is an uncomfortably large number of Pagans who appear to be cosplaying more than actually practicing magic, witchcraft, or any kind of authentic spirituality.

And by authentic, I mean “A practice that gets actual results.”

And by “actual results,” I mean anything from a shift in consciousness all the way to altered probability and manifestation.

But that doesn’t mean that cosplay isn’t creating a disruption in Pagan, Magical, and spiritual spaces.

About cosplay

If you’re not familiar, cosplay stands for “costume play.” It’s a hobby in which people dress up in costumes based on movie, comic, video game, and other characters.

Cosplay overlaps with role-playing. Again, if you’re not familiar, role-playing is a game in which a person pretends to be a character in a story. Role-playing can take the form of a table-top game that uses dice to determine the result of a person’s choices. Or it can be live-action, in which players physically act out a narrative.

Now. If you’ve ever been to a Pagan event, you’ve probably seen a lot of people there wearing outfits. This might be medieval or renaissance clothing, fairy wings, fancy ritual robes, or actual armor and weaponry.

Here’s the thing. In 2021, I’m not entirely certain how wearing fairy wings (or vampire teeth, or armor for that matter) reflects a person’s spiritual practice. I just … can’t make the connection.

When I was a kid, I did a shitload of theatre. Every summer, my family and I participated in a youth musical theatre group. And each summer, we put on a musical. And everyone on that stage wore a costume. The costume communicated that the actor should be seen as someone other than who they are – a character in the story being told by the play.

I have a lot to say about costumes. I’m saving that for another post because, like most things, it’s complex and nuanced. For now let’s just run with this idea that the costume is not the identity of the actor wearing it.

We don’t have any archaeological evidence of faeries. Or vampires. Which means they are almost certainly a literary fiction. Basing a spiritual path (or spiritual identity) on a piece of fiction seems tenuous – at best. At worst, it can create unhealthy behaviors and social strategies.

And as for wearing armor and wielding weapons… well, I’m not sure how to explain how unlikely you are to be attacked in 2021 with a sword. Or how being able to defend against (and attack with) a sword is in any way related to a spiritual practice. Like … most spirits I work with just don’t have enough juice to cause a physical attack. Even if they could, I’m not sure how weapons and armor (real or costume) would make a difference.

Not to mention, that in most historical and indigenous traditions the spiritual leaders were different people than the warriors.

So again – I just don’t get costumes based on combat or imaginary creatures.

That said –

There’s nothing wrong with play-pretend

I was a huge D&D player when I was younger. I played well into my thirties, and even a little longer (though I left my last group when they became socially toxic). I know a thing or two about fantasy.

I also know a thing or two about reality. I’ve been doing martial arts for almost 30 years. I have a solid understanding of when a technique works, and when a technique doesn’t. I have taught lots of different people – some who were willing to push past their idea of what martial arts is, and some who wanted to play at being a martial artist.

Here’s the thing. We all have a fantasy life. Our brains love a good novel, or movie, or D&D campaign, or video game. In some ways, our brains revolve around fantasy.

I don’t even really have a problem with people who take cosplay or play-pretend into a live-action setting. If you like dressing up like an Elvish warrior on the weekends, and tossing styrofoam balls that represent spells while swinging a foam replica of a sword, who the fuck am I to tell you you’re wrong?

No one. You do you.

But.

Fantasy can get in the way when we bring it into reality.

If you go to work at McDonalds dressed as Kagnor the Orc Barbarian, your manager will probably send you home to change. McDonalds wants its employees to reflect a certain standard of appearance, and that’s part of the agreement you make in exchange for getting paid.

There is nothing wrong with an employer asking its employees to conform to a certain standard of appearance. (Within reason.) I worked in a casino when I was younger, and men could not have beards, nor could we wear a mustache that extended below the corner of our mouth.

(Yes, I am aware of double standards with regards to men’s and women’s appearance as defined by society and businesses. Yes, I agree it sucks.)

Back in the 1980’s, when I first started playing D&D, there was a huge scare about how it was “satanic” and led to kids murdering each other. There were rumors about a bunch of kids going into caves with actual weapons, and injuring or killing each other. (I can’t find any sources, so I’m writing it off as rumor/speculation.) Though false, we still need to account for the perception that too much fantasy can lead to violence. Which has been borne out by a different kind of cosplayer that stormed the Capitol on January 6.

There are psychiatric disorders in which people can’t tell the difference between fantasy (or illusion, or hallucination) and reality.

And just in general, acting as though our fantasies are real is not a recipe for a healthy life.

Here’s anexample. I wish I was thinner, and didn’t have a big belly. I like to pretend I’m skinnier than I really am. So when I’m ordering pants, I buy them in the same size I’ve always ordered. However, now my belly folds out over my belt. Also, I need a belt to keep my pants up. My fantasy, in which I pretend to be skinnier than I really am, is interfering with my actual reality, in which I just need to buy bigger jeans.

In a spiritual context, acting like fantasy is reality can create deeper problems. In our group, a member was in a relationship with a person who identified as a vampire. This man acted out his vampirism in socially unhealthy ways. These included “feeding” (psychically and literally), “dominating” people, and engaging in a struggle for status in a social hierarchy that “controlled” a designated area of land.

This is a problem on several levels. The people living in that area of land did not consent to being “controlled” by a “vampire council.” The “council” was not formed in accordance with the governing state and federal laws. Further, many of the literary examples of vampiric “feeding” would be in violation of these laws. Some vampires claim that they only “feed” on “willing subjects.” But then, they turn around and use domination and manipulation tactics on others – which violates most definitions of informed, enthusiastic consent.

Here’s another example that we see frequently. Someone approaches us, asking for help because they’re “possessed by a demon” or “under psychic attack.” In mild cases, these people suffer from paranoia and anxiety, believing that every little adversity in their day is due to a “curse” or “demon.” In more severe cases, people attribute actual mental health issues to “demons” or “curses,” and either don’t get the help they need or turn to religious ritual abuse to solve their problem.

There was a shop in our town, before the pandemic, where the owner would give free “cleansings” to people in the shop. Especially children. These “cleansings” were intended to get rid of “demons” that she perceived to be attached to the children. She claimed it was her “angelic gift,” and as such it was her duty to “help” as many people as possible. However, she didn’t stop to consider whether or not she was correct about demonic possession. Or how a child might be treated by an abusive religious parent who becomes convinced their child is possessed by evil spirits.

Like, children get beaten and murdered in cases like this.

So play-pretend is fine, as long as everyone understands it’s play-pretend. It’s when we start treating play-pretend like it’s real that we have a problem.

The Buddhists have something to say about delusion

Delusion – the belief in things that are not true – is one of the three Root Poisons in Buddhism. These poisons prevent us from achieving enlightenment, and keep us in a state of suffering.

What happens if a person is convinced their partner is cheating on them, even if it’s not true? What if a person’s partner is in fact cheating, but they are lying and gaslighting their partner about it?

What if a political figure claims that an election is stolen, and asks his followers to take physical action? What if those claims cannot be proven?

What if someone tells people that a vaccine implants a tracking chip into people?

These are all demonstrable fantasies – cases where something false or imaginary is being promoted as truth.

Now, I’m not an atheist, and I’m not a materialist. I’ve had experiences that convince me – in no uncertain terms – that magic and spirits are a real thing. I’ve also had experiences I thought were magic or spirits, but were simply old creaky buildings.

But I want them to be real. And in the wanting lies a key to understanding delusions.

Have you ever wanted something to be true so badly, that you made it true? Only, when you get it, there’s something wrong. Like the stories about dead being brought back to life, sometimes getting the thing we want twists it into some uncanny thing that frightens us.

Or, we want something to be true so badly that we just believe it to be, whether or not it’s Actually True. Psychologists have a term for this, called living a lie. There are reliable behaviors that indicate when a person is living a lie:

  • Playing the victim
  • Blaming emotions
  • Keeping score
  • Insisting on being right
  • Horrible-izing
  • Distortion of values

We can convince ourselves that the thing is real. But when Truth – the actual, honest accounting of The Way Things Are comes knocking, we run. Or we hide. Or we stick our fingers in our ears saying “La-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you”.

I think some people who get into Paganism want so badly for it to be real, that they treat fantasy and play-pretend as if they’re reality – all while ignoring the aspects of Paganism that are real.

It can be fucking hard to tell fantasy from reality

When we’re talking about magic and spirits, we’re talking about some pretty subtle effects. I have never actually seen a physical manifestation of a spirit (or a spell). Like, I really want to conjure fire in my hands, but the closest I’ve ever gotten was a zippo lighter and fire poi.

When we cast a spell, how do we know that it was our spell that caused (or influenced) a thing to happen, and not just chance or hard work?

When we’re making offerings to spirits or ancestors, and we sit and commune with them – how do we know what we perceive is actually them? How much of it is wishful thinking?

There is no easy answer here. Lots of the stuff that we can prove about spirituality, magic, and deities comes down to information, probability, and changes in consciousness. How do we know that, to paraphrase Jason Miller, choosing to drink tea instead of coffee didn’t influence our conscious perceptions as much as a ritual?

And yet. Weird stuff happens. Children occasionally talk about previous lives in specific and verifiable detail. Prayer for the sick improves the odds of healing. Meditation has measurable effects on the physical brain and on consciousness, and breathing techniques can create physical heat in the body.

I say this as a reminder that belief in magic is like walking a knife’s edge of discernment between fantasy and skepticism. It’s not easy, and we all occasionally slip to one side or the other.

