Breaking the Pedestal

I take a lot of pride in being a good teacher and ritual leader. People who have taken workshops from me know that I tend to show up with more notes than I’ll actually be able to use. I generally include an experiential or integrative piece in every class I teach. I’m good at weaving questions into the flow of a class without losing the thread. I’m pretty good (and getting better at) reining people in when their question or thread is tugging us in the wrong direction. I am a skilled teacher. 

Rituals are similarly well-considered and prepared. I try to build the best container possible for people to have a transcendental experience. This means every sense is considered, the structure is deliberate, and although the exact words may not be memorized, their underlying meaning is known and can be articulated clearly and correctly. After each large group ritual I run with a team, I conduct a post-mortem: what worked? What can be improved? How can we become more effective? 

I take my work seriously. I am skillful, and seek to become more so. 

The upshot of these skills is that sometimes when someone has a big experience at a workshop or ritual I’m running, they mistake their experience for the person who created the container. I’ve heard a few different varieties of “I would follow you anywhere.” I have been offered money, expensive goods, and more influence than I am comfortable accepting among many other things. This pattern happened often enough that I recently contