Tag Archives: Community

Playing a role

We all play roles in our lives in deliberate ways. We have work roles, family roles, social roles, community roles. Where we take these on consciously and deliberately, they can be wholly functional and useful. However, we can also occupy roles that other people have cast us in, and we may unconsciously play out roles we’ve created for ourselves. When this second kind of role playing occurs, it can make a sense of authentic self, and forming genuine relationships very difficult.

One of the things that makes playing a role problematic is that those of us doing it will assume what we are doing is normal and reasonable. We seldom come to this alone. We may be playing the role our family, or our culture has ascribed us. We may be replicating stories handed down from our ancestors – and not even the most recent ones. If we think what we’re doing is the only thing a person could do, we won’t notice it. Recognising that roles have been given and people are expecting each other to play them can be difficult.

Roles become a problem when they have rigid boundaries and do not allow us to grow or change. Roles like victim, aggressor, saviour, martyr, doormat, useless one, the problem, the one who is always wrong… are relentless. You can’t be a complete and happy person when stuck in one of those roles. Often these can come in clusters – a family cluster might give you one saviour parent, one martyr parent, one useless child and one problem child, for example. We can spend our lives playing that kind of dynamic out and passing it on to the next generation.

People who cast themselves in specific roles – the victim, the one who is always right, the one everyone must love – need other players to compliment their role and maintain the story. Victims often need both aggressors and rescuers. The person who is always right will need scapegoats who are always wrong. People often don’t realise that they’re repeatedly playing out the same basic story and just drawing new people into the supporting roles.

Over the next few blog posts I’m going to be exploring ways of looking at the stories we might have written ourselves into, or unwittingly been drawn into, or cast in from birth. Stories are how we make sense of the world, and challenging core stories about who we are and the roles we play can be deeply uncomfortable stuff. We may not like what we find, and dealing with it probably won’t be easy. So, bring cake and blankets and be patient with yourself if this is a relevant journey to take.

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Collective Dreaming

We live in an individualistic culture that tends to understand dreams and ambitions as solitary. We tell stories about the triumph of the individual genius, and when we fail, we tend to feel that we have failed alone.

Collective dreaming has a lot more power to get things done. When there are more of us, sharing the same goals, figuring out the same trajectories, there’s more scope for success. More minds on the case. More hands to the plough. More resources and potential. Whether we’re talking about community projects, social movements, or small collaborations, we can get more done when we dream together.

Of course collective dreaming comes at a price. You have to be willing to give up the allure of personal, standout success. If you win as a team, you may not be personally famous. A little realism about the odds of being personally famous by working alone can help a lot here. Collective dreaming means being willing to compromise a bit on your vision. Even if you’re working with people who are very much aligned to your view, they won’t always be perfectly in synch with you with all things. Patience and flexibility are essential. Sometimes it means letting go of a large part of your vision so as to make a small piece of it actually happen. We live in a culture that encourages us to nurture our private dreams and not sacrifice parts of them for a common aim. Even when that means the dream goes nowhere. We can see hanging on to the exact dream as heroic, even when it gets nothing done.

Working together doesn’t automatically make something a force for good. That our dreams are shared does not necessarily make them wise, feasible, or virtuous. We can amplify each other’s worst ideas when we work together. We can build bubbles of unreality, believing ourselves to be better, more important, more influential than we really are. We can enable each other in doing horrible things. Our shared dreams may be other people’s shared nightmares. The validation of being part of something can give us the confidence to be despicable. When enough people sign up to such projects, they can become cultural norms. Nazi groups also share dreams.

The only way to measure our collective dreaming is by giving it a lot of thought. Watching for the risk that we’re talking each other into unrealistic expectations or belief. Watching for what we validate in each other, for whether we seek power over each other, and how we envisage people who are outside our little collective. Those intent on justifying atrocious behaviour are generally good at finding ways to do that, and we need to watch for them in our collectives. Getting involved with a collective dream doesn’t have to mean continuing to think it’s a good idea or dedicating to seeing it through. Like the notion of the heroic lone genius, the notion of group loyalty to the bitter end can prove to be deeply unhelpful in practice.