But the alternative is …. well, let’s consider the alternative.

My experience with a play-pretend group

So, this dude joined our Pagan group and wrecked it. But before he did, I observed some things about him, and the kind of people that he gathered around him. (Full disclosure – he was part of my D&D gaming group for a short time.)

Briefly, everything about him was intended to draw attention, from the hat and longcoat he wore, to the beard and long hair, to behaviors like sitting at the head of a table or hijacking conversations.

Dude never wanted to talk about Pagan topics. Whenever we tried to start a conversation about magic, spirits, deities, history, or anything rooted in an authentic real-world practice, this guy sidelined the conversation.

Instead, he wanted to talk about Harry Potter. Or Pokemon. Or D&D. Or anime. Or how much he knows about Paganism, because he’s a coven leader.

But actually talking about magical things? It’s scary, in retrospect, how smoothly he could change the subject.

My wife and I had the opportunity to attend one of his coven gatherings. I was still pretty new to my relationship with Hekate, so I prepared a little thing to share. We arrived, and the circle was around a fire pit in his backyard. No big deal so far.

Each covener had a specific elemental role, and a script to read from. They all had their cutesy little Pagan names (my favorite was his second-in-command, SunRider). He called his daughter his “songbird,” because apparently she sang, but as a young teen was incredibly shy. My wife and I tried to let her off the hook when dude tried to get her to sing.

So we waved our hands around, and everyone said the things. There was a point where we were offered a chance to do something, so I read the Orphic Hymn to Hekate in Greek. (Disclosure: my Greek is not good, and it was a total flex, but when you’re visiting with another coven it seems normal to show off a little for one another.)

And… nothing happened. I got a little whisper of movement in the Unseen from my prayer, but I left the circle thinking, “What was the fucking point of that?

It’s like they said the things, and had their fancy ritual toys out, and to them that was being Pagan. But the whole experience was either completely out of phase with my energy, or just … empty.

It gets better. We organized a few public circles, and specifically invited this guy and his people over. They always committed to attend, but gosh, something always came up that they couldn’t make it.

Which is weirdly reminiscent of the relationship of delusion to truth.

Which brings me to….

What even is the point of Paganism?

I’m not here to tell you what’s the point of Paganism. That’s a Big Question, one that each of us has to think about and decide for ourselves.

Is the point to get together and socialize? Is it to spend time in a fantasy world for a while, and hang our real-world cares and concerns at the door for a couple hours?

Or are we craving a connection to the Unseen World? Are we seeking more power and agency over our lives? Are we drawn to magic, in the same inexplicable way that a moth circles a candle flame? Are we drawn to explore mysteries and forgotten practices from ancient times?

I know a lot of people who go to church because it’s What We Do. Or because they like the other people at church. Or because they have social/family obligations. Or because they want to Do Good to atone for their guilt. I have no judgment for those folks. If you live in a family or society where there’s a cost to leaving your religion, I have compassion for whatever decision you make.

But considering the deep spiritual practices we see in other areas of the world – Tibet, Japan, India, Latin America, Australia, Nigeria – can we Americans really say that we’re experiencing the same depth of spirituality that other cultures are?

I don’t know about you, but spending a few hundred bucks on gifts at Christmas just doesn’t feel the same as a two-hour ritual to Hekate in red candlelight and the sharp-sweet perfume of incense.

So yeah, I may be a bit of a snob about my Pagan spiritual practices. But again, what’s the point? Are we just dressing up in costumes and playing pretend? Or are we trying to explore a deep spiritual experience from fragments of ancient cultures, and filling the gaps with our own inspiration?

I don’t think all Pagans are cosplayers. But I’m concerned that authentic Pagans, Witches, and other Magical Practitioners are getting lost among them.

Is it fun and popular, or is it hard and boring?

I’ve heard it said that the mother of invention is not necessity, but rather laziness.

In my experience, the percentage of martial arts practitioners that stick around long enough to earn a black belt is about the same percentage of Pagans who stick around long enough to have an authentic spiritual experience.

Because it takes going through a certain amount of hard work, discomfort, and adversity to get that black belt authentic spiritual practice. Most people just aren’t willing to do that.

In fact, I’d guess that a fucking lot of Pagans get into magic because they think it’ll be easy – just wave your magic wand, and you can have whatever you want. No need to actually confront your roommate with a hard conversation about boundaries, when you can just hot-foot them out of your life.

(Truth be told, magic is easy. What’s hard, is figuring out what you actually want. Or building the foundational skills to perform a spell. Or troubleshooting why your spell didn’t work. Or shifting your perspective on what’s possible. Or any of a bajillion other things we discover in our spiritual path.)

Dressing up in a costume and reading a few words on a wrinkled sheet of computer paper is a lot fucking easier than sitting for 20 minutes keeping your attention on your breath. Buying crystals is a lot easier than rooting through piles of shitty Pagan books for a few real gems. Collecting pretty and fancy magical tools is a lot easier than using them in a ritual.

Final thoughts

Did I tell you to get off my damn lawn yet?

I realize, while editing, that I’m becoming a cranky old GenX’er.

Honestly, I just don’t really have a lot of patience for bullshit anymore. Like, I know that maybe one person in 20 (maybe 50) will stick around long enough to learn a thing or two. The odds of a person we accept into our coven lasting long enough to forge a bond and do real magic is somewhere between slim and none.

And, like most shit that’s worth anything in this life, the good stuff takes work. And very, very few people get past the “I want it now” mentality to actually do the fucking work.

When we’re accustomed to having results right now, we might skip that medical degree in favor of a few YouTube videos. We might just wear the costume and say the words, because it’s just so much work to do it the real way.

As an Authentic Gen-X Slacker, I can tell you that I am 1000% in favor of the “less work is better” mentality.

But I can also tell you that everything I’ve ever achieved that has any real meaning, significance, or authenticity has taken work – and plenty of it. And I’ve never been able to pretend my way to authenticity.

And while I’m at it, every path is not fucking valid, and your half-hour YouTube education doesn’t make you equal to someone who’s practiced for a couple decades. The Frosts and their creepy sexual initiation of children is Not Fucking Valid. Someone’s belief that they are a vampire is also not valid (unless they present some pretty compelling evidence).

So. Your paganism or magic is yours, and you get to do with it what you want. But I invite you to consider – what is it you’re trying to accomplish? And are the actions you’re taking leading you to where you want to be?

If they’re not, try practicing with no tools or costumes. Take a minimalist approach, and see what happens.

Sure, it might create more work.

But work is how you find the good stuff.

A Pagan perspective on Sin

There’s a thing that happens in social dynamics, where a person “breaks the rules,” or says or does a thing that’s wrong. This causes the person to lose social standing, and be treated as if they have a “black mark.” (For example, watch a recent season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.)

If we upset a person, they might have an emotional (angry, upset) response. They may set a boundary. They may take action against us. They might tell other people about the transgression.

If we upset a group, we may lose our status in that group. This could mean being shunned, or removed entirely. Our participation in the group may be limited.

This is a normal thing. (Well, by normal, I mean it happens all the friggin time without us even realizing it.) If we were talking about this from a religious (Christian) perspective, we might call this sin. It happens when we do the wrong thing, and it leaves a lasting mark on us – personally, and either from the person we injured or from a group.

Now, I want to tread lightly. The term [sin] is … loaded. A lot of folks, myself included, have baggage with the term [sin]. Also, [sin] has a lot of different meanings. Still, I’m not sure if there’s a better word, so I’m sticking with this one.

Also, think of this as a thought experiment: Does the concept of [sin] have a place in modern Paganism?

How Sin works

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately.

I experience a lot of anxiety. When I do something that I know a person won’t like, I experience feelings of guilt and shame. It doesn’t matter if I don’t like the person, or don’t speak to the person – simply doing a thing they don’t like generates feelings of guilt and shame.

For me, those feelings of guilt are washed away when I “confess.” Even if that’s just confessing to a therapist, something about speaking them out loud and articulating my regret makes me feel better.

I can see this dynamic playing out in other areas.

For example, many Pagans – especially those of the LGBTQ+ community – believe that J.K. Rowling has sinned in her opinions about transgendered people. Some people feel like it’s a sin when you charge money in exchange for magic. I’ve even heard people treat criticism of a spiritual path as a sin.

So some the features of sin, from a human-psychology perspective, include:

  • A person breaks a rule or social norm
  • The sinner may or may not be aware of the rule they are breaking
  • The sinner seems to incur a sense of debt to those they sin against
  • The sinner loses social standing as a result of their actions
  • The sinner is expected to express guilt, shame and reparations to restore their standing with the group
  • Some people like to see the sinner experience punishment or suffering
  • Some people use the guilt of the sinner to extort additional concessions on behavior or materials

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it should get us started.

Sin in Paganism

A lot of Pagans like to think we’ve left the idea of sin behind. That’s part of what many of us reject about Christianity – the idea that we are bad and dirty just by being born. We tend to reject the idea that our actions can result in a “stain” on our “soul.”

But, as I mentioned in the introduction, rejection of the concept of [sin] doesn’t mean that human behavior doesn’t still happen. For example, in Paganism, many people feel like it’s a sin to criticize their teacher. Some Pagans consider it a sin to criticize another person’s spiritual path. Many magical practitioners consider it a sin to charge money in exchange for magic.

Paganism, however, doesn’t have a good mechanism for dealing with social transgressions. Most Pagan groups seem to look away uncomfortably from the sense of social debt that’s incurred when someone offends someone else, or breaks a social rule.

We’re rejecting the concept of sin, while at the same time holding people accountable for their sins.

So just because we reject the theological concept of sin doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen in our groups. It seems like it would be helpful to have a term for it that wasn’t loaded with religious baggage. (I don’t have any suggestions, but I’m open to them.)

Who adjudicates sin?

Generally speaking, the victim of a transgression is the one who determines whether a sin was committed. Consider the term TERF – Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist is a label that’s used to identify feminists, usually women, who don’t conform to transgender-inclusive culture.

With the term TERF, it’s not straight white guys who are labeling someone a TERF. They have no skin in the game. Rather, it’s the people who are affected – the victims, usually transgender people – who are labeling a person a TERF.

(This is not intended as any kind of criticism, but rather an example of how the process works.)

Sometimes, it’s a group that decides whether a particular action is a sin. This may be deliberate, where a specific action is labeled inappropriate. Sometimes, the rules just evolve unspoken.

In our group, it’s a sin to be convicted of a violent felony or a sex crime. People who have done those things are not allowed to be part of our group. Committing that kind of crime against a child shows that a person a) cannot be trusted with the safety of children, b) puts their own interests above the health of children, and c) is just an icky person we don’t want to spend time with. We decided that these are the rules, and we adjudicate them by refusing entry to people who have broken them.

In the case of most groups, there’s no formal method for identifying and adjudicating sin; it happens organically. The group tacitly agrees on whether an action is coherent with the group identity, or whether it violates the group.

This creates problems when people aren’t made aware of the group rules beforehand. Many people have been kicked out, blacklisted, shunned, or had other action taken against them for transgressing, without ever knowing what the transgression was.

It also creates problems because of the imperfect nature of humans. Here on the political left, there’s this idea that everyone should be perfect paragons of equality and social justice. If a political candidate (or any famous person, really) has ever written something that could be seen as racist, sexist, or any other -ist, it is a sin.

But something that is a sin today might not have been a problem 30 years ago. Consider the TV sitcom Friends. Insanely popular show. However, many of the jokes are rooted in homophobia, which would be taboo today. Judged by the culture 30 years ago, the jokes were just funny. Judged by the culture today, they are offensive.

Humor is like that. Try to read comics from 100 or 150 years ago, and they probably won’t make sense. Language and culture change, making it harder to understand. Without a current context for the language and the subtle social understanding, something may look wildly inappropriate when it’s actually benign.

(Historical ideas can also be just as bad as they appear. Rhetorical arguments promoting slavery, for example.)

In most circumstances, the victim of a particular sin is the best person to label and adjudicate it. If a woman lies to me and manipulates me, I get to decide if that rises to the level of sin, and what response is appropriate. However, I’m probably not an appropriate adjudicator to label someone a TERF, because I’m not transgender.

Is the adjudicator of sin always right?

People have the ability to be horrible to each other. This is a human thing, not restricted to gender or skin color or any other class category. So it’s probably not appropriate to adjudicate and label sin by class. In other words, women and trans people aren’t the only ones who get to decide what’s a sin.

Traditionally, however, certain protected classes have been the target and victim of a disproportionate level of abuse. That’s why we have protected classes – we recognize, as a society, that members of certain classes of people have had it rough. Granting additional protection helps to level the playing field.

This is a good thing. We want to believe victims when they tell us they’ve been harmed.

But as soon as there are rules in place, there are humans who seek to bend or twist those rules to their advantage. Like the white guys who oppose affirmative action programs in college, claiming that it creates a bias against them by their race. Logically, it seems sound. But it opposes the very spirit of affirmative action, which is to invite a more diverse student base to universities.

So we want to believe victims, except when they aren’t really victims. And we want to have organic rules for behavior, but we want people to know about them ahead of time. We don’t want mob rule, where anyone can sling an accusation to ruin a person. (Well, maybe some groups do, but this is an unhealthy dynamic.) But we don’t want an authoritarian group micromanaging people’s behavior, either.

Talk about a bunch of contradictions! How on Earth can we establish what is sin, and what’s not sin? And what if someone is using the label [sin] in bad faith, to achieve a personal or political goal?

Moreover, how do we guard against people hijacking a group’s sense of [sin] in order to persecute a member of a group?

There is no perfect group or moral standard

Here’s where perfect inclusivity breaks down. If I say my group is inclusive of everyone, that means it’s inclusive of people of color, and it’s inclusive of white supremacists. Either one has a claim to be part of my group, if I’m trying to be perfectly and universally inclusive.

I think we would all agree that it would be bad to include both people of color and white supremacists.

A better method is to establish what is OK and what is not OK. This means that some people will be excluded from the group. If our group doesn’t allow sex offenders, sex offenders simply have to find another place to go.

Being up front and transparent about those values up front sets people’s expectations. They know ahead of time what behavior is acceptable, and what’s not. People then have the option to self-select in or out of the group. If they behave inappropriately, then they can be removed from the group with a minimum of grief.

This only really works for private social groups. Public groups – the kind who access community-owned resources, like parks or City Council – cannot have restrictions by class without marginalizing people. We don’t want that.

But it is OK to say that your group prohibits marginalizing transgender people. You can kick people out for being anti-trans. You’ll send a clear signal that anti-trans people aren’t welcome in your group, which is good because you don’t want them there. You’ll also send a clear signal to transgender people, that they are safe and welcomed.

This will lead to all kinds of different private social groups. Not all of these groups will get along.

The price of having a coherent and healthy private group, is making peace that other people have different morals and values than you. What you consider to be a sin might be no big deal to someone else. Setting the morals and values for your group means relinquishing any right to set those values and morals for another group.

Which is why we laugh at Christians who say we’re going to hell. They’re the ones who have that moral code, not us. They don’t get to say what’s a sin for people who aren’t Christian. (As much as they would like to.)

So. Transparent, clear guidelines for behavior. Clear boundaries. And a clear course of action if someone crosses those boundaries. And a realization that if they’re not part of your group, you can’t really hold them to your standard of ethics.

Coming back from transgressions

Sometimes, a person commits a sin and feels bad about it. They want to atone, to make things right, to re-establish their place in the community.

Right now, Paganism doesn’t really have a way to do that. We don’t seem to want to talk about sin, even though we have people committing personal and social transgressions.

Consider the case of the child molester who wants to go to church. Some studies show that they need community support in order to not re-offend. They want to change, and they need the help of other people to make that change.

On the other hand, other people’s kids are at risk if the child molester is allowed into the church. Child molesters are extremely skilled manipulators – how can we justify the risk to children, and risk allowing ourselves to be manipulated? And how can we know if the child molester really wants to change, or is just telling us that to get us to lower our guard?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this. I wish there were.

For some of the people we’ve asked to leave our group, there was no sign that they would ever change their behavior. They were toxic, and for the health of the group they could not be allowed to continue. The transgression was deliberate, unremorseful, and ongoing.

But I wonder. If someone came back to us and said “Hey, I’ve done a lot of work, and I’m trying to change. May I rejoin the group?” How would we respond? Should we let them back into the group?

I’ll expand it a little further. Say a popular author said something 30 years ago that was sexist. Someone finds it today, and calls them out, and rallies their group to boycott that person. Support grows, and suddenly that author is a pariah. They are blacklisted from speaking events, their daytime job is threatened, and they receive threatening phone calls.

There has been no legal ruling. The rules that person violated didn’t even exist when their statement was made. They may not even believe those things anymore. What then?

As it stands right now, it’s mob mentality. All you have to do is use the right buzzwords, and you can rally your army of social justice keyboard warriors to your side, and decimate your opponent. We’ll see to it they never work in this town again.

But what if the mob is wrong? What if the statement was taken out of context? What if they grew, and became a better person in the last 30 years?

I feel like the Pagan community is missing something important, if we don’t have a ritual to atone for our sins.

Atonement

In Catholicism, as I understand it (since I’ve never been Catholic), when you commit a sin you confess to a priest. The priest may grant forgiveness, or they may set a series of actions a person must complete to earn forgiveness.

Clearly, this is a system that has been abused throughout history.

I think a better way to think of this is using the concept of debt.

Debt (and credit) have been theorized as originating not as a way of exploiting other people, but rather of tracking the fairness of a particular trade. It goes like this: I promise to trade you 10 loaves of bread for 5 pounds of beef. But I don’t have 10 loaves of bread right now, and if I did they’d go bad before you can use them. So you give me the beef, and I give you 2 loaves of bread, and I owe you the other 8.

Similarly, if I make a joke that offends you, I’ve hurt your feelings. Now, I’m in your debt, because my actions caused you discomfort. My atonement is to apologize, and make an effort in the future to avoid making jokes that offend you. If you accept the trade, my debt has been absolved.

In Anglo-Saxon England, there was a concept called were-gild, or man-gold. This was the price of a man’s life. If your actions caused a person to die, this was the price you paid to make things right with the family.

So. In our social groups, it might be helpful to think about degree of transgression, and proper repayment. What are transgressions that a reasonable person should be able to shrug off? What transgressions incur a debt to another person? And what transgressions are unforgivable?

I can’t make that determination for you. I think that in Pagan spaces, transgressions should be directly related to Pagan topics. For example: psychic vampirism, contributing to the group, exploiting other members of the group, and following through with commitments.

