Column: Coping With Community

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The definition of community continues to be largely debated in many different circles. I am not here today to define that for anyone, but rather to look at related issues that are seldom debated, such as the challenges and ongoing tensions that appear to exist within the “umbrella” of the Pagan and polytheist communities, and within the interpersonal relationships found in groups, covens, groves, and organizations.

The so-called “Witch Wars” are not a new thing, neither are the ongoing moments of intensity based on different views, approaches, and methods of engaging with our diverse practices. There are historic Witch wars of which we are all aware. Some were between individuals, and others were between different factions of this very diverse and nuanced community.

[Courtesy Photo: Wikimedia]

There often seems to be a lot of bandwidth, quite literally at times, expended on the latest conflicts, and there continues to be high levels of leadership burn out, strained relationships, and an undercurrent of anxiety that often finds it’s way into the fabric of our shared spaces. We read blogs, social media posts, and even podcasts that work to unpack some of a conflict’s dynamics or the issues surrounding an incident in the community. While much of these conflicts play out on the internet and social media, they are not limited to those forums, and many of us find ourselves carrying the discomfort and stress into our personal lives.

Additionally, it appears that there is a surge in such things right before or after a Pagan convention or festival.

While there is not any official empirical data to point to about the correlation between this ongoing phenomenon within modern Paganism and the level of discord that people begin to harness toward concepts of community, it would be irresponsible not to look at how one impacts the other. Irresponsible? With the mounting socio-political pressures in today’s culture and the complexities of life that people are already balancing, it seems vital to take a look at the role that our spiritual community plays in the wellness of its members in the efforts toward maintaining spiritual health.

Community can be complicated and there is always talk about how to make the challenges and dynamics less stressful, and less harmful to the overall functioning of the group mind. But we also know that, while this is a noble and worthwhile thing to contemplate, there are certain tensions that are bound to create levels of conflict due to a power imbalance within society.

Conflict Theory teaches about some of the more natural elements of conflict found within factions of society, and it demonstrates how the politics of power and social capital contribute to the way in which groups engage and struggle against each other. As the Pagan community expands and an overculture is formed, it makes sense that we are in a place of growth within this community. The friction of movement is more constant.

Many different science disciplines have explored the impact of stress on our physical and mental health. We know that stress impacts the physical body, including increasing the release of chemicals, such as cortisol, that directly impacts the way we function in our physically, mentally, and spiritually. We know that stress is a killer, which gives us more reason to identify ways we can mediate the amount of the tensions we carry and identify how stress comes into our lives.

While I am sure plenty of people would agree that our spiritual communities should not be a source of stress, we know that community in any capacity has that potential. The more we explore the ongoing dynamics of this particular spiritual community as a whole, the easier it is to see that even coping with the ebb and flow of tensions can create it’s own challenges, and lead to the development of new skills.

As in any area of life, coping with the myriad experiences found within this spiritual community helps us to endure and to formulate how we will continue to connect.

So what does it mean to cope? What type of skills are common for coping with various elements of individual and collective experiences? Coping skills are found at the heart of many social sciences, and widely talked about when referencing stress and mental health.

A simplified answer can be found on the Good Therapy website where they define coping mechanisms as “the strategies people often use in the face of stress and/or trauma to help manage difficult and/or painful emotions. Coping mechanisms can help people adjust to stressful events while maintaining their emotional well-being.”

Mindful Occupation outlines a more in-depth description that accounts for adaptive and maladaptive strategies to coping. It reads:

We all develop defense mechanisms to avoid or lessen psychological pain. Coping skills are ways in which we learn to deal with various stressors. Each person copes with stress differently. Over time, we all construct coping strategies that are “right” for us as thinking and feeling individuals. “Right” is in quotes because many people often do not realize that how they deal with life stressors is not only unhelpful, but also destructive, negative, and painful for not only themselves but those around them.

