Monday, March 21, 2011

How nice for you

Ms. Manners suggests that the polite response to someone sharing inappropriately is "how nice for you" or "how awful for you" depending.

A few weeks ago, I went to a large pagan gathering. At a certain point, I was regaled with tales from a young woman regarding how "powerful" she is. As proof, she let me know that crystals are too dangerous because things blow up around her. And that she sometimes gets so lost in trance she doesn't see things in ordinary reality. How awful for her.

I'm sure we've all met folks like this one time or another. Besides lamenting that Paganism has sad cultural norm that it is somehow rude to address personality disorder and delusion as such, I just want to make a few analogies:

I'm such a powerful driver, I always go 120 miles an hour and can only turn left.

I'm such a powerful cook, I always burn my food to a crisp.

I'm such a powerful knitter that I stab myself the needles and so I never actually knit.

I ask you, dear reader, do any of those statements make a lick of sense? They don't to me either. That's not power. If such a statement were true, it is raging incompetence, not power, that leads to such outcomes. And that's just as true for any dubious claims of magical power.

What is most sad about these claims is that they:

1) Get attention - Magical people like to talk about magic and otherworldly things when we get together. Often it is why we got together in the first place. So these claims give you something to talk about. Empty dull conversation that lacks any depth, but conversation nonetheless.

2) Establish cred without actually having to prove oneself. If electronics explode every time you touch a crystal, then I would admit there is something special going on there. At the same time, often dangers of the "abilities" prevents the person from showing others or directing their "power" in some kind of helpful fashion.

Because of both of these factors, these kinds of claims are not just harmless. I actually think this dynamic is actively harmful. The least accomplished and most delusional get the most attention and, worst of all, any sense of accountability is lost. Any real conversation that may deepen spirituality or explore how magic works in the really-real world is lost in all the noise.

Even sadder, humoring these people is often considered a virtue of sorts. I believe in the mysterious and the numinous and that we humans can touch it via magic and religion. Yet, we seem to view faith as a toggle switch. Either I belive magic isn't real or I believe all claims of magic are valid. Just as an FYI to the world, I can believe in magic and not believe *you*.

One of my sincere wishes for paganism is that we, collectively, acquire a process of discernment between spirituality and delusion. I wonder if part of starting this process involves moving way from humoring folks and starting to take them seriously.

So one of the things that I'm sitting with and reflecting on is how to go from "how nice for you" to something that is kind, but honest. Something that isn't just me bitching at people, but also doesn't require me to implicitly endorse fantasy. If true, many of these claims are revel a dangerous incompetence and we should treat it as such. If not true, does it really serve others and our faith to let people lie to themselves and others?

I don't have any answers really, but I'm not sure "how nice for you" really covers this issue like I once thought.


  1. Absolutely fantastic post. 100% there.

    However I would say "how nice for you" still covers it. Followed by extracting yourself quickly from the encounter.

    My father is a psychiatrist and he told me once -when I was doing precisely the opposite- that there is absolutely no point arguing with the mentally ill.

    Even if these people aren't mentally ill, my thinking is that the same rule applies. I don't like the idea that it's up to us to interfere. Everyone gets where they're going in the end. I put that belief beside my belief in magic and my disbelief in their awesome powers.

  2. Those are good points Gordon. As you say, I probably can't fix dysfunctional personalities with the power of my acerbic wit. And it probably wouldn't be that much fun trying.

    Still, I think (well, I hope) there is a middle ground between arguing with the mentally ill and being complicit with delusion via silence. I still looking for it.

  3. Besides saying "how nice for you" which I never think to do in Pagan situations so I think it puts us ahead of the game just by applying that here as I don't think most of the community even thinks to do that, there are only two things I can think to do. 1) Say maybe you should talk to pagan elder X about this which seems pretty unkind to Pagan Elder X unless you don't like him or her then game on, or 2) Suggest a book for them to read and explore, which they probably won't do because they think they know everything.

    And then . . .either it will pass and we'll be rueful as adults or they will be That Pagan Guy/Pagan Girl indefinitely and you should avoid him or her.

  4. I quite enjoyed this post. I definitely agree with you that those who brag the most about having "powers" or about their position, often have the least or are the least qualified. It is hard to know what to say in these situations; I don't want to lie and go along with it as though I believed them, but nor do I want to outright disparage them. I usually say "I see...." though, instead of "how nice for you."

    A famous medium once said, "It's important to find the line between accepting what IS, and between becoming the person who's talking to the toaster," which I think certainly applies here.