This could apply to a gender group. Lots of LGBTQ+ people find their home in Paganism. Their groups might add dead-naming, being a TERF, or using the wrong pronouns to their list of transgressions.

Once you have a rough idea of the transgressions, set your atonements appropriately. For an egregious violation, maybe it’s removal from the group. A mid-level offense might mean an apology or mediation/conflict resolution. A minor transgression might only require an apology, or it might require the victim simply to exercise resilience and let the transgression go.

Again, I can’t make that determination.

But what I see, is many Pagans and Pagan groups blacklisting allies, because the allies don’t perfectly align to those groups’ ideals. (I’m looking at you, Pantheacon.) If you want your social movement to fail, start attacking your allies because they aren’t performing perfectly according to your social codes.

Gotcha moments

Contemporary American culture now, especially online and in business transactions, seems to be rooted in the “gotcha.”

A gotcha works something like this. First, a person does the wrong thing. This might be something illegal, or against the group morals, or even something that costs another person time or money. The wrong thing can even be something as simple as causing offense.

Once a “wrong thing” has been committed, this incurs a social debt. This allows other members to marginalize or exploit the person who did the wrong thing. That person was “got,” and now they “owe” the group.

For example. Say a person is driving through the parking lot. The cut a corner a little close, and brush the fender of another person’s car. If the owner of the second car sees it, they have a “gotcha” on the first driver. The first driver is now liable, and can be held for damages to the second car.

Another example. A group sets up an event for women at a major Pagan convention. To create a balance between inclusivity and safety, the group creates events for anyone, for people who identify as women, and for women born as women. Because their whole event isn’t perfectly and universally inclusive, some people take offense. They have a “gotcha” on the group, and use that to stage protests and have the group removed from the event.

The “gotcha” is a quick way for a person to get something they want. This is a predatory approach – just like the owl that catches a mouse that makes a mistake fleeing across a field, wielding a “gotcha” lets one person benefit at another’s expense.

However, the predatory nature of the “gotcha” means trouble for a community. Once a community allows predatory behavior, it becomes competitive. Competition leads to a loss of safety, compassion, and cooperation. When a group becomes competitive, a few people benefit greatly, while the rest of the group suffers. This creates an unhealthy community.

The “gotcha” is also related to tit-for-tat, scorekeeping, and revenge. There are many, many blood feuds going on in the world right now, because both sides are unable to let go of their desire for revenge over a grievance. Many times, the original offense has been forgotten; only the debt and the pursuit of a “gotcha” against the enemy remain.

The spiritual side of sin

As with most human behavior, the concept of social debt expands into our spiritual space. Most religions include the concept of transgression against non-physical entities.

Also, as with most human behaviors, this is a tricky space to navigate. On the one hand, we’re dealing with non-physical phenomena, and it’s easy to make up bullshit transgressions to put people in debt. On the other hand, spirits and deities actually can take offense to some human action, and require reparations to restore and repair standing.

So, first the bullshit. In case some readers have never been Catholic, or have never studied the history of the Catholic church, here’s how it used to work. Humans would sin, and be required to atone (make amends) to God (via the priesthood) for those sins. If a person died before atoning, their soul could not proceed to Heaven. Instead, it would go to an in-between realm, called Purgatory, to purge the sin from their souls.

So the Church would label certain biological human behaviors to be sinful (aka, sex). When people naturally behave that way, the Church labels it a sin. Now the Church has a “gotcha” against the person. The person has to perform a certain behavior in order to make amends for the transgression.

You can see how this could be abused by a greedy or lecherous priesthood. And it gets worse.

If a person dies with unaddressed transgressions, they are stuck in purgatory. But the Catholic church has a fix! The living can atone for the dead, and pay off their debt so they can enter heaven. Or, instead of atonement, the living can pay a fee (called an indulgence) to the Church, who then puts in a good word for the deceased to get into Heaven.

As Pagans, Witches, and other alt-spiritual people, most of us probably have a strong feeling of revulsion to this sytem. And rightly so.

However.

The other side of this, is that sometimes you actually can piss of spirits and deities. In Mongolian spirituality, it is highly offensive to local water spirits to urinate in rivers. In Eastern spiritual traditions, snake spirits called Nagas act as helpful magical spirits. However, they are strictly vegan, and they will take offense if offered animal protein.

Here in the US, the most frequent transgressions for magical practitioners come in the form of angry land spirits and ghosts.

Many magical traditions also deal with a thing called crossed conditions. Sometimes, shit just goes sideways. Maybe you’re on the outs with a land spirit, or in your daily actions you run afoul of some invisible and unknown force. Suddenly, your spiritual (and sometimes physical) sphere gets weird. Strange things happen, spells may fail or backfire.

Taking spiritual action to clear crossed conditions – or to make reparations for offenses – is central to some magical traditions. And they work! This may include a cleansing bath (to wash away the yuck), a ritual to clear crossed conditions, or even offerings and atonements to specific spirits or deities in reparation.

Now – you might be thinking, this seems a lot like the bullshittery that the Catholic Church engaged in. And you’re right (kind of) – there’s not really a good way to distinguish between a bullshit spiritual condition and a real one.

Personally, I think this is an area where we as magical practitioners have fallen short. In our effort to excise all the Christianity from our sphere, we’ve tossed out some important material. Like the idea of incurring a spiritual debt.

Healthy sin vs. Unhealthy sin

I never thought I’d be writing a section title like this.

I think that, in a lot of circumstances, sin is a bad thing. It’s mostly used for exploitation of others, and I am firmly against that kind of bullshit.

I would define unhealthy sin to be:

  • External – you are labeled or “gotcha’ed” by another person
  • Coercive – certain specific behaviors or payments are required to “atone”
  • Unrepentant – a person who wrongs another person or group feels no regret, or has no intention to change
  • Predatory – actions that treat other members of the group as prey, or which foster a sense of unhealthy competition
  • Punishing – if the focus of reparations is on punishment, instead of reparations
  • Arbitrary – the group changes its values to selectively target individuals for violating them
  • Class-based – the sin is based on your gender, skin color, or other genetic variable that people have no control over

I would define healthy sin to be:

  • Guilt – you feel bad for doing the wrong thing to a person or spirit
  • Reparations – you want to make things right with the person or spirit you wronged
  • Motivating – the transgression moves you to work to be better in the future
  • Cooperative – the focus of identifying the transgression is on helping a person behave better as a member of the group
  • Genuine – you’re not simply apologizing or acting as if you’re sorry, you are genuinely trying to make reparations for the situation
  • Action-based – you have acted in a way that is offensive, or failed to act in a way you agreed to act (as opposed to sin rooted in identity)

The right way to address transgressions

Or at least my suggestion for the right way.

First, everyone should be acting in good faith. If you suspect someone is acting in bad faith – either the person who sinned or the person sinned against – that should be sorted out first. Examples might be being overly dramatic and taking offense where none is intended, claiming to be a victim without actually being a victim, or labeling a person “cursed” in order to sell them an uncrossing remedy. If one side or the other is acting in bad faith, this whole process is being hijacked.

Second, both sides need to feel like they are seen, heard, and understood. The aggrieved person needs the sinner to understand the impact of their actions. The sinner needs the aggrieved to understand their intentions, and what they are doing to make amends.

Third, both sides need to agree on a remedy. This may be a 5-part apology, a specific action, or even a mediated solution.

The 5-part apology:

  • Acknowledge the transgression
  • Say the words “I’m sorry”
  • Acknowledge how the transgression made the other person feel
  • Articulate the plan to prevent future transgressions
  • Follow through with action and behavior change

Fourth, the remedy is implemented. This may be changed behavior, or it could be a peace offering (apology cookies, buying a drink). Whatever the agreed-upon action, this is the point where it has to be followed up on. In some cases, this may be an “agree-to-disagree,” especially where people have different and irreconcilable views. In extreme cases, this may include one person leaving or being removed from the group.

Finally, both sides need to find a way to forgive, let go, or move on from the transgression. Once the apology and reparations are made, the sinner must regain their full status in the group. Any scorekeeping or holding grudges will only serve to turn the group predatory and competitive.

Calling in vs Calling out

I wanted to draw special attention to this article. Especially with the trend of social justice in Paganism, Witchcraft, Wicca, and alt-spiritualty, Professor Ross has addressed call-out culture in an excellent, compassionate, and effective way. I especially appreciate that she works to bring the focus back to a healthy community, instead of a “gotcha” moment.

What if Instead of Calling People Out, We Called Them In?
Prof. Loretta J. Ross is combating cancel culture with a popular class at Smith College.

Creating a culture of safety and compassion

The whole idea behind this article on sin is to help the magical community develop better communities.

It’s pretty hard to have community if people don’t feel safe. This goes back to Skinner’s basic writings on the Hierarchy of Needs. Even though it has its flaws, it still acknowledges that people need a sense of safety in order to achieve the levels of trust and vulnerability that create strong social bonds.

This is not to say that everyone in a group has to be exactly the same. Rather, this is a model for addressing the hurt feelings and disagreements that inevitably erupt in a group of strong, independent, and empowered people.

One way that we create that sense of safety, is by being accountable to each other. This happens through working cooperatively toward the group’s coherence. It also happens by tracking the social debts we incur with others, and addressing those in a healthy way.

It works to our benefit that the same model we use to maintain healthy social relations also work for our relations to the spirit world.

Like many things, a lot of this advice boils down to, the world is already hard and shitty, and we don’t need to make it harder and shittier for other people by being an asshole.