Creative Community

I have never liked the image of creator as lone genius, up in their ivory tower, making Art away from the influence of nasty commercialism, nasty popularity and actual people. For me, this is an image that goes with elitism, wilful obscurity, pricing most people out of the market and creative irrelevance. I’m equally not a fan of disposable, industrialised pop culture where people make pretty much the same thing over and over for it to be consumed by other people who don’t much care about it.

There are of course other ways.

At the moment, I am blessed with a creative community. There are people whose work I am involved with to varying degrees, and who are involved with my work. People who pass me their first drafts, and who will read mine. People I trade reviews with. People I go to poetry nights with. People I can learn from, and be influenced by and test myself against. People who inspire me and who sometimes, to my great excitement, are inspired by me.

I find it always helps me to know who I am creating for. Much of my fiction work is written with a few specific individuals in mind. I can’t write for everyone; that makes no sense to me. Writing purely for myself feels too indulgent and narcissistic.

Being part of a creative community means finding out what other people are interested in, reading, looking at, watching, listening to. I may not be much engaged with mainstream entertainment, but I am engaged with things that other people in turn find engaging.

Creative community means support for what I do, and people I want to see thrive. It’s easier to get your books in front of people when someone else can say they are worth reading, simply. It’s good not to feel alone as a creator, and community helps offset the crushing qualities of the industry.

There can be a downside to all this. A small and inward-looking community can become a bubble of dysfunction. It can give people illusions of importance that stop them from doing things that would help them. I’ve seen it happen several times in different contexts. Creative cliques breed arrogance and obliviousness. The solution to this is to be part of an extended network that maybe has some tighter knit groups within it. There’s no real gain in finding a small pond in which to be a large fish.

There’s a romance to the idea of the lone creator that some creators have played up as part of their marketing strategy. The truth tends to be more complex. Stand-out famous creative people tend, when you look more closely at their lives, to have people around them. Wordsworth, for all his claiming to wander lonely as a cloud was actually out on a walk with his sister, and used her diary account of the day to help him write the daffodils poem. The myth of Solitary Great Men abounds, but in creative community we can find natural, healthy antidotes to this where we can all be excellent people in relation to each other.


Shapes of relationships

Some of our relationships are necessarily structured. When there’s a professional shape to a relationship, all kinds of rules and requirements are in place and this is good and necessary. Professional relationships create obligations, responsibilities and power imbalances that need managing. Some family relationships have some of the same issues. Even so, there are choices to be made about how we shape such involvement – how much power over? How many arbitrary rules? How much service? How much expectation?

As Druids, we may often take on informally the kinds of roles that can be held professionally. Priest, teacher, counsellor, life coach… If we stray too far from what’s professional, we can end up abusing power and mistreating people. If we over-invest in our semi-professional status we can end up arrogant, self important and doing ourselves no favours whatsoever. As in most things, there’s a fine balancing act to achieve. Unlike professionals, we aren’t automatically keyed into a system that has support networks, resources, information and reliable paychecks, and it’s worth thinking about how that impacts on our relationships, too.

We tell each other a lot of stories about relationships – in fact friendship and romance are often central to our stories. In all kinds of ways – including adverts and laws – we tell each other about the shapes we think those relationships could and should have. Over time, that changes. It used to be much more acceptable for a man to beat his wife. We used to see marriage as a well defined relationship with a definite power imbalance in it. We seem willing now to explore less authoritarian approaches to parenting while at the same time being far more controlling of our children’s time and activities.

It’s easy to default to a standard relationship shape, an off the peg, one size fits all, it was good enough for some other person so it’s good enough for me kind of approach. This can have us replaying dysfunctional family stories, acting out what we’ve seen on the telly, aspiring to advert-family lifestyles that could never suit us and all sorts of other self-defeating things.

