For the ancient Celts, exile was worse than death. It makes sense – for a culture that believed in reincarnation, death was not such a big deal. The honoured dead remained part of the community, their memory kept alive by story and song. To be exiled was to have no place to belong, no one to remember your deeds, it was to lose your land, your identity, your whole place in the world.
These days, exile might not seem like such a fearful thing. That, however, rather depends on how you relate to the process. Should you be willing to shrug your shoulders and move on to next town, where you aren’t known and you can start over then no, exile from a place doesn’t mean much. If you have a deep relationship with land that could be sorely compromised by broken relationships with people, it’s a whole other thing. If your sense of self is embedded in being part of a particular group – often true of religious people – then exile or excommunication can be deeply damaging. If you are the sort of person who feels keenly a need to belong, to be accepted and know where you fit, exile is disaster. The loss of a job can easily be exile from community on just these terms.
I’ve been through experiences that felt a lot like exile to me. The social group from my teens disintegrated, inevitably, and I left the area too. Something was lost that could not be returned to, because it no longer existed. That was my first taste of what it meant to have nowhere to belong, and it took me a long time to get over it. The community in my geographical area during my twenties was lost to me when I had to leave. I kept what lines of communication open that I could, but it’s not the same as being with people. Those were just circumstantial. Nothing personal, just life. Not my fault.
Three years ago, I felt like an exile from the Druid community. That was all about me – not about anything I’d done wrong, or badly, I might add, but a knock on from being in crisis and seeming like a liability to others as a consequence. For a while I had no idea if I could even call myself a Druid any more. Interventions from other people in the Druid community made me realise that it wasn’t a case of exile. It’s taken me three years to piece together what happened, but most of it came from just one person. It doesn’t take much. I’ve seen that with other people, too. When you really care about something, when you’re really invested in it, heart and soul, then the smallest push out of the communal circle has far greater impact. For anyone holding positions of authority and leadership this is a vital point to bear in mind. Anyone who is serious may be far too easily persuaded that you don’t think they are good enough. Most people are not ego-maniacs, riddled with delusions of grandeur and feelings of self-importance that allow them to shrug off suggestions that they can’t cut it as a Druid, don’t belong, aren’t good enough or aren’t welcome.
Experience of wider culture has brought me into contact with a fair few people who habitually use sledgehammers to crack walnuts. People who hammer home the point because they expect not to be listened to or taken seriously if they are gentle. People who shout and demand when they should go softly and ask nicely. I assume that’s underpinned by a lot of insecurity, but when you get that in people who are visible and dominant, the result can be a lot of people disempowered and slinking away into exile. It’s not good.
I, for one, am a walnut; sledgehammers really aren’t required. I watch what I do, all the time, wanting to make sure I am fair, properly understanding things, not hurting anyone needlessly and so forth. A word if I get it wrong will have me running around trying to put things right. Get out the sledgehammer, and I will shatter, and there will be nothing much I can do after that point.
It’s been a very odd ten days or so. I’ve lost something that mattered to me, but in the same time frame, someone else who I very much admire, value, respect and feel inspired by has moved deliberately towards me, asking for more of my time and creativity. (Thank you, Talis).
When the Druid I had been following turned me away 3 years ago, Philip Carr Gomm swept by and offered me a place at OBOD, where I had studied years before. Not a huge fanfare, but a listing for my book on the OBOD site, and a celebrant listing, and a feeling of having a place to be, of being wanted and valued and not out beyond the edges of community after all. Community is never about the opinion of one person, no matter how important or in charge they seem to be.
I think the moral of this story is that if one person demoralises you and pushes you away, even if they seem to have power, don’t believe that they speak for the community as a whole. They probably don’t. In my experience, not at all, in fact. And if you do lead, bear in mind that exile was supposed to be a punishment for the most serious crimes, for the things that could not be rectified, where no restorative justice was possible. Not for minor offences, real or imagined, and not as a way of propping up your own sense of importance.