But I think it goes a bit further than that. We actually are assholes – sometimes accidentally, sometimes deliberately, and sometimes unavoidably. But being an asshole doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker. By addressing our assholery, we can build a sense of trust with one another such that, even if someone acts like an asshole, they can still make up for it and be treated as a trusted, cooperative member of the group.

Perspective check – pandemic version

So apparently there’s some virus or something going around. I went to the grocery store, and it was like something out of the movies. The canned goods were picked over like Wal-Mart on Black Friday. The toilet paper and paper towel aisle was empty. All the gallons of milk were gone, though half-gallons were still available.

Idaho currently has 2 (update: 50) confirmed cases of COVID-19. We don’t really have a dense population, so we’re unlikely to get a bad outbreak. But we do have a lot of folks who are preppers, and/or who fantasize about the zombie apocalypse.

I feel strangely unaffected. Like, I can feel the anxiety growing when I watch the news, but it’s nothing more than a normal anxiety day for me.

So I’m gonna share a few thoughts on that.

Pandemic Anxiety

Sounds like the name of a punk band.

There’s this sort of itch I get when I’m feeling anxious. It’s like a tingle about an inch or so outside my skin. Maybe a psychic itch is a good way to describe it. Like all my tiny little arm-hairs are standing up, hyper-tuned to the air currents.

I find myself looking around, watching my surroundings. Odd or abnormal behavior stands out – is that person drunk, or having mental illness issues, and are they considering violence? Is that person just nervous, or on meth, or are they hyper-fearful?

I consider what other humans are doing. I’m not afraid of the apocalypse, but other people are, and they’re buying up all the toilet paper. So I better stock up, because who knows what those other people will do.

The schools are closed, so now I have to worry about the kids being home. Work might close, and I don’t know what I’ll do if they cut my pay. I’m especially worried that people won’t come in to where I work, and that loss of business will hurt my company.

And what about my uncle with lung cancer? What if I catch COVID-19, and pass it to someone with a sick grandma? What if – what if – what if…

That’s what’s going on in my mind.

Here’s the thing though. My brain does that all the time. If you’re struggling too, here are a few things that help me.

Obligatory disclaimer

I’m hot a healthcare professional. I’m not trained or licensed to give medical advice. If you’re experiencing mental illness or distress. please see a professional. Email me if you need help finding one.

Magical and spiritual advice is not a substitute for scientific or medical information.

These suggestions should be read as a supplement to your existing mental health treatment plan.

Onward.

Reducing acute anxiety

Use these techniques if you have an immediate or intense spike of fear or anxiety. Your goal is to re-engage your rational mind, so that it can override the emotional parts of your brain that are freaking out.

First of all, breathe. Slowly. Use your finger to measure your pulse, and inhale for 4 heartbeats, then exhale for 4 heartbeats.

Keep doing that until your heart rate slows down. I feel it as a sensation like cool water is washing through my body.

Count to 20, slowly. Visualize each number as you count it. If you get distracted, start over. When you get to 20, go back down to 1.

Name and list all the colors you can see. (Seriously. This works like gangbusters for me.)

Now, breathe again. Let your belly expand, instead of breathing into your chest. Ground and center. Use your breath to connect to the Earth and Cosmic energy channels.

Let’s do something about those beliefs

Part of the reason you’re freaking the fuck out, is because of secondary information. For example: when you see a spider on the wall during the day, and it’s got a tiny little shadow underneath it, the spider is less scary. When you see that same spider at night by the light of a table lamp, the spider throws a longer shadow making it look bigger and scarier.

The spider hasn’t changed. Your perspective changed. The shadow is secondary information, which your brain is associating with the spider.

Also, the information you associate with the spider changes your reaction. If you believe spiders represent dirty, poisonous, disembodied hands, alien-looking creatures, sticky webs, sucking the liquefied guts out of insects – sure, spiders are terrifying.

If you think of spiders as shy, helpful critters that eat harmful bugs you can’t see in your house, they suddenly seem a lot less frightening.

Your beliefs determine your reality. Right now, you might be thinking “If I get this virus, people could die!”

Let’s put that in perspective. If you get any virus, people could die. Certain strains of HPV can cause cancer. HIV causes AIDS.

Virii are a normal part of nature. Herds of elk, antelope, and even cattle are regularly wiped out by diseases. Plants can get diseases too, that affect crop yields. People get diseases.

There’s a belief, I think, that our normal state is to always be healthy. This extends a bit into believing that if we don’t prevent an illness, it’s the same thing as causing an illness. This is logically inaccurate.

You don’t have to accept a particular belief at face value. Instead, challenge it, and see if it fits with everything else you know. It might not. Or it might. But you don’t know until you evaluate it.

First Belief:

Is the virus really that bad or abnormal? In your mind, think of a range of different diseases. Bubonic plague: killed millions, easily treated with antibiotics. 1918 flu: killed millions, targeted weird demographics. Mad cow disease: scary as hell, but quickly contained, and not transmitted between humans. Polio: holy crap bad, like crutches and iron-lung bad, but vaccine-preventable.

Chicken pox: Sucky, but not too bad. Smallpox: really bad, but vaccine-preventable. Measles, mumps: bad, but vaccine-preventable.

Common cold: sucky, but survivable even without medication. Seasonal flu: sucky, but survivable, though take precautions to stay hydrated.

COVID-19 is slightly more serious than a seasonal flu, and seems to be quite a bit less serious than the 1918 flu. So if you get it – and you probably will – it’s probably not the end of the world.

And even if it is – believe that, and take appropriate action to prevent or mitigate that. There’s a whole meditation practice on contemplating your own mortality. Check it out.

Second Belief:

I can always trust [authoritative source] to tell it like it is!

OK – so I’ve heard rumblings that this is an “escaped bioweapon,” that “cities have been placed on lockdown,” that “This virus is no big deal, just act normally.” That’s a lot of conflicting information.

It’s easy, I think, to distrust the news agencies and the government. When we’re getting a lot of conflicting stories, it’s tempting to just assume the worst. In this case, the worst is motivating individuals to take actions that are really unhelpful for societies.

Instead, practice good news hygiene. Don’t take everything you hear at face value. You can weight the value of a particular piece of information differently. For example – one healthcare professional in Italy might have a frightening story. I would wait until I heard 2 or 3 stories from healthcare professionals in different regions before giving this story a lot of weight.

Sometimes a person’s story can be weighted depending on the context. There was a really bad outbreak in Washington… at a retirement home. Trump is saying this outbreak is no big deal… because he doesn’t want the stock market to crash on his buddies.

The WHO and CDC are organizations that study disease. Their word should carry a moderate to high weight. It might be tempting to consider them participating in a cover-up. If you do, it’s helpful to think – what would they stand to gain? Is it feasible for them to effectively cover up something this big? How do their stories compare to other healthcare professionals? Is it better for me to trust people who study disease, than to distrust them?

Look for the extremes, then look for moderate positions between them. Give more weight to moderate positions. If someone is hyping you up with a lot of fear, they might be trying to hold your attention on behalf of their advertisers. If they’re telling you nothing is wrong, they may want you to keep buying things so their stock portfolio doesn’t crash. If someone says “Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and stay away from large crowds,” that is a much more moderate and reasonable position.

Third Belief:

I can prevent myself from getting sick.

You have control over precisely one person: yourself. You cannot control the actions of another person.

So we could, as a society, collectively agree to stay home. We could agree to wash our damn hands. We could suspend travel, and avoid large gatherings.

But there’s always that one asshole who ignores the warnings, catches the bug, and passes it to everyone. That literally happened in South Korea.

Practice good hygiene for yourself. Advocate for others to do the same. Consider that some people won’t, and take appropriate precautions. And please, challenge any of your beliefs that would lead you to assume the best or worst about other people.

Other Beliefs:

Only you can know what your beliefs are about this. And only you can challenge them. One helpful trick is to reframe the argument. That is, put it in a different context, or change up some of the argument. For example:

Some people believe that talking about a 2-3% mortality rate is the equivalent of wanting people to die. Challenge that belief – what are some of that person’s other motivations? Do they want people to die, or are they reassuring themselves? Are they talking about deliberately exposing one sensitive person to Coronavirus, or are they speaking in more general terms about a population?

Some people claim that chloroquine is a miracle drug for combating COVID-19. Some people who have taken it have died. Or at least, that’s how the stories go. This is not much different than believing that burning sage will kill all the coronaviruses. (It doesn’t.) It’s easy to start grasping for anything that might offer hope of a cure. This is not much different from a drowning person reflexively drowning their helper. Challenge the belief, and find a variety of different perspectives before knocking back that bottle of aquarium cleaner.

Acute Anxiety/Fear vs. General Anxiety/Fear

The first set of suggestions above was designed to help you with acute anxiety. That’s when there’s a clear trigger, and an intense feeling of anxiety.

The second suggestion was designed to help you with general anxiety. That’s when you feel like you have to look over your shoulder, like you could get blindsided, or you just generally feel unsafe.

It’s important to recognize the difference between acute anxiety and general anxiety. What works for one doesn’t always work for the other.

For me, it works sort of like this. On any given day I’m probably running at about 8 out of 10 anxiety. It might dip to 6 or 5, if I stay away from people or stressful situations.

