On the surface it seems harmless enough: a philosophy of love, kindness, non-violence, and a concerted practice of positivity. But is it possible to be too positive? What is hiding underneath all the smiles and the well-wishes? Is there such a thing as too much light? Can positivity be toxic? In the immortal words of Ursula K. Le Guin, “To light a candle is to cast a shadow.”
While mainstream religions tend to vilify the darkness, equating it to “evil” and creating an impossible conflict within ourselves, modern Paganism tends to deal with the issue fairly well, in that it often seeks to balance what are thought of as both light and dark energies – a polarity echoed in the pairing of both goddess and god in the more Wiccan forms of modern Craft, or as non-gendered complimentary forces elsewhere. Modern Paganism also gets bonus points for mostly forgoing the all-too-common urge to demonize one while exalting the other. But, alas, this is not always the case.
I spent a good number of years working in the spiritual and metaphysical retail world, having owned (until quite recently) a good-sized shop that catered to the magical practitioner and spiritual seeker alike. While my Witchy interests were fully on display, a good portion of our clientele weren’t necessarily Witches, but more what we might think of as a “non-specific spiritual practitioner.” This person often takes inspiration from many faiths, and crafts their own practice, whether that be robust or spartan. One of the strengths in these eclectic paths is that the practitioners can create a system that is better suited to their individual needs and interests. One of the inherent weaknesses, however, is that it provides a system that often does little to nothing in terms of challenging the practitioner to grow beyond their comfort zones. In essence, they can become paths that validate and encourage our own weaknesses instead of prompting us to strengthen and to grow.
One such weakness in the body spiritual, as I see it, is a determined drive toward positivity at all costs. No one is purely light, and to strive for such an impossible state creates an internal conflict which must be addressed in order to truly grow. Herein lies the danger of forced positivity; when difficult feelings arise, a “positive-only” mindset demands that they be squashed down and denied, creating a cognitive dissonance that places the individual at odds with reality. And worse, in a community that purports itself to be spiritual, this behavior promotes a cult-like mentality that ultimately leads to compartmentalization and the bypassing of rational thought. Once rational thought has been eschewed, it’s really just a stones’ throw away from QAnon or flat-earthers.
One of the biggest proponents of this flawed approach was the spiritual teacher Doreen Virtue, who for years, through her numerous books and oracle cards, peddled a psychologically imbalanced view of spiritual practice that denied all things “scary” or “dark” and simply replaced them with images of forced positivity.
An example of this imbalance would be her Angel Tarot Deck, which specifically changed any of the cards that depicted challenges or less-than-rosy messages. For example, the Tower card was replaced with “Life Experience,” Death with “Release,” and the “three of swords” (which traditionally depicts a heart pierced by three swords, meaning a pain in one’s heart) has been changed to depict a family of unicorns. Rather than admit to the trials inherent in life, the Angel deck elided them in favor of candy-coated nonsense.
While Virtue has since denounced her previous involvement in New Age spirituality and has quite publicly converted to Christianity, the core of her spiritual approach appears to still be rooted in this lopsided denial (as well as now peddling a special brand of fear, such as warning that her former “angels” may actually be demons.) This can only lead to an inability to deal with life’s problems, and it adds insult to injury when “negative” emotions or conflicts arise.
Certainly, there is life experience to be gained from the veritable calamity that the Tower traditionally represents, and we should do our best to frame life’s painful and difficult experiences in ways that are useful and ultimately positive for our evolution and growth. But to assert that pain, and fear, and even anger are somehow less important than our joy, our courage, and even our love, is to do a grave disservice to our collective mental and spiritual health. By promoting the denial of one’s “base emotions,” these systems fail to seize the opportunity for self-exploration that these emotions provide us.
By religiously defining these emotions and experiences as being “unholy” (or the New Age equivalent, “not of the light”), groups that embrace this mode of thinking have effectively ensured that they can mutually avoid anything that might challenge their cultish mindset. Angry over injustice? You’re just living in a lower vibration. Afraid of contracting a deadly virus? You just don’t trust Jesus enough.
This level of denying our basic humanity cannot be forever maintained. It creates a growing imbalance within the psyche, akin to that of a building pressure; an internal pressure that eventually seeks release in some form, and whether that manifests as mental or physical illness, harmful behaviors, or even a psychotic break, is anyone’s guess.