Coping strategies can be both constructive/adaptive or destructive/ maladaptive. Maladaptive coping skills are ways of dealing with stress that usually make things worse. These types of coping strategies can hurt your social relationships, make pre-existing problems worse, and even result in new symptoms of a stress-related injury. Many of us have known someone who has overreacted to something which resulted in them losing touch with a friend or loved one.

Maladaptive coping strategies put pressure on your relationships with friends, family, comrades, and coworkers. They can damage your body or create more emotional pain in the long term, even when they seem helpful in the short term. In extreme cases, maladaptive coping skills can ruin lives. Through the information in this booklet, and psychological activism, we can lessen the impact of negativity in our lives, including that which we inflict on ourselves through learned maladaptive coping skills.

Depending on what websites you read, or who you ask, coping skills can range from gardening to therapy. Meditation, mindfulness, exercise or yoga, prayer, being in nature, or even having a glass of wine are some of the common ones that are often thrown around. It begs the following questions:

How do Pagans cope with their own community? What tools do they use to manage the ongoing stress and challenges that are inevitably a part of a community experience? Does everyone experience this “stress” from community or does the drama get brushed off the shoulder like a Jay Z song?

I anticipated that these questions would elicit very different responses from different people; and I was right.

Chris Orapello

In everyday life, I don’t have to cope with all that much drama in the local community because the groups I organize are cultivated and the people involved have been vetted. This approach creates a pretty pleasant environment, generally free from conflict. The only challenge which remains is what topic to discuss and what to order for dinner. If problems do arise, I have learned to have a no-nonsense approach. Life is short and my time, my partner’s time, and the time of my friends is all too precious to waste on bickering. Community happens. It can be cultivated and guided, but it certainly can’t be forced. – Chris Orapelo

Mat Auryn

In my personal community at The Temple of Witchcraft, we have a whole ministry devoted to conflicts among people through mediation. Mediation is to resolve a conflict that the parties can’t solve on their own, with the result being an agreement between the parties to move forward in a specific way, which can vary depending on the circumstance. I have had mediation in the past and found it tremendously healing. The main aspect of this is having a safe space for the two people involved and someone who’s completely impartial to mediate the conflict. In this space, each person is given time to talk uninterrupted and then to have a conversation about what was said. Just having the chance to clearly communicate with an emphasis on listening is something that should not be overlooked and often you’ll find that conflict arises out of miscommunication and misunderstandings.

In the context of larger community I have tried to take these tools with me. This mostly occurs online, as I see more conflict on the internet than in person – shocking, I know. But a large factor in that once again is the inability to communicate face to face, read nuances, understand personalities of strangers and listen. The internet tends to be one giant network of people trying to scream over each other and being focused on what they’re going to say next, not actually listening, sitting with what was said and responding based on that.

As Witches on a personal level, it’s important to understand where we’re putting our focus, our will and our energy. We can leave these types of difficulties and conflicts feeling drained, overwhelmed and frustrated. I guess this is the magickal equivalent of “choosing your battles wisely.” Having spiritual cleansing practices of inner purification, taking a break to gain distance for a different perspective and meditating on where we’re directing our time, attention and energy can often help us figure out which conflicts are worth engaging, and which are fires that can be put out on their own. – Mat Auryn

Sabrina Taylor

As one of the few POC Pagans in my area, I have often felt my path is different from the roads frequently traveled and look outside my community and coven for aid and inspiration.  I often look to those I consider the actions and words closely fit my ideals – my role models, other POC pagans and leaders in my local community. My coven itself was formed after events that happened in a local organization (ATC) that ripped apart our local Pagan community here in the Seattle area.  During the turmoil, I was told repeatedly that this was not the first time the Seattle area Pagan community had splintered and it probably wouldn’t be the last.  I try to look to what I feel is the center of my practice and the center of my faith – love, equality and justice for all.  I constantly remind myself through the infighting, the conflict and the change that if we grow deeper as individuals and as a community, then it is all worth it. – Sabrina Taylor

The best advice I can give on coping with conflict inside the Pagan community is to keep hold of perspective at all costs.