(I’m working on it. After a couple years, I’m down to about 3-5 / 10 on most days. Also, personal note – if you’re new to experiencing a lot of anxiety, this is what it’s like every day for some of us. Let us show you around, we know the area. ūüôā )

Each stressor I experience amps up that feeling of general anxiety. I might start the day at a 1. Get up, and read something shitty on the internet – boom, up to 2 or 3. Phone rings, but I let it go to voicemail – 4. Drive to work, someone drives like an asshole – 5. At work, I have to make a phone call – now I’m at 7 or 8.

The height of that anxiety rating is the approximate percent chance that I’ll have an acute anxiety attack. So, if I’m at a 2, that’s about 20% chance of being triggered. At an 8, I’m at about 80%.

When I’m feeling anxiety, it affects the way I perceive things. Remember the spider on the wall? The more anxiety I feel, the more I perceive that spider as a threat. I have to literally tell myself – out loud, sometimes – that it’s just a tiny little arachnid, and can’t possibly harm me. Sometimes, that counter-messaging is the only thing that works to counter the inner feelings of fear.

That fear prevents me from seeing anything but the terrifying spider. I can rationally know that the spider is harmless, but my whole body is screaming at me to kill it with fire.

Now – consider this from the perspective of immigration. If you have that body-level anxiety about immigrants, there is no way you can possibly think rationally about them. You’re going to feel threatened, and respond accordingly.

People feel this about people of color.

About witches.

About women.

About strangers and social situations.

Anything, really. But especially, right now, the Coronavirus.

We make different decisions when we’re anxious

This should come as no surprise to anyone in the New Age or adjacent spiritual circles. I mean, we’ve all been beaten to death by the “Choose Love Not Fear” messaging.

The reality is trickier than that.

Sometimes, people don’t know that their perspective is limited. Because that’s the only perspective they have. They don’t have anything to compare it to.

Further, people tend to make more conservative choices when they’re afraid. If you’re scared of the spider on the wall, you’re more likely to kill it than escort it outside. Likewise, if you’re afraid of Coronavirus, you might feel like you need to stockpile face masks and hand sanitizer.

If you’re afraid of people who are afraid of Coronavirus, you might also stockpile face masks and hand sanitizer. And toilet paper.

If you’re afraid of criminals, you might feel like you need to own a firearm. If you’re afraid of people of color, you might hesitate giving them the right to vote, or you might screen them more heavily for crime and firearm possession.

If you’re afraid of immigrants, you’re more likely to want a border wall.

The thing is, people don’t often realize they’re acting out of fear. It’s like having a pair of colored glasses (or ski goggles) on. Eventually, your brain filters out the color and it looks normal. You don’t even realize you’re not seeing certain colors.

If you’re thinking right now that voting patterns can be predicated on how much fear a group of people is experiencing, I would say you’re on the right track, and posit that it’s a more common political strategy than we both realize.

Individual vs. Group

I wanted to touch on this for a moment. I’m pretty sure I’ve written about this elsewhere – originally, Jason Miller articulated it well. Essentially, the conversation is different when we’re talking about individuals versus when we talk about groups.

In a perfect world, we would recognize that each of us is an individual. But that’s not really how our brains work. Our brains like to chunk information together, so we can expand our understanding to bigger bits.

It should be no surprise, then, that when people share a common trait, it’s natural for us to lump them together as a group.

When we’re talking about sociology, politics, or even pandemics, the big picture is often all people have the mental capacity to handle. Can you imagine if each epidemiologist had to keep each person’s life story straight, for each infection in an outbreak?

Yikes. Not possible.

So, it’s helpful to consider the source. When an epidemiologist is talking about a pandemic affecting certain portions of the population, it’s not that they don’t care. It’s not that they want those people to die. They’re just focused on big-picture. It’s literally not personal.

In addition, the actions you should take can be different, depending on whether you are acting as an individual or as part of a group.

We’re being asked to practice social distancing because we’re members of a group, and this is a better policy for the group as a whole. But it’s damn inconvenient for some individuals. Like those who want to go out bar-hopping. Or people who don’t want their airplane stock to lose value.

Individuals looking out for themselves is the reason we have toilet paper shortages. Those people prioritized their own individual interests over the interests of the group. As a result, society doesn’t have enough toilet paper.

Incidentally, this can be applied to money (billionaires hoarding money), housing (landlords hoarding properties), even famine (food companies hoarding food). When the supply of a thing is restricted, the price goes up. My hope is that we, as a society, realize this – and that we realize how much power we can wield as a group. (AKA union.)

But back to the individual. We each have to look out for ourselves. In Nature, it’s a rough existence, with disease, famine, and predators always out to get you.

But having to watch over your shoulder, and be totally responsible for you and you alone, creates a lot of fucking anxiety and exhaustion. (Ask me how I know.)

Fortunately, most animals – humans included – come equipped with a Social Module. This causes us to bond with other people, to create cooperative and trusting communities. We reinforce these communities with language, culture, shared values, shared resources, and common defense. We protect them with laws and rules to punish people who act against the group’s interest.

I have more to say on this, in the context of personal versus social identity. Look for that in another post.

For now, just consider that in order to receive the benefits of being part of a society, you need to be mindful of the balance between your personal interests and the group’s interests.

In other words, wash your damn hands – no one else wants your cooties. And quit hoarding the toilet paper. Breathe, chill out, and it will all be OK. Even if something bad happens –

It Will Be OK.

A few final thoughts

I hope you’re coming away from this post with a few things to think about.

Main point: fear and anxiety change the way you behave. Take immediate action to get out of a place of fear, and into a place of love and compassion.

Another way to put it might be this. You have two basic modes: smallness and bigness. When something new and big comes along, smallness freaks the fuck out, because there’s no way it can handle all of that. Bigness has the capacity to handle that new thing without feeling overwhelmed.

The difference is sort of like dumping a gallon of water into a drinking glass, versus dumping it into a swimming pool.

(In case it’s not obvious, you want to be in bigness mode. Hat-tip to Fabeku Fatunmise for his work on bigness and coherence.)

With regard to the virus, keep two minds. Remember to take care of yourself. That means rest, hydration, nutrition, and washing your hands. Also remember that you have an obligation to your community, to help keep the outbreak from getting out of hand. Follow the CDC and WHO recommendations and change your behavior.

Viral outbreaks are totally natural. You’ll probably catch this one at some point. What we don’t want, is to catch it all at the same time. It’s easier to handle 50 people at a time in the hospital for several weeks, than 5,000 people all at once.

Stay safe out there, folks. Catch you next post.

Friggin vampires.

Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film Dracula, courtesy of Creative Commons licence

I should have known. Maybe I did know, and I just decided to give this guy the benefit of the doubt. I mean, he did identify himself as a predator by calling himself a vampire.

But it never ceases to amaze me, the lengths people will go in order to exploit other people.

Story time.

The backstory

Helping to run a Pagan community means dealing with a wide range of different people. There are a lot of folks I wouldn’t exactly call Pagan, but rather Pagan-adjacent. This includes LARP-ers, New-Agers, reiki practitioners, rock-hounds, naturopaths – you get the idea.

Normally I am totally fine with this. When building a community, it’s important to be as inclusive as possible. Our values are to be inclusive regardless of class, and selectively exclusive of individuals based on poor behavior. (You don’t have control over your class. You do have control over your behavior.)

In order to start building connections and community between different Pagan and Pagan-adjacent groups, we’re setting up a Pagan Leadership group. For our first meeting, we got a request from a guy who lives about two hours away. He brings his girlfriend to the first meeting, and they seem really excited about bridging the gap and finding common ground between Pagans (and Witches) and Vampires.

Now – this guy was a bit of a weirdo. Like, he wore fangs to a professional leadership meeting. Wears his hair in a skullet. Dresses in black. (Not weird.) With lots of ornate, video-game-like jewelry. (Sorta weird.)

But I’ve seen weirder. Plus he had some experience as a leader, and he wasn’t behaving too inappropriately, so we let things slide.

The ethics

Vampire guy had a very strict, authoritarian model for managing his group. Totally not our style, but we figured maybe it was necessary for keeping the Darque Vampire people in line.

For example – at social functions, his charges were only allowed two drinks. (Which I think is bullshit. Either they drink responsibly, or they aren’t invited.) He defended it, claiming it was necessary.

Whatev’s.

He also has a tiered system for infractions, and the consequences include things like “ghosting” (pretending the person isn’t there), temporary banning, and permabanning. They had a point system. Some infractions are one point, some are two. When your point total reaches a threshold, a scaling punishment is applied.

That’s some pretty complicated tracking for someone who isn’t an employee. But again, it’s their group, so whatev’s.

During the meeting, Vampire Dude was very clear about consent. He said that in order to “feed” – whether energetically or on actual blood – a vampire must get consent from their “donor” first.

So we thought, again – not for us, but it sounds like this guy is at least respecting our cornerstone of Informed Enthusiastic Consent.

So we flagged it as Wait And See.

The red flags

Vampire dude likes attention. He likes to talk over the top of people. He wants to get the group to use the rules he’s using. He doesn’t like having to adapt to other people’s ethics or values. He also likes to brag, and call attention to his myriad accomplishments and titles.

Vampire dude loves to talk about his lineage. He’s one of those guys who can’t introduce himself without rattling off his 6 Impressive Titles, 3 Magical Names, and Really Important Lineage.

When other values were brought up, he sort of ignored them to talk about how he does it in his group. He does that thing where he seems to talk without breathing, and you have to start looking for a pause in his monologue for a chance to say something.

But, so far, not a total deal-breaker. We’ve had this kind of guy around before, but we figured it might be nerves. We figured we’d at least let things play out.