We have a notion that friendship means people of the same gender and about the same age, but life, and communities are much richer when there’s inter-generational contact. There are no stories about the natural friendship patterns for queer and genderfluid people. We tend to move towards people of similar class and educational background, but again that’s really narrowing. Some of us need big networks of friends, some of us need to deeply invest in just a few people. Some of us need a mix of that. There are no right answers here, but there can be wrong ones. If you end up doing what you think you should do, not what’s right for you, then you suffocate yourself.

Every relationship should be unique, because it is a meeting of two people. Each relationship may be framed by a context, or multiple contexts. We may give each other roles even when they don’t formally exist. It takes a certain amount of deliberation to refuse standard-issue relationship shapes and let something find its own form. It takes a certain amount of confidence as well, to do something with a relationship that is not what others might expect. People can be unpleasantly judgemental about having their expectations denied. Coming out can be a case in point for denying your family’s expectations.

It may seem easier to have all our interactions neatly arranged and tidily categorised. It may be simpler that way. There are no doubt some people whose natures mean that tidiness and simplicity are in fact the best choices. But not for all of us. Not for all relationships. Putting down the assumptions and seeing what happens can let magic in.


Community is people

A community is nothing more than people who are connected to each other. A society is nothing more than the same thing on a grander scale. In some ways this is a painfully obvious statement, but it pays to come back to the essence of a thing. It is all too easy to see community as some kind of entity in its own right, controlled, if it is controlled at all, by the people who have set themselves up as in charge of it.

Community is just people. If we, as individuals choose to act, then the communities we are in will change. If we want robust, enduring, fair and safe Pagan communities, we can all work towards that, without having to do anything too dramatic at all.

There are two key things I think we can do to build community, Pagan or otherwise. The first is to look for diversity in our friendships. Where groups of people are homogenous, where it’s all the same education level, age, race, religion and economic class, you get funny little echo chambers that are cut off from the echo chambers around them. There’s a lot to be gained when we are friends with people who are not like us, when we welcome in difference and aren’t troubled by diversity. (This does not mean having to be ok with people who are not ok, hugging a Nazi is not required).

The second thing we can do is cross pollinate. Modern life is segregated, fragmented. We have our families, our neighbours, our work life, our social circles, and it is normal to keep these groups separate. However, strands of connection between groups is what turns a bunch of groups into a community. So, if the chance arises, take a neighbour to a moot, or a work colleague to a party, and so forth.

In terms of safety, we can all be part of the solution there, too. We can speak up if we see things that are out of order. We can tell people who are acting inappropriately. We can offer safety to people who tell us they’ve been mistreated. Putting your body in the way is a powerful thing, and that can be as simple as not leaving someone to go to the loo on their own. Making safe spaces means putting the safety of people who feel unsafe first. It does not mean jumping in for drama and bashing which can only create more conflict and increase feelings of not being safe. If it’s a police matter, take it to the police. If it isn’t, encourage people to behave like decent adults.

Community is us. It’s the choices we make. It’s what we do. We all of us have more power than we are using, in all probability. We all of us have scope to be part of the change we want to see. If we can help each other be the change, almost anything is possible.


Leadership and conflict

This is a scenario I’ve seen play out repeatedly in Pagan organisations, and which I assume happens other places too. It invariably causes a lot of trouble and distress, and I am absolutely certain that it could be handled differently.

In the beginning, two people get into conflict. Most usually this starts privately, but because both people are members of the same group, it either gets taken to that group in some way, or spills over into it. It can be a falling out, a communication breakdown, it can be one person harassing or bullying another. At this early stage, it is seldom possible to see the shape of the thing from the outside.

A person, or people with leadership roles and power say “ah, but it didn’t happen on our boards/facebook page, or at our event so we aren’t responsible for sorting it out.”

Where there is bullying, at this point the victim has no choice but to leave while the perpetrator often stays. I’ve said it before and will say it again – doing nothing is not a neutral stance, it is a choice that supports and enables bullying and abuse.

Where there is conflict, it may well spill out into the wider group. Leaders may not pile in, but friends will. You can end up with two sides and a deepening divide. You can end up with more people leaving because they don’t like how it’s been handled. If it really goes pear-shaped, you can tear the entire group apart and bring it to an end. By which point it most assuredly is on the boards, facebook page, and at any real world events and it is night on impossible to bring it back under control or sort anything out.

