Shyness, Shame, and Sh*tty Broom Closet Doorknobs

I toyed with putting my face and name to the blog for a while, and even had an author photo for a week or two, and released a video, before finally pulling both.

I am not anywhere near shy about being a Heathen in person. My hammers are on display, and I’m always looking for bigger ones to wear. (There’s a dick joke in there, somewhere.) I consider it important to go about my business as a visible Heathen, and am always prepared to answer questions about what I do if I encounter someone curious. I’ve done it before.

Because it should not be shameful, and I therefore have no reason to behave shamefully. And if I cower, or hide, from visibly aligning myself with my faith, I leave more room for encroachment by dangerous extremists.

But I still compartmentalize, and keep my legal identity separate from my online, religiously focused presence. I am very comfortable with people learning about paganism through me, I’m far less comfortable with people learning about me through my paganism. Even in a job where I knew for a fact I was working with other pagans, I didn’t say much of anything until the end of the season, except to a customer who also sported a Mjolnir.

In-person situations like moots, blots/seges, and pagan pride are wide open. My paganism is accessible to other pagans by the very nature of the situations in which I meet them. That’s a given. There’s an implicit contract that I can generally lean on, because most of us agree that revealing somebody’s practice against their will is a terrible thing to do.

I keep my face hidden not because of shame, but because I am anxious about the consequences of visibility within the wider community, where I can’t exercise even a little bit of control. On the internet in general, really. Perhaps this would be different, if I were part of a religion with far less baggage than Heathenry, and could afford to be less worried about what kinds of people I might piss off. Having had a stalker situation before (not Heathenry-related, just a creep who couldn’t fathom why repeated boundary violations made me not want to be accessible to her anymore), I’m a lot more stringent about my personal information than most people. I obsessively check and cover my online trail every few months, and make sure my info is pulled off of people-finder sites. If I ever decide to self-host and monetize this blog, it’s a pretty safe bet I’ll be springing for WhoIs protection.

Again, the control thing. I’ve had it taken away too many times to feel secure in surrendering a whole lot of it. But there is a very real chance that I am overestimating the risk, at least as it relates to Heathenry.

And that has me wondering a bit, as someone who’s pledge-bound to assist other Heathens as well as I can, whether I need to be the rest of the way out of the proverbial broom closet to achieve that. It’s literally a requirement for working in certain pagan-focused organizations.

And if so, at what point can I claim that’s the case?

I’m not even saying, like, “is the broom closet even real” and trying to deconstruct that concept. Because, that’s experiential. And I’m experiencing that. So it’s functionally very real.

Though I don’t like the phrase “broom closet” very much, but that’s a whole other thing.

Anyway.

Realistically, as someone progressively ramping up my involvement in local Heathen scenes, someone who’s doing captioning work for panels run by Heathens, who wants to work as clergy someday, I know I cannot stay hidden forever. Especially because there have already been lapses in judgement where I link myself to my overt pagan presence online. Not often. But they’ve happened.

Even putting my social media to my legal identity when joining the Troth was an anxiety-inducing step, even though I’ve wanted to join the Troth since about February.

I hope, someday, I’ll be braver. I am a painfully shy person in real life.

…until somebody cracks a dirty joke at a moot, at least. By all means, make dirty Heathen jokes.

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Doing Ritual Without Feeling Like a Pretentious Weirdo

I used to act. As a result, I hate acting. Hate fake-it-til-you-make it. Hate playing the part. Hate rote actions being done “just because.”

But ritual always involves a certain amount of pageantry, and doing specific actions simply because history and trial and error have borne out that it’s the thing to do.

It’s easy to understand why pre-planned shows of devotion don’t seem to make much sense. You can’t pull religious ecstasy out of a can. It doesn’t work like that. It definitely seems like it would make more sense to wait for these spontaneous experiences, and take them as they come.

Right?

So how can we approach ritual, and accept the way it functions, without feeling like we’re faking something?

Understand the Why

Think about your birthday. Getting gifts is a standard thing, at least when you’re younger. They’re not spontaneously given, they’re given to you because on that day you’re special and that’s what they’ve learned to do. People are commemorating you successfully living through the year, and giving you something nice to congratulate you for it. And then everyone sings a song and eats some cake.

That is literally a ritual!

In that situation, you’re the important figure being celebrated. Gifts are offerings. And then there’s socializing and feasting.

Religious ritual is the same. Except instead of the birthday boy or birthday girl, you’ve got a deity. Instead of presents and well wishes, you’ve got offerings. And instead of the birthday song, you’ve got group prayer in the form of a blot. Or Sege. Or whatever the equivalent term is in your particular path.

It is normal human behavior to ritualize events. The passage of time, births and deaths, the divine, and forces we have a hard time wrapping our head around are easier to understand and approach if we have a structured and tangible representation of it.

You have your birthday whether there’s a party or not. But it feels more “real” with some kind of activity to mark it. I know that I have trouble processing that I’ve aged if I don’t mark it with something special. I also know I’m not alone in that.

That’s the purpose ritual serves.

Embrace Structure

It is very, very hard for me to do something if I don’t know the “correct” way to do it. I take tasks handed to me very seriously, and I like to do things in a proven way. Sometimes with a twist, but I need a frame of reference before I work. It’s hard to take a calculated risk if you don’t know what you’re even calculating.