Oh yeah – one other red flag. I asked him, point-blank – what did he make of identifying as a predator, in the context of being a healthy participant in a group? In other words – vampires, in all the literature and movies – are depicted as predators. They eat people, and those people either die or are harmed by the feeding. So anyone who wants to identify as a vampire is doing so knowing full well the predatory nature of vampires.

So – if we don’t let sexual predators in our group, and if we boot people who exhibit other predatory behavior, how does he reconcile pro-social requirements with being a predator?

The solution, apparently, is consenting “donors.” And punishments for people who break the rules

OK then.

A bit about vampires

There are some common themes among vampires that I’ve met:

  • They want to appear “otherworldly”
  • They want people to be impressed by them
  • They “feed” on people
  • Their identity is largely based on modern fictional narrative
  • Many of them claim a specific lineage for “authenticity”
  • They incorporate heavy elements of sexuality

Most of these tropes come from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Some are from Dracula derivatives, such as Interview with the Vampire, or Blade, or What We Do in the Shadows. But the themes of ancient, undead, predatory, and sexual are all pretty much straight from Stoker.

That means that most people who call themselves vampires are rooting their identity in narrative fiction.

With that said, most cultures have stories of the dead rising from the grave. Unlike Dracula clones, this is never a good thing. The “undead” are horrific monsters. There is nothing redeeming about them. They eat people, and they are scary. They are irredeemable. Whether or not the culture is Christian, the undead are always from a dark and evil place.

That means that the Darque and Mysterious Vampires of today aren’t rooting their identity in actual cultural beliefs.

As a narrative device, vampires represent hidden, animalistic desires that are inappropriate to act upon in a particular culture. For instance, sex was a taboo subject in the Victorian period when Dracula was written. The Count’s character was a representation of mankind’s hunger for sex, which had to be concealed because of the monstrous effect it would have on society.

You could make a similar case for vampires as meat-eaters (predators), or even as payday loan companies (predatory lending, sucking the life force out of its victims, and the victims getting hooked and having to come back for more).

The point is, vampires as we understand them are a cultural construct, and are easily traced back to Bram Stoker. Vampires that aren’t working under those assumptions generally have nothing to do with sexuality.

Which is a long-winded way to say: Most people who identify as vampires are LARPing.

A note on LARPing

If you’ve never heard of it, LARP stands for Live Action Role Play. It’s like those guys who dress up in medieval costumes and beat each other with sticks in your local park.

There are lots of different LARP groups. I am familiar with a vampire LARP, a Dungeons and Dragons LARP, the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA, which I’ve also been told stands unofficially for Society of Consenting Adults), Belagarth, and a few other small ones.

It goes like this. You take on a persona, like you’re an actor in a play. Then you pretend to be that person in a variety of situations. Maybe you get together with other LARPers on a camp-out, where you’re cooking and sewing and swordfighting as if you were in medieval Europe.

Or maybe you and some friends meet in the park on Saturdays to whack each other with foam weapons.

But here’s the thing with LARPing: It’s fantasy. Some people take it a bit too far and have trouble separating the fantasy from reality, but at the root, it’s all just play-pretend.

(Personal side note: That’s why I do karate from an authentic Okinawan lineage. No one cares if I am proficient in hitting people with a foam sword. But someone who tries to hit me will definitely care if I’ve spent the last ten years maximizing the power of my punches.)

Now, there are some crossovers between LARPing and Paganism. (Even between D&D and Paganism.) So LARP is something I might categorize as Pagan-adjacent. And I have nothing against LARPers – there is nothing inherently wrong with their hobby.

But Paganism is rooted in authentic spiritual experiences. When Pagans cast a circle, we’re creating a personal experience that’s as real as yoga and meditation in an Ashram, or as real as Catholic Mass, or as real as a Buddhist empowerment.

There are certainly Pagans who put on faerie wings, or who dress up in medieval-style clothing. But generally, most Pagans are at least a little skeptical about fantastic elements that have no material evidence for their existence. Such as fireball spells, actual faeries, actual unicorns (which aren’t rhinoceroses), and actual bite-you-and-drain-your-blood vampires.

There are people who believe they are actual faeries. There are people who believe they must consume human blood to survive. There are people who believe that eating the heart of a wolf will turn you into a werewolf. I have not seen any proof to support these claims. While I remain open to the possibility, my threshold for belief requires more than simply claiming to be the thing.

So, LARPing – while adjacent to Paganism – is really about enacting a fantasy, where actual Paganism is about seeking an authentic spiritual experience.

Oh. And of the men we’ve kicked out of our group, the three most recent ones were heavily into LARPing or gaming.

Psychic vampires

You might be thinking, “Well what about psychic vampires?”

That can actually be a thing.

In fact, Vampire Dude basically admitted that many of the “feeding” behaviors of vampires happen on the energetic level.

There are some people who suck energy out of other people. Sometimes they draw excitement and enthusiasm out of a social situation. Sometimes they actually draw subtle magical energy from another person or group.

Often it’s just a pscyhological thing. For example, say there’s a member of the group who’s depressed and can’t pull out of it. When they’re around, other people’s mirror neurons will kick in, and the mood will shift to match the depressed person. This looks a lot like the depressed person is “sucking the energy” out of the situation. Really, it’s just that humans are hard-wired to mimic the emotions of other humans.

Psychic vampirisim can also be someone attempting to dominate and control a social group. If you leave a social event feeling drained, you may have been struggling to be heard over an attention-seeker. Or you may have experienced someone using dominating tactics to take over the group. These can include talking over people, coming back to the same topic over and over, and refusing to listen to new points or other perspectives. Some especially toxic habits include looming over people, or invading their personal space, or touching them without permission.

So – yes, psychic vampirisim is a thing. But like most magic, it can be subtle, and a lot of the time there’s a compelling real-world explanation.

Our vampire’s problematic behavior

Vampire dude came to our Witches’ Ball. We had a great crowd this year – about 70 people, and everyone had a ball. (Hehe, get it?) We taught some dances, did a few short classes that were a hit, and overall everything was pretty awesome.

But there were some things happening that we weren’t aware of.

There was a second vampire guy attending as a Pagan girl’s plus-one. Apparently, there is a protocol for interactions between vampires and their plus-ones. Vampire Dude was not following these protocols. This created tension.

Vampire Dude and his “Faerie” girlfriend were getting in the face of the other vampire and his girlfriend, bad-mouthing their Queen, and sticking phones in their faces to record/take photos.

Vampire Dude claimed to attend the Witches’ Ball every year (false), and that he was going to become a member of our coven (also false).

Vampire Dude went around telling everyone that we (the organizers) needed him for “protection.” (We’re experienced witches who handle our own “protection.”)

Vampire Dude said that activities with witches were the best ones to go to, because witches are always raising a lot of energy on which vampires can “feed.” (We did not grant permission to be fed upon.)

The victim tried to come talk to us, but Vampire Dude physically blocked her path to come talk to us.

Vampire Dude kept trying to make eye contact with or physically touch the victim, in order to “feed” on her, without her permission.

At the end of the night, Vampire Dude spent a half-hour showing us pictures of the stuff he makes, wanting to sell it in our shop. Nothing said about the altercations. Nothing said about membership in the coven, or anything else. It was curiously pro-social, as if to cover the tracks of his misbehavior.

Why it was wrong

In the first place, Vampire Dude was exploiting another person without getting Informed Enthusiastic Consent. Big no-no.

When the victim tried to get help, he physically prevented her from doing so.

Vampire Dude made false claims to impress people he thought were his subordinates. However, he presented a completely different story to the organizers, whom he believed were his superiors.

Vampire Dude’s actions were not consistent with his words.

Vampire dude is participating in a fictional fantasy narrative, in which his relations with other people are defined by a predator-prey relationship. This causes him to behave in a way that exploits members of the community. Further, he demonstrated that his goals are selfish, designed only to benefit only himself. This is fundamentally incompatible with the purpose of the group, which is to build community and participate in meaningful ritual.

Appropriate response

Our head organizer sent Vampire Dude an email, letting him know that he was no longer a member of our Leadership Group, and that he was deemed not in good standing. As such, he was no longer welcome to attend any of our events. Further, this decision was final, and we would not reply to any further communication from him.

I mean, this guy was doing the exact same thing that disintegrated our whole community a couple years ago. That was a hard lesson, but well-learned. If you can’t behave, you get the boot.

We received a follow-up from him, asking if there was anything he could do to change our mind. We ignored it.

I felt a slight energetic twinge from his direction. Someone who knows him said later that he was threatening us with some kind of Darque and Skerry Magical Attack. I don’t know if it was that, or just my anxiety.

But I did a quick little Hekate spell to lock him out, and that was the end of that.

The Aftermath

None. We had another leadership meeting since we booted him, and we didn’t hear a peep. I think we kicked him out before he could have much influence on anyone in the group.

My takeaways

How do we get better at managing our groups? And how do we prevent people from violating consent, and preventing a victim from seeking help at our events?

First, actions speak louder than words. Listen to them.

By that I mean, if you’re running a group, and you have someone come in who’s really excited and interested to be there, but you hear conflicting stories from other people, pay attention. If a person says they’re one thing, but they are behaving differently, pay attention.

Second, your decision on whether to include bad actors in your group is a vote for the quality of your group. If you kick toxic people out, you’re voting to have a better group (even if it feels like it’ll be smaller). If you allow toxic people to remain, you’re voting to have a toxic group.