I think the problem stems from the current human fashion of seeing our lives as fragmented. What happens in one aspect of our lives, we suppose, won’t impact on another. I’ve seen this logic implied even when the police have been involved. We come to our Pagan groups as whole people, and if we fall out with other people, it has an impact.

I think one of the things that leadership means, is stepping in when things go wrong like this. Step in as soon as the problem is visible, and listen to all parties. If it’s the sort of thing that calls for police involvement, support the victim in getting the police involved. If someone is out of order, tell them – explain to them what’s gone wrong and why and what can be done about it. If communication has broken down, be the bridge, get things moving again. If it’s the kind of thing people should just be able to deal with and get over, listen to both side and tell them this, and it might help. People are more likely to accept that judgement if you hear them out first. A little witnessing and taking seriously can do a lot to deflate a conflict if you get in early.

Community does not mean giving up on people as soon as things get challenging. Community does not mean ignoring bullying. It does not mean turning a blind eye to problems. If we’re a community, then problems arising within the community affect all of us, and we all have some responsibility to respond, regardless of whether we lead. As for leadership – that doesn’t mean getting to do the things you want to do and ignoring what people want from you. Good leadership means looking after your people, especially when things go wrong.


What makes a good community?

I’ve been asking a lot of questions lately about how we might do a better job as Pagans of being a community. So, here we go again!

Modern Pagans often only assemble to do Pagan things – moots, rituals, festivals, camps, conferences… I think this is true for people of other faiths too, in the west at any rate. We don’t live in our faith communities, our lives are fragmented and we do different bits of it with different people. Our Pagan ancestors lived together. They worked together, celebrated together, dealt with sickness and injury together, grew food together, and ate it together. They sold their wares to each other, married each other, gave life to the next Pagan generation together, raised their young folk together. We don’t do that.

For me, one of the defining qualities of a real community is that it has depth and breadth. People are involved with each other’s lives, interdependent, and connected in multiple ways. Now, with the way the world works at the moment, we can’t have Pagan villages to re-enact ancestral lifestyles. However, we can do more to create threads of connection between us.

Communities need to come together as big groups where people may only be loosely affiliated with each other. They also need to be able to hold within them many smaller groups, sometimes overlapping, where people are more closely involved. There has to be some room for fluidity – movement in and out of the big group, and movement between small groups, with new small groups forming at need and ones that are no longer needed falling away.

For a while when I lived in the Midlands, I think I managed something that worked on those terms. There was a moot, a folk club, a local ritual group, and a bigger more centralised ritual group drawing from a wider area. There were several meditation groups, the people who made the wicker man each year, and numerous musical configurations overlapping with those groups. It wasn’t all Pagan, but the Pagans tended to be the core of a lot of the things going on. It had a real energy to it.

It’s very difficult to run that as a top-down operation. I don’t recommend it. This kind of breadth of community works better and is more sustainable when it occurs in a more organic way. Key to developing it is good communication so that people can get involved with various aspects. It is really important that most of it does not end up too cliquey and exclusive. It also depends on no one being too power-hungry. If there’s someone who runs The Moot and it is their moot and the only moot in town, a new moot running on different terms for different people may cause unrest and trouble. If there’s someone who thinks they alone should run ritual in the area, or someone who objects to the Pagan knitting group as too fluffy, it can be hard work getting things sorted.

It takes a lot of people with will and patience to make a real community. It takes people who are not willing to be told what to do by people who want power over them. It takes a willingness to nurture diversity, make mistakes, give up on ideas, try new ones… and as we argue, negotiate, experiment, and evolve our way through various forms and configurations, we stand a chance of becoming something a bit more recognisable to our ancestors.


Pagan Community and predators

I’ve written plenty of posts critiquing aspects of the modern Pagan community, so I’m going to try henceforth to find more productive approaches. What can we do to mature as a community? How can we do a better job of things?