Fire Lyte

It is important for me to remember that the Pagan community is not the only community of which I am a member. I am not just Pagan. I’m a gay man. I’m married. My husband and his family are Mexican immigrants. I am an active citizen engaged in local, state, and national issues. I feel it is important to never be a citizen of just one of my communities, for that leads to a slow blinding of the ways in which my needs in each of these communities intersect as well as blindness to the needs of communities of which I am not a member.

Having a healthy relationship with my Pagan community means, to me, to understand each issue in its proper context so that I do not give it more weight than it deserves. Is the drama of the day a would-be reality star making a play for more TV time? Or, are we dealing with intrinsic racism inside one of the faiths under our umbrella? One of these is important to our community, and one of these is less so. Sure, it is important to our community’s future to have a good public image, but it is more important that we police xenophobia among our own. To ensure that all those that would walk a Pagan path can find it a place of welcoming spiritual respite.

I encourage others to not just keep up with Pagan news and events and social media, but to take in non partisan news, to be aware of what is going on in the over culture. Get off the computer from time to time, where the Pagan blogosphere tends to catastrophize issues that are, at times, much smaller when put in proper context, and engage with your real world brick and mortar, flesh and blood Pagan and non-Pagan community. – Fire Lyte

Karen Krebser

The times we live in now and the ready availability of public platforms for airing all kinds of grievances have taught me to be very assiduous about taking a pause before responding to challenges and difficulties, and I have come to use that technique within my communities as well as in my social media presence. There is great value to be found in “taking a breath” as a regular practice because it allows me time to take in multiple flows of information, ideas, or opinions and to sort through them as much as I can to see what makes sense to me, what I agree with, what I believe in, and what I want to respond to before actually responding.

A wise friend once told me, “Just because someone takes a dump on the sidewalk outside your house doesn’t mean you have to pick it up and wear it around like a hat.” Taking the time to breathe, to realize that nothing is ever personal even if it’s aimed directly at me with my name on it and tied up with a nice pink bow (that’s occasionally on fire), has been invaluable in learning to deal with conflicts large and small with personalities large and small (at events and in circles large and small). In those times when things don’t run smoothly, when someone is in my face about something I’ve done or something someone else has said, or things are otherwise challenging, I’ve found it crucial to remember that on a foundational level, we’re all reaching for the same thing, connection, and some folks just express that desire differently than I do.

Some folks advise doing a social media fast now and again, and that’s wise; I just don’t find it practical sometimes, especially when really important news is coming down that has real-world effects on people I love. Disconnecting in those instances can have the unintended consequence of waving the lofty white-lady flag of privilege in the faces of those who are affected by rapidly changing governmental and authority-driven policies, and I feel that if for example women of color can’t disconnect, it would be tantamount to kicking someone when they’re down for me to. And in those cases, I find that giving myself time to pause and process is most useful so that I can deal with my own crap and then be present to center and aid others in my community in dealing with theirs. – Karen Krebser

Healthy coping mechanisms support individuals in many ways and often are transferable skills that are utilized in different environments and different circles. Spending time purposefully developing such skills, identifying what works, and tailoring them to your style and circumstances is one of the most productive things we can do to forecast dealing with stress.

In the ongoing stress of society, increasing our arsenal of coping skills individually and as a community seems necessary and is sometimes a matter of survival. It begs us to answer questions for ourselves about how we personally are coping, and if our coping mechanisms are healthy.

While our answers and mileage may vary, I am sure we can agree with the social sciences in that coping skills are essential to healthy and sustainable mental health.

What if the power of sustainable community really boils down to our ability to pass on worthwhile skills like this to our new leadership and the next generation? Wouldn’t that be fascinating to explore…..

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.