“A friend is someone who gives you total freedom to be yourself-and especially to feel, or not feel. Whatever you happen to be feeling at any moment is fine with them. That’s what real love amounts to – letting a person be what he really is.”
I first saw the quotation above many years ago and it has stuck with me ever since. (I discovered The Doors when I was in high school, was quite distressed when I learned that Morrison had been dead for some time by then.) It describes, to me, an ideal of relationship. It’s what we want–at least, it was what I wanted–to be understood, to be accepted, on a genuine basis. It’s what we want to be able to give.
Ideals, however, are rarely attainable. In this case that is even more so because what it describes is in a way opposed to what makes our society run. Relationship, within a society, is give and take. It’s interactive. We can be ourselves, but we cannot only be ourselves. We can be the main character in our own story, but we also have to be supporting characters in the stories of others.
It isn’t just the obvious needs of society and the broad roles we take–that we need doctors who doctor well and without prejudice, police officers who are honest and unbiased, teachers who challenge and respect their students. It is also that relationships need tending. Your friends listen to you with sympathy, and you listen to them as well. You smile at your neighbors and they smile back. You’re polite to strangers and they are polite in return. When someone is in trouble, you try to help them, knowing that if the tables were turned they would do likewise. And yes, those are expectations and assumptions, and expectations and assumptions can be damaging, but they are also the foundation of community.
If I go to the doctor, I have to be able to depend on not only their skill but on them being non-judgmental–that they will treat my ailment or injury regardless of their personal opinion of me or the way I acquired said ailment or injury.
If I talk to my daughter’s teachers, I have to know that they will listen to my concerns and take them seriously; I have to know they respect that I am advocating for my child. In turn, I respect their work and their professionalism, and am grateful for their understanding.
And if, as a mother, one morning I feel angry and unmotherly, I can’t act angry and unmotherly because there are people who need me to be what they need me to be. I fully remember the feeling one day, when my eldest was an infant, when I realized this. It was a sinking sort of feeling, one that rooted me to the world and bound me tightly to her and to what I realized I had become. I hadn’t just had a child, I had entered into a contract. And once you begin to be a particular someone, to do particular things and to take on particular responsibilities, it is nearly impossible to stop doing any of that without it affecting the whole matrix of relationships we exist in.
We all change. Our needs change, our capabilities change, the way we are able to function changes, and the way we are able to relate to others in society changes.
So I try to look at the Morrison ideal as less of a goal and more of a model. Something to strive for, but not something to beat yourself up about if you never quite reach it.
It’s always seemed very clear to me that we are, each and every one of us, essentially unknowable. We are each confined to our own mind and soul and we can never really, really understand what is going on in the minds and souls of others. We can try, we can do our best to be kind and open, and to understand when someone tells us what they are feeling or thinking, but we don’t know. We are, at the heart of things, each alone with our selves. I’m not saying that with any sort of sorrow or regret, just stating what seems to me to be the case.
It’s not altogether a bad thing. It’s not a bad thing that we have to put some thought into understanding others as individuals; it’s not a bad thing that we have to put some work into our relationships. But it does mean, or at least it does for me, that we may not ever feel understood. (I suppose that might explain, a bit, our need for spiritual connection with deities, entities that may lack our mortal limitations of understanding. But that’s beside my point here.)
So we look for community. I’m kind of a loner and even a bit anti-social at times, but I still have that need for a connection, for someone to talk to as my whole and true self without having to be too many other things on top of it. Probably you do, too.
Which brings me to the next point of this, the seeking of relationship, of friendship, of community, spiritual and otherwise.
For folks who are maybe not all that mainstream, it can be hard to find even a beginning of that sort of understanding. Maybe you know some people, but do you know like-minded people? Who worship your gods? Who worship their own gods? Who experience deity as you do, or in whatever ways they may? Who are kind, and open-minded, and accepting of differences? Who will let you be as you are if you let them be as they are? Where do we find such people?
Mostly, I think, we don’t.
It’s a modern sort of thing, though, isn’t it? The ability to focus on the self, the individual. To be oneself. To seek oneself. The ancients, I think, had all they could do to build up their community, and if that was at the expense of the individual there wasn’t much to be done about it.
Today, though, we can live in multiple communities (in a manner of speaking). I live in a town, physically, in my house. I live here, I vote, I pay my taxes, I buy cookies from the Girl Scouts when they come to my door, I am sorry when my neighbors suffer and glad when things are well with them. And I am even more fortunate, I have local friends who comprise a part of my spiritual community and they are great people (although I will confess that right now I am having a hard time dealing with any RL social things at all).
But I also rely on non-physical community for spiritual companionship and support. And by that I mean virtual, online, internet-based community. It has a bad reputation in some circles, and it’s not uncommon for people to talk disparagingly about “internet pagans” or to say that you don’t really know a person until you have met them face to face, or that an online friendship is in some way not real. And it’s certainly true that an online friendship can be different from an in-person friendship (whether that means more or less open and honest will vary). But when you’re maybe not all that mainstream, you may need to find (or build) a community where the people who belong there can gather, and sometimes (often?) that means online.
It is not, I’ve found, all that hard to find the people who honor your gods. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to find community. Finding a group of folks who share your devotional focus isn’t the same thing as finding a spiritual home. The ancients were surrounded by those who worshipped the same gods, and that was surely something we can never have, but I’m not sure that back then there was a lot of respect for or acceptance of individual variation on that theme. We want more because we have come to expect more–because we know we can have more.
But where is it that we want to define our community? To determine who is and who is not a part of it? Where will we feel that we are home? Where will we feel safe and accepted and valued and supported? I know some folks will base it on practice–their community consists of those who worship in a particular manner. Others will base it on belief, and I know a few folks who consider hard polytheism (the belief that gods are individual and discrete entities rather than archetypes) to be the essential issue. If you are someone with a strong mystical bent, you will not feel welcome in a group that is not accepting of that; likewise, if you are a strict reconstructionist you will probably not be comfortable with a highly syncretic group.
I always say that I believe the gods themselves are what bind us as a community in the broadest sense, and I hold to that, in general. At the same time I don’t think there is a need for one great community of worshippers that is all things to all people. The group you hold ritual with doesn’t have to be the same group you talk religion with (although I think usually there will be some overlap). The group you worship with can be different from (or a smaller part of) the group you rely on for support and/or networking. There’s strength in numbers, and there’s strength in diversity, and I hope we can maintain both.
Categories: Pagan Op Ed