One of the underlying problems is the attraction and repulsion authority creates in Pagan circles. None of us wants to be told what to do. None of us wants there to be an outfit with the power to police their practice. However, it’s a different matter when some other Pagan is doing it wrong and we want someone to police their practice and make them stop. I’ve certainly been there and I know I’m not alone. Policing only works by consent, (leaving aside situations where policing is rooted in force)and it isn’t something we, as a set of people, are likely to consent to.

We don’t have collective approaches to witchwars, or to situations of genuine misconduct and we have no collectively strategy for telling one from the other. Obviously, an abuser is going to claim they are the victim of a witchwar. Obviously, anyone undertaking bitchraft is going to try and make out they are responding to a situation of someone else’s misconduct. I wish there were parallel Druid words for this, because it certainly isn’t a problem exclusive to witches! We don’t have anyone with the authority to step in and make a call, to investigate, or do anything else that might help us collectively deal with community problems.

If we insist that misconduct, bullying and other abuses of power are individual problems, then we are not a functioning community. We are leaving our least informed, least powerful, most vulnerable people open to predation. To function well as a community, we need ways for dealing with the problems that invariably arise between people. Scope for power and income attracts people who want power and money. Holding power can enable abusers to operate unchallenged. It happens in politics, in business, in celebrity circles and in other religions. We are not magically immune.

So, what can we do?

Firstly, if someone is accused of acting in a criminal way, support and encourage the victim to report it to the actual police. Fear of making our community look bad must always be less important than dealing with the problems. If you ever catch yourself wanting to protect Paganism by covering something up, remind yourself about how well that’s gone for the Catholic Church.

If there is, or appears to be a problem, encourage people to collect evidence – screen shots, for example. Write down the day, and if you can, the time things happen, write down exactly what was said. Keep those notes. You can show them to the police. Detail is key in proving that someone is out of order. Small acts of infringement may not be of interest to the police, but a record of dozens of them over months could well be.

Always look for the power balance. Abuse always involves a power imbalance, although that might not be easy to see at first glance. It is practically speaking very difficult to bully or use someone who has power over you. It is very easy to bully or misuse someone you have power over. We come back to the attraction and repulsion of authority here, because while Pagans can be really resentful of authority, we love our gurus as much as any other group does, and when we’ve set someone up as important, we can be reluctant to see what’s out of order.

It is a commonly held assumption that any sensible person will just get out of a bullying situation. It is important therefore to understand why people stay, and that staying is about vulnerability, not consent. People stay because they’ve been given reasons to fear leaving. They stay because gaslighting has damaged their ability to make good judgements. They stay because their self esteem is so trashed they don’t think they can find anything better. Victims can be surprisingly defensive of their abusers. If it takes someone years to get out or speak out, this does not undermine their claims.

As it stands, we may not have community solutions to community problems, but we don’t have to turn a blind eye to them. Be prepared to notice, to listen, to take seriously and if needs be, to take sides. Remember that to do nothing is not a neutral position, it means you are effectively supporting the abuser, if there is one. Sometimes there are two sides to a story, two people or groups, or more, equally responsible for the shit storm they’ve brewed up. Sometimes, there aren’t two sides, there’s someone lying and abusing, and someone suffering.

For some people, Paganism, magic, ritual and roles within the community are always going to look like opportunities for power. For a minority, that can play out as getting money, sex, influence or the freedom to hurt people. So, if you see someone wielding a lot of power, ask what that power serves. Does it serve the gods, the land, the community? Or does it serve the person wielding it?


Pagan Community – matters of access

To be a proper community, we need plenty of spaces people can access without having to pay. Many other religions have advantages over us in this regard – having physical spaces people can turn up to with a paid clergy on hand. Many other religions set the bar far lower than we do – a person need only show up to a church to be included in a service. Modern Paganism doesn’t recruit and fundraise in the way some religions do, which is also why we don’t have the infrastructure. I like us better for that, but it does mean we need to be careful about access.

I’ve been in and out of an assortment of big Pagan groups over the years. I have paid my way over the threshold, and, once in have usually felt some degree of belonging and involvement. Every time I’ve left somewhere, I’ve noticed how easy it is. How ‘community’ evaporates when I can’t, or won’t pay to carry on there.