Mainstream Christianity is no stranger to this approach, labelling nearly all that is painful, or difficult, scary, or even challenging, to the side of “Satan,” where it can conveniently be buried and forgotten. This inability of mainstream churches to deal with their collective shadow is what fuels the “polite hatred” that infects much of their social and political stances against queer people as well as those of differing spiritual practices or people of color.
While the majority of our business’s clients and customers were – and, as we have transferred to an online-only model, remain to be – compassionate, intelligent, and introspective people, we would also encounter those who would take personal offense at some of the darker aspects of magic and spirituality that were represented in our products and practices. Our spirit boards never failed to incite amusing rants about “evil spirits” and “the Devil” from those who whom I think of as “concern trolls”: those who insist on inserting their (ill-informed) opinions into a conversation under the guise of concern, when really their main (if perhaps unconscious) motivation is to simply cast judgements in an effort to feel superior to those with whom they disagree. (Yawn.)
As Witches and Pagans, we tend to pride ourselves on not buying into the cultural baggage of the Christian over-culture, but really, who are we kidding? As a group, we can be just as judgmental and vacuous as any other group of humans, only we tend to have more candles while we do it. This is one of the pitfalls of being in a sub-culture: we can perhaps more easily be led to believe that we are doing things differently, doing things better, than those who are in power and who have shaped society in its current form. And while in some ways that might even be correct, in other ways we have perhaps just bought a repackaged version of what that society has been handing down since forever.
Case in point: Donald Trump.
From the beginning of his ill-fated presidency, there has been a massive and vocal movement against him directed from the Pagan and magical communities, and this has caused some rifts between us. While it would seem that (at least in the United States) most Pagans and Witches find themselves in various degrees of being left of the political center, this certainly does not describe all of us. There are also Trump supporters, Republicans, and Libertarians, along with those ever farther to the Right. But this isn’t necessarily where the problems lie. We have to look within, as well.
When Trump recently fell ill with COVID-19, this brought a sense of satisfaction and perhaps even delight among some magical practitioners (myself included) who felt that perhaps their righteous hexes were finally taking affect. But immediately came the chorus of “Harm none!” “Remember the Rule of Three!” and my personal favorite, “A real Witch doesn’t hex!”
Aside from the outright absurdity of that last statement (I know Witches from Gardnerian, to Alexandrian, to Faery, to Eclectic who will hex and heal in equal measure), what I feel is happening here is a bit of what might be seen as a spiritual contamination: though we may give lip-service to the idea that we as Witches and Pagans embrace the dark as well as the light, we have collectively embraced the over-cultures’ set of values and we find ourselves using the very tools that our own oppressors have used against us.
This is the Pagan version of shaming others for their “low vibrations” while denying the complications of the fuller picture; complications like the real suffering of people of color and other minorities, of immigrants, of the poor, the sick and the elderly, all who have suffered and continue to suffer under an administration that demonstrably practices disdain for its people and embraces authoritarian principles and tactics. Life isn’t black or white. Life is nuanced and intricate, and messy. And to deny that is to walk down the road to madness, divorced entirely from reality and set to wander aimlessly, lost, and incapable of living an effective life.
I’m not trying to make the argument that somehow hexing makes one more inherently “witchy”; there are just as many ways to be a Witch as there are Witches who practice. But it is important that we all allow ourselves to process the full range of our emotions without shame or ridicule. And when it comes to disempowered and often abused people using their anger and their magic for defense and for justice, I feel compelled to assert that it is not the place of those who are not abused to judge the behavior and morals of those who are. Standing up to oppression is part of the Witches’ heritage, and to embrace that fact is to embrace our full humanity as well as our full “Witchiness.” Only by facing the darkness within ourselves, and channeling it into goal-oriented actions, can we ever hope to heal what ails our collective heart.
Sometimes, we need our anger, and our pain, and even our fear to help expose the hypocrisy and even the abuse that causes so much pain and suffering. It’s not easy, or fun, and it’s certainly not painless, but it is work that desperately needs to be done. We all need to look deeply into our own abyss and see what demons may stare back. Whether we work with them toward our mutual betterment, or we deny them and continue to give them our power, is entirely up to us.