As is usually the case, I don’t have nearly as much time as I would like to write within this context and usually when I do, it is because I have been strongly provoked to consider my own thoughts on something or other. I usually write entirely for myself, as a way of processing something, and more often than not, I wind up writing the words I would have liked to hear myself, in helping me to come to an understanding on something. Over the past few months I have been thinking very much about community, my place within it and what exactly it IS, other events of the past week have brought that even more into perspective. Community is a word that is bandied around a lot within any kind of pagan circle you care to mention, and the assumption often seems to be that we all know what it means, or that we are all singing from the same sheet. I usually find that the understanding of what community means will differ greatly between the traditions, even within them, understanding can be quite diverse.
If you will permit me an exploration of the word through my trusty OED (because I like words and their etymology), it offers a number of definitions:
1.A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common
2.A particular area or place considered together with its inhabitants:
3.The condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common
I find these definitions interesting because they immediately bring to mind that which is not just about the human, but the entire context within which we find ourselves. The first two consider community not just as collections of humans, but of humans within a place or landscape. There is something implicit within the word that suggests a group of people who share a commonality of experience. If we broaden that definition out to a more animistic understanding, where the people we are talking about are not just human, but plants, animals, bricks, rocks, water and the sofa, that widens again our understanding of what community might be and adds a another dimension to the picture. As I write, I consider the community I am creating in this moment simply by being conscious of it. I sit on the sofa and can feel the fabric, the cotton and plants, the oil that made it, the wool of the blanket, the wooden frame. In the hearth, the woodburner is lit, the flames adding warmth to the room, burning the wood from the basket. There is the cat on the sofa, the bricks and paint of the house, the rose bush outside and the bowl of daffodils on the window sill; it is a very consciously chosen community, my home, and the place that I feel most welcome. I am very aware that the place is happy with me too, we have an ease that has come from spending the last year here, talking to the spirits of this place, making offerings and most importantly listening to the response. It is a negotiated relationship, built with care, mutual trust, a sense of what each needs, and what nourishes who. We don’t always get it right (if I don’t hoover often enough the old lady who lived here in the 70s gets very grumpy), but the intention all round is to maintain that relationship for as long as it lasts for the good of all concerned. It takes energy, co-operation, and a shared sense of value and direction, a recognition of what the commonality is.
For me, a key part of recognising myself to be a part of a community is in understanding what that commonality is. Potentially when considering something as large and expansive as ‘The Pagan Community’, or ‘The Druid Community’, even a community such as the friends we collect on Facebook, we may have a problem, because recognising what the commonality and shared value and direction is, can be almost impossible. Go back 20 years, even 10, and there were a great deal fewer pagans and the commonality found in isolation, discrimination or even a shared sense of weirdness was enough to bring and hold communities together. Nowadays ‘The Community’ is just too big, too diverse, with too many people all with different wants, needs and opinions for me to find much of a commonality of place or shared values and beliefs, let alone that shared sense of direction, which I need in order to really invest. And this is fine so long as we recognise that the only thing we may hold in common is the word ‘Druid’ and that difference of opinion will be as broad as it is possible to be. It certainly doesn’t mean that these communities are not of value, but if we are expecting all people within them to behave, act and think in the same way, or place expectations upon them about what they should provide us with, then we will probably be disappointed because they are to big and too open to engender the kind of support, validation or affirmation that so many of us seek in times of trouble. Because here’s the thing, and I feel slightly heretical saying it, I don’t consider ‘The Druid Community’ or ‘The Pagan Community’, or even the ‘Heathen Community’, to be my community. At least, not in any meaningful sense. For the most part, I find my own values and beliefs to be so different I often wonder if I’m in the right place at all. I find the expectation that I will be all caring, all supporting, all enabling, all understanding, not upset anyone, and always say the right thing tiresome, mostly because I would never make that expectation in this context myself.
I have run into all sorts of problems in being very open in these sorts of arenas and then being very upset when I did not receive the response I wanted, entirely through my own misjudgment of what that shared commonality was. Consequently I am selective about what I share where. This of course, creates an online persona which is not disingenuous or a fake, it’s just the bits of me I choose to share in a particular space, but it means that you never see the whole person and it certainly means you are not seen within your full context. Some of the most lovely people I ever met, seem to manage to create the most noxious online personalities which in no way represent them in real life. We all do it to a greater or lesser extent, and herein lies another problem; if our online communities are made up of ‘bits’ of people, placed outside of their context, how much of a community are they really? This bits-of-people phenomena creates the danger that we will make assumptions about others, to a certain extent we have to, in order to bridge the gaps and create something functional. This is particularly true where we really don’t know the people involved well, because we may never have actually met in person, or have spent only a limited amount of time with them. But that also means that as often as we get those assumptions right, we will get them wrong and we can’t really blame other people for making up the stuff we don’t chose to tell them.
It is for this reason I tend not to use these online communities for support or validation, choosing instead to share the difficult stuff in my life with the people close to me. I might choose to use the word ‘Hearth’ rather than community in this context for the warmth at the centre that it implies. These are those people I chose to spend time with. A lot. They are the ones I love, the ones I miss when they are not around, the ones that make me laugh, the ones with whom I can cry. Perhaps most importantly, I haven’t chosen them to affirm me, or tell me I’m right, but because I know they value me enough to tell me when I’m behaving like an idiot when it’s needed. I trust them to hold the mirror up in way that will support me to learn and grow that is gentle but challenging, because they know me. They are the friends and family of blood and not-blood with whom I have chosen to create conscious and nourishing relationships and with whom I am invested in a way I can never be online.
There absolutely is value in sharing in these wider, larger, more public communities. I’ve met and made connections with the some of the most important people in my life online initially, but those relationships have always had the most value where they work offline too. There are hazards in choosing to share our deepest truths online, with people we don’t know well, and who aren’t necessarily invested in a caring relationship with us. We cannot have the expectation that they will look after us or be gentle because they are working from a place of their own troubles and just maybe there is a really good reason that they weren’t nice when you needed them to be. It’s so important to understand that the words we put out there will often really push buttons and challenge people and that we may be seriously challenged in return. We need to be really sure we can handle that or we place ourselves in danger not only of winding up very hurt, but of alienating people too.
*An Old English word meaning community, fellowship, union, common ownership,