Coming Out of the Broom Closet and Dealing with Skeptics
The First Harvest
Hello again! Welcome back to the Pictish hut! Yes it’s hot as hell now, but do come in, traditional thatching is surprisingly isolating! Make yourself comfy. We’re approaching the First Harvest (known as Lughnasadh during the Iron Age).
Every year during the First Harvest, I have a personal tradition of renewing my stock of heather, foraging a few other herbs that grow in the wild, assessing the results of my gardening (although admittedly it isn’t my forte), but also identifying my harvest in terms of spiritual objectives. This year, I have been experimenting with focusing my energy on one thing: “coming out” to a select few people. I’ve gotten interesting results since May, but this “harvest” has come to a pinnacle now. This is why I entitled today’s post “dealing with skeptics”. I believe the biggest and most valuable thing I am harvesting now are the benefits of coming out of the broom closet – slowly but surely.
So today, I’ll discuss how to deal with other people in your life who don’t exactly subscribe to your beliefs, or aren’t fully open to understanding your practice.
On Converting, Convincing and Coming Out
Let’s suppose you used to be a skeptic yourself – then you had what we like to call a “spiritual awakening.” You could have wandered down the wrong path, or you perhaps you’ve nailed how the world truly works. There’s no way to know for sure, but one thing is a fact: now you *believe* something brand new. Maybe the people in your life didn’t go through the same experience and didn’t have the same awakening, so now you’ve drifted a wee bit further apart in terms of beliefs. How do you bring them back closer to you? And most importantly, should you?
In my experience, most witches, pagans, occultists, shamans, etc will say you shouldn’t try to bridge the gap. Each will give you a slightly different explanation as to why, but it tends to boil down to the following: nobody likes Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on doors to try and convert people – so don’t be a “Jehovah’s Witness” of your own faith. Don’t convert people.
Ok, so we have this down. Now what? Do we practice in secret?
The natural impulse of people who have this type of awakening – in my own experience dealing with it myself AND seeing friends deal with it – is to first become more distant from the people they think wouldn’t *ever* accept it, and secondly, try to convince the people nearest and dearest that your experiences are real, in order to win their sympathy. The one problem is… no two people in the world are exactly alike. Even if you tell the tale of an experience that made you change your mind about God(s) or ghosts, or whatever it was, it is not guaranteed to have the same impact on them. You can still risk it and try the “convincing” approach, but maybe lower your standards and treat it as a “fun fact: this happened to me” kind of story, instead of expecting the person to feel deeply moved as well.
So now that we’ve established that maybe “converting” and “convincing” usually aren’t the best approaches to balancing your secular life with your new spirituality, let’s get into “coming out”.
The Comfort and Cover of Tradition
You can be stubborn all you want – the fact is that neopaganism does not contain a very well-established set of traditions. I personally use the word “tradition” very loosely, some people wouldn’t even consider neopagan practices “traditional” because these practices were artificially, consciously, suddenly brought to life (yes, suddenly, only a few decades ago). I have seen my fair share of neopagans insinuate (through titles, descriptions…) that their spiritual practice is “ancient” – or has ancient roots, or inspiration.
I usually don’t even respond to this kind of claim, but today I will: no, it out modern practices are not “ancient.” Not even the folks who are reviving the worship of Egyptian deities – and have tons and tons of hieroglyphs to work with – could affirm with 100% certainty that they know what they’re doing. So why is it so many self-proclaimed “Celts” exist today? The Celts didn’t even write, up until the late Medieval period when their old ways were already sychretized with Christianity.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: neopaganism, which is *heavily* based on a modern interpretation of Celtic beliefs, is probably *nothing like* the religion of our distant ancestors. Yes, it is still valid as a form of spirituality, but it’s modern. Not even reconstructed. It just borrows elements from Celtic mythology, and very seldom, surviving lore. Let’s admit it. I have no patience for hypocrisy.
While some witches and pagans are called (by spirits, deities, superior beings, whatever) to join living traditions, some of us don’t hear that call and end up having to rely more on personal gnosis because the tradition they identify with is long dead. This is my case.
I know people who practice palo mayombe, Mongolian shamanism, etc because they felt a calling, found an elder willing to initiate and teach them, and now practice their spiritual traditions according to what they learned from *living people*. A living tradition offers a very good structure, a set of beliefs, taboos and rules, and a lot of standardised guidance to help you develop spiritually through tried and tested methods that tend to be very safe.
Joining a living tradition can also make the “coming out” process incredibly easy: it’s just like joining a church. Long-established traditions tend to be respected (or at least acknowledged) by skeptics, as ultimately they are communities of people. If someone acts intolerant to your new interest group, then *they* are being prejudiced and unreasonable. Religious intolerance is a thing.
“Isn’t it weird that so-called deities and superior beings only reach out to established religions? If they truly existed, they’d be everywhere regardless of shrines and congregations”
It turns out, I was right, but not the way I thought. We cannot prove these beings’ existence through material means, for a very simple reason: they aren’t material. But one could believe that they *do* exist, and indeed their existence transcends religions.
The biggest proof of the existence of a spiritual realm is that there are independent spirit workers who don’t feel the need to join established traditions. We just aren’t taken seriously by the masses. This is the downside of being independent in the craft: you cannot lean on an established community to justify your new practice to your skeptical friends/family. You can argue as much as you want that neopagan and witchcraft communities are “just like” a church or a shamanic village or a Buddhist temple. I would probably support you, as an insider and friend – but this wouldn’t change the truth that, according to the masses, they aren’t as real.