That’s not a big deal when it’s cooking dinner or doing busywork. But when it comes to dealing with higher powers, the lack of structure can be terrifying. Knowing that there are exact rules also helps prevent any risk of a boundary violation. Ritual, in a way, serves the role of etiquette when dealing with higher powers.

When you are shy, and new, especially in a group setting, ritual lets you know exactly what to do and what not to do. And knowing these things can actually be immensely freeing.

Don’t Underestimate the Social Component

The best rituals I’ve ever been a part of were conducted with about twenty of my closest friends. I am generously including strangers, since they’re just friends you haven’t met yet.

I really can’t emphasize the importance of the social aspect of ritual enough. When you are by yourself, or your only accompaniment is gods, you’re very limited in the feedback you can receive over your actions. It’s a toss-up whether gods will give you feedback, and we’re not particularly accurate judges of our own behavior. I’m speaking from a place of anxiety. I am a terrible judge of how I come off to people.

By contrast, when surrounded by people who are committed to giving you helpful feedback, eager to guide you in your work for the gods and community, you have a far better idea of whether your behavior is serving the right purpose.

And on top of all that, knowing that you’re in a setting where everyone is either familiar with what you’re doing, or at least respectfully curious, can be a massive relief. Nobody is going to think you’re weird. Nobody is going to judge you.

You’re allowed to relax.

Let Go

Most rituals I’ve been in involve some sort of pre-ritual that serves the purpose of grounding, and easing people into a slightly altered mental state. This is important, because it helps you feel more open, more connected, and more flexible about what will happen.

Ritual, in practice, is far less scripted than it would seem. Something will always go just a little bit wrong. Candles and torches don’t light, you get splashed with the libation, someone drums off beat, or intones the wrong rune.

It’s whatever.

You’re not doing ritual to be perfect, you’re doing it to be nice. It’s about getting people together to remind the gods they’re loved, to enjoy community with your coreligionists, and to–hopefully–put you in the state of mind where this is easier to achieve.

And maybe you’ll still feel like a weirdo for doing it! But hopefully you won’t feel pretentious. Because pretentiousness is about fluffing up our egos, and that’s not what ritual is for. Ritual will not make you pretentious.

And, hopefully, you’ll feel at peace with being weird. Because what group ritual is great for, in terms of the mundane, is reminding you that you are not alone in that weirdness.

Prestige and Puppy Love

Paganism is exciting when it’s new. There are gods! A whole bunch! Gods you can talk to! Sometimes they talk back and leave you cryptic notes!

And then you get used to it. Discernment gets better. You realize there is vastly less godphone going on than you thought–if you even have godphone, because sometimes your brain is giving you a helping hand by reinterpreting a very potent urge to do the thing. Your brain is supposed to pattern-match and fill in the blanks. You’re experiencing a feature, not a bug.

It is tempting (as I have regrettably done) to try and get more attention. Be it through harder work, expanding your skillset or just straight up pleading. After all, your gods love you, right?

Well, yeah. But not the way we love them. They’re bigger than us, and given the fact that we don’t interact with them like other beings, I imagine they keep a certain distance. Even in a framework where the gods are everywhere, and in everything, we don’t often get to carry a conversation with them like we do with humans. They function differently. And I think this distance is maintained out of love and respect for their willing servants.

Getting close, really close, to a deity is kind of (extremely) terrifying. They’re big compared to us. Not physically, per se. I don’t know how one can measure that by any acceptable metric. But it stands to reason among spiritual types that any entity that can tweak circumstances in your favor, when you can’t, must be more powerful than you. I can remember what I consider the first time I properly met Loki, where I said “prove it” and suddenly realized I could not breathe. I cried uncle and stopped trying to be sassy. I was not harmed, but I was definitely spooked.

I mention this because, while ecstatic experiences definitely give you a high better than drugs, they have an equal and opposite comedown. That drop will happen no matter what you do, and the further you prolong the inevitable, the worse it will get. It’s a balance thing. Balance isn’t constantly remaining in one state, it’s the fluctuation necessary to maintain the average. And you can soften where you fall through taking the steps to prepare for those experiences, but the fall itself is non-negotiable.

It sucks, but we’re physical creatures and tightly bound by the laws of physics. Managing an abnormal experience, which religious experiences are, sucks up our energy. That energy comes from the matter in our bodies and we suffer when it disturbs our equilibrium. Again, gods don’t function the way we do.

Sometimes our gods will wound us. Sometimes it’s discipline. Sometimes it’s by accident. Sometimes, for the very unlucky, it’s cruelty. But our gods will wound us if we get close enough. So will our community members, for all of the same reasons.

I’m sure it’s exciting to have the attention (from god and human alike) and subsequent community prestige that being able to claim these kinds of experiences brings. But I think it’s important for people to understand that this doesn’t inherently make something worthwhile. There is a lot of pageantry, braggadocio and just plain bullshit in the online pagan community. (Case in point, ain’t them some sparkly five-dollar words?) And because humans are social creatures, and social approval is such a vital part of our survival, we are going to feel terrible if we don’t measure up. We’re going to feel compelled to try and keep up with the neighbors. It’s a compulsion better not followed.

Because if your paganism doesn’t serve your higher powers, who is it actually for?


Quick housekeeping note: As of today, the blog is switching to a fortnightly schedule. In other words, posts will be every other Thursday until further notice.