In more local contexts, participation has often meant being able to afford to access the venue. Can I afford to go out for an evening? Do I have the clothes, the money for the door or a half of something? How am I going to get there, and back and who will take care of my child? For most of those questions, physical energy can be as much an issue for me as the financial cost.

The internet has given us a lot of space where people can meet. Many Pagans are still geographically isolated from other Pagans, and it is only via membership of the big groups or participation online that they can connect with other Pagans. However, the quality of online spaces isn’t what it could be. It’s very hard for a new seeker to tell what’s reliable and what’s wishful thinking, what’s trustworthy and what’s a bid to get into their wallet or pants. There are far more people who want to learn than there are teachers – that’s been an issue for decades. Much as I love the internet (here we all are, after all) there are things that can’t adequately be taught long distance and that need the energy and magic of being in the same place.

There are lots of reasons to set the bar high with access to our working groups. If you want to do serious Pagan stuff, then constantly having to educate newbies can be a real distraction from that. Not everyone wants to teach. Too much fluidity in a group makes it unstable and stops it feeling like the safe and intimate space many of us prefer for ritual. There isn’t really a space in a Pagan ritual for lay Pagans, you can’t be stood in a circle and not be an active participant, it just doesn’t work. So we can’t have the same casual attitude to people rocking up that a Christian church might have. What works for them doesn’t work for us.

I don’t think there are many widely applicable answers to the question of making the Pagan community accessible, and not dependant on jumping through hoops. It does however help to have slightly permeable edges to groups and to do the occasional public facing thing that allows the curious to make contact and have a look. The more groups are able to be a little bit available sometimes, the easier it is to answer this need without creating too much work for anyone.

I can’t help but feel that learning your Paganism from Facebook groups and chat rooms, and the odd blog, or even books, is probably about as good as learning all your sex style by watching pornography. There’s a lot of technical stuff that you will certainly pick up. But, odd things may happen to your expectations, and you may get some unhelpful ideas about how the relationships work. There is more we can do to make internet and book experiences more real and grounded, and less like magic-porn.


Dependent human

We evolved to be communal creatures living in extended families. And yet, I see so much contemporary advice on the importance, and healthiness of being independent. Need someone too much and you’ll get labelled as co-dependent.

We start early with this process. It is normal to hand over your baby to someone else when that baby is only a few months old, and go back to work. No doubt human history is full of things you didn’t do while holding a baby, but in a hunter-gatherer arrangement it is fair to assume the gatherer has the baby tied to them. Generally, mammals keep their offspring close beside them until the offspring is ready to fend for itself. Parents take it in turns to hunt, and to watch the little ones, or they hunt and come back and the little ones are not left for long. We don’t do that.

Family life is ever more fragmented, with few households sitting down regularly to eat together, or just spend time together. We are to sit alone in our own rooms, staring at our own screens and eating our own ready meal… what a miserable way to exist.

I’ve seen estimates that the modern human sees more people in a year than a mediaeval person would have done in their whole life. We can have a lot of human activity going on, but no intimacy, no depth of relationship, no reliance or trust. If you are surrounded by a vast sea of people who mean very little to you, perhaps independence makes sense as an idea.

I am a social creature. I need to know where I belong and who my people are. If I don’t have a tribe, I feel ungrounded, and a bit lost. For preference I want a tribe that knows it is a tribe, where conscious involvement in each other’s lives, care and mutual support is a given. I function best in groups of less than a dozen and I can comfortably belong to more than one such group, although I find I have one group where that feeling of connection is most profound and important to me.

Unashamed of being a social creature I can admit that I need the people around me. Most of the time I don’t need them to do anything specific, just be themselves and be part of my life. Their stories and adventures, their cares and ambitions become part of my story too. We make a life, and a future out of that.

There are people who recoil in horror when anyone says ‘need’. People who have learned to fear the idea of being thought co-dependent. People who fear being diminished if they hand over anything of their precious independence. But, there’s something very beautiful indeed about being in the company of people who are not afraid to need each other.