The reason for that is very easy: newly formed spiritual communities don’t have a foundational basis in one specific tradition. They didn’t develop organically throughout history. While valid, in my opinion, these communities, with spiritual practice based heavily on personal gnosis, are very hard to present to skeptics as a true, time-tested and sane.
A Skeptical Stance
As a former skeptic, I know that skepticism can be a wonderful tool of discernment in a spiritual practice – particularly so in new or independent practices. There is a lot of logic behind skepticism. (No, not ego-driven “I am right and you are stupid” arguments, I mean actual logic).
Here are some valid arguments to consider:
- The world is full of delusional people
- Mental illnesses sometimes resemble spiritual experiences
- The world is also full of opportunistic fake psychics with a very non-sacred agenda
All of the problems mentioned above have one thing in common: they arise from a lack of discernment (or blind faith, or naivité, whatever you prefer). Granted, faith in itself implies never having absolute confirmation – but you can obtain a degree of confirmation that helps keep the faith alive without damage to your freedom in the material world.
The world is also full of opportunistic fake psychics with a very non-sacred agenda All of the problems mentioned above have one thing in common: they arise from a lack of discernment (or blind faith, or naivité, whatever you prefer). Granted, faith in itself implies never having absolute confirmation – but applying a skeptical stance to your gnostic experience can help you obtain a degree of confirmation that helps keep the faith alive without damage to your freedom in the material world. When looking at one’s practice and belief with discernment, it is of paramount importance to rule out actual mental illness.
Of course not everything initially perceived as “mental illness” is in fact an illness. Misdiagnosis often happens, particularly when the person doing the supposed “diagnosis” isn’t a medical professional but someone who views all spiritual gnosis as evidence of “madness.” Not all of these stubborn skeptics are harmful people. In fact, a lot of well-meaning skeptics can also do it out of concern close-mindedness.
There won’t be a one-size-fits-all answer to coexisting with the skeptics. Maybe it won’t ever be safe to “come out” to certain people, because for some reason they are just determined never to tolerate spiritual diversity around them (though this is probably more common among fanatics than skeptics!). My rule of thumb is the following: if a skeptic is too intolerant, maybe I should strive to keep a safe distance from them. Fortunately, this type of skeptic tends to be in the minority.
Most of the conversations I have with my skeptical friends consist of other topics than spirituality. That said, I am confident that these friends wouldn’t become aggressive if I accidentally mentioned something spiritual every once in a while. Some used to fear the unknown, and now are actually a bit less skeptical due to our friendship; others don’t take the occult personally at all but could become very argumentative if I shared too much of my personal experience. Some things, especially details, are best reserved for friends who share your belief.
This is why I tell you to tread carefully, especially when your spiritual practice is too young to yield widespread acknowledgement. Professional psychological expertise is no guarantee of open-mindedness, either. We haven’t even touched the subject of culturally-perceived reality and how therapists in different countries can be more or less tolerant of spiritual experiences (as I said, I wanna write an entire post about it). Chances are, if you talk to a psychologist from Mongolia, they will have different advice for you than a psychologist from the US – regardless of your actual “issue” or how standardised was their training at Uni.
Today I am harvesting the results of what I cultivated for a whole year. My coming out to certain people has been a process. These are people very dear to me, and I felt guilty for not having shared my experiences with them since my personal awakening – even if they couldn’t ever fully understand such experiences. I felt guilty for a long time because it was like betraying my close friends – hiding a part of my identity, although I’ve shared some very vulnerable info with them in the past and this should ideally be “nothing” in comparison. So why didn’t I?
I was afraid that these people would think I had gone mad. I didn’t know what to share, or how. Above all else, my experiences resembled a lot of other spirit workers’ experiences, but ultimately I was dealing with spirits from a very particular culture, and my search for confirmation in countless books and archaeological research (which proved VERY fruitful!) could easily be interpreted as OCD or similar obsessive disorders. I didn’t really have a lot of people to talk to about the Picts, as I don’t personally know anyone else who has been “called” by them. (The Picts eventually got the message and started visiting other spirit workers in dreams, which is how I got to make new friends. Story for another time!) – so my only alternative was to compulsively read about them. The perceived “OCD” gradually disappeared, it was just an initial period of fascination and adjustment to my new beliefs – now the spirits no longer surprise me, and I’m back to living my secular life at the same rhythm again… But I could be telling a very different story if I hadn’t contained myself in the beginning, told it *all* to my well-meaning skeptic friends and ended up misdiagnosed.
I had to take the first step – and I did, almost a year ago. I told them one by one, when I felt it was ok, that I believe I have “spirit guides, ya know, like guardian angels” who help me cope with certain things in life. This isn’t the full story at all, but it’s palatable. My ego would have me proceed to say their names and give a bunch of details, but… What’s the point? My objective was simply to open up to friends about this new spiritual thing. Gradually, over the months, they started getting curious and asking me specifics – and I wouldn’t ever bring these things up, simply answer the questions and move on. It takes a lot of self-control, but also a lot of self-confidence. Skeptics will judge things they don’t understand, even if they’re nice enough to hide it. The key is never to let this judgement affect you. Nobody knows the absolute truth, after all. From the First Harvest last year to this First Harvest, the progress has been astonishing! Hail Lugh! But above all else, I feel happy for having taken that first step. I hope you can take yours, too, in due time.