Toxic people will come up with all sorts of tactics to stay in the group. They’ll promise to be better. They’ll lie to you to throw you off the track. They’ll spread (and start) rumors to discredit you. You can avoid all these things by kicking them out of your group.

(Side note: Weirdly, I don’t think toxic people always realize they’re being toxic. I think they are often motivated purely by emotion. Toxic behaviors are how they learned to get what they want. They may play the victim – they may even feel like the victim! – but you are not obligated to correct or teach them.)

Third, I’m on the fence about helping people get better. I really want to believe that people can change for the better. I would love to create a space where people can make mistakes on their path to growth.

But the reality is, most people are comfortable where they are at. And most people are not willing to face the discomfort of change – even when that change is for the better.

Fourth, consider how connected a person is to reality. If a new member is making claims that seem a little too far outside the realm of possibility, listen to them.

It is totally fine to work with Faeries. It is totally fine to work with Monsters. It is totally cool to play with energy, cast spells, whatever. If someone says they are a Faerie, or a Monster, it’s totally OK to want evidence.

Fifth, watch how people respond when you set boundaries. If they respect them, chances are they’re a healthy person for your group. If they get angry, or if they push against or creep past boundaries, they’re going to be a problem.

Final thoughts

Like, what’s the actual deal with men, fantasy, and toxicity? Is it just that they are unhappy with reality, so they cultivate this alter-ego that takes over? Do they find that playing pretend gets them laid more often?

I mean, I can’t imagine that any of these toxic dudes we’ve kicked out have fulfilling relationships. Or even super long-term ones. At some point, the friction between fantasy and reality is too much for most people – and any reasonable partner is going to bail.

If a fantasy dude* is especially toxic, he might try to use violence, coercion, or manipulation to try to keep a partner. Which never ends well.

Guys – if you’re reading this, remember. Informed, enthusiastic consent every time. Be real. Be authentic. You don’t need to pretend. If you do need to pretend because you’re boring or offensive, see a counselor and find a hobby.

*Or dude-ette. Women can be just as toxic as men. This post refers specifically to my experiences, which have been with toxic pagan and pagan-adjacent men. I’ve heard stories about equally toxic pagan and pagan-adjacent women. Same goes for non-binary or any other class definitions around gender. (Obviously.)

My $0.02 on the Hekate brouhaha

So, apparently somebody wrote an article on Patheos about Hekate worship. Then, a few other people wrote responses.

Judging from the uproar, it seems like a lot of folks are struggling with this. So, here are a few thoughts you might find helpful.

This is not part of the dogpile. I thought the original author had some good points. I also thought some responses had some good points. This isn’t about those points. This is about the dogpile.

It’s not just about you

OK – so what I mean by this, is that each of us needs to reconcile our agency, autonomy, and individuality against the same agency, autonomy, and individuality of others.

Here’s the thing – in general, it doesn’t hurt you for someone else to be worshiping whatever deity, however they want. We don’t have to care. It doesn’t do jack to my partnership with Hekate for any of these people to be doing whatever they’re doing.

With that said, sometimes there is a public consensus on a particular topic. For example, Hekate is a Greek name, and it’s usually pronounced [HECK-uh-tay]. Some people change the emphasis, and say [heck-AH-tay]. People who are really striving for authenticity might say [eck-ah-tay].

If you pronounce her name [heck-kate]. you’ve just marked yourself as a noob. Sort of like pronouncing Samhain as [sam-hane]. (In case you’re new, Samhain is pronounced “Sow-wen.” It’s Gaelic.)

Now, as a linguist, I recognize that sometimes we learn words from reading books. Some words don’t sound like they look, and I don’t want to patronize people who learn words from reading.

But I still notice. Everyone notices.

So there’s this social/community aspect that we need to be aware of. Language and words don’t just belong to one person. In order for language to have any meaning, there has to be a common understanding of what a word means.

Jason Miller’s article (linked above) does a pretty good job of outlining the difference between historically-accurate practice, versus personal practice. Think of this like “true for me,” where we might have a personal definition of a word or deity – versus “true in general,” where the same definition/deity holds across a group of people.

I’ve had some things revealed by Hekate, which she has in no uncertain terms told me to keep to myself. Because it’s not canon, not historical, and meant for me personally. It’s not for me to broadcast those as The Godess’s Revealed Truth. Because they might contradict history and other people’s personal experience; who am I to say my perceptions are better for another person than their own?

What I mean by “it’s not about you” is this: you aren’t the decider on what is or is not a valid practice. Nor what is a valid word, definition of a word, or pronunciation of a word. These things belong to the “hive mind” of the group. You very well may need to adjust your personal definitions, pronunciations, and even practices in order to align more closely to the group you want to participate with.

The place where people run into trouble

Most of the time, people who write these opinion pieces have a hidden assumption that someone else needs to change what they are doing.

Wanna know how many people have changed their mind because of something they read on the internet? About five (if you count me).

So the odds are not in your favor for changing someone’s mind.

(Side note – maybe some bloggers already realize this, and are simply repeating a point to build community. Outrage is the machine that runs Fox News and Facebook, after all. They’re preaching to the choir, but the choir buys more stuff when they’re pissed off.)

This is an invitation to challenge the idea that someone else should be doing something about whatever the thing is.

What can I do about this?

Not me, the writer. Though I try to practice what I preach.

I mean you, the reader. Read that heading out loud. What are you doing to change?

If you want something done, you have to do it yourself. So, what are you doing? Are you reading up on your Hekate history, so you have some context about what’s historically authentic? Are you performing rituals and listening for some kind of feedback or communication?

There’s another dimension to this, which I think is (conveniently) overlooked by many Pagans. It’s not popular. In fact, even mentioning it can get you ostracized from the Pagan community. But I’m a bit of a contrarian, and it needs to be said.

Sometimes you’ve got to adjust a little in order to fit with a group.

In today’s world of self-centered identity, many people are struggling to a) figure out who they are, and b) stand authentically in their identity. This is especially true for those struggling against oppression. I get it. I’m a Pagan in Mormon-occupied US, and I so get it.

Wanna know how I made it through an awful childhood, and into adulthood? By learning when to listen and keep my fuckin mouth shut. Learning when I need to swallow my pride/individuality, and “when in Rome” my way through a situation.

Don’t think of this as advice to change who you are. Rather, think of it like this: society and language belong to everyone¬†who¬†use¬†them. You probably don’t like being forced to act or speak a certain way. Other¬†people¬†don’t¬†like¬†it¬†either. In other words: no one appointed you Emperor of the English Language, Decider of Universal Gender Pronouns and Methods of Goddess Worship.

You might have to let some things slide in order to participate in a community.

About community…

Remember that bit about how the community belongs to everyone? Yeah. Wanna know how well community works when everyone is trying to make things go their way?

It doesn’t. That’s how you fuck up a community. (Ask me how I know…)

Here’s a logic puzzle for you. If you want to be part of a community, but you want it to accommodate your every little anxiety and discomfort, so you decide the community needs to be changed to fit you – why do you even want to join that community in the first place? If you change it, it’s no longer the community you want to join, right?

Like, I’m a straight white guy. I’m sure, somewhere out there, is a women’s group I could join to learn more about feminism or women’s concerns. (If they’d even let me through the door. Which is a a topic for another time.) But I would be decidedly unwelcome if I joined that group and took over and tried to make it run more like a men’s group.

I wouldn’t even have to try to make it an MRA or PUA group (though, for real, those are disgusting). Just a social club, like the Freemasons or Billy Bob’s Beer & Bullets Shootin’ Club fer Men. I’m sure you have a pretty good idea of what the culture of those clubs might look like. Why even join them, unless you want to participate in that culture?

I think Pagan communities work the same way. We can work to accommodate everyone in the community, and try to hold a space that serves most folks. But that requires a couple of things. First, some folks are going to have to reconcile that the community isn’t going to be everything they want or need. Some people might have to leave a few wants and behaviors at the door. Second, some people will need to be excluded for the safety and harmony of the group. (Like sex offenders, toxic people, violent criminals, thieves, etc.)

Bringing it all together

So, the bridge where we get from “I want this thing to be this way” to “Hey, this is an awesome community I like being part of,” is when I do the work. Again, not I the writer, but “I” the person reading this.

So – in the context of Hekate, it’s helpful to remember that other people experience her differently. We don’t have a High Priest/ess of Hekate who reveals the Truth. And even if we did, this isn’t a case where there’s a single “truth,” but rather many, many facets of truth that apply to individuals. Also note how Christian denominations tend to go astray when there’s a single infallible leader. There but for the grace of The Mistress of Keys go we.

Seriously. Just let people have their stuff. Maybe have a discussion where you can share equally in your experiences. Aim to listen –¬†really¬†listen – to what the other person is saying. The cream will rise to the top – that is, the experiences that are valid and verified will become more noticeable, and the weird individual experiences will simply stay private.

You’ve gotta give a little to get a little. And it’s important to decide what it is you want. Do you want community? A place among followers of Hekate? Respect as an authority over things that are known (and unknown) about Hekate?

Or do you want a soapbox? A place to yell at other people to get off your lawn? An individuality so loud and strong, that no one else can stand to be around it?

I don’t care what you want. It’s your choice. But I am pretty sure I know which kind of person I’d rather be in community with. And the only way I can get there, is by becoming the person I want to see in the group. Which – once again – means I need to adjust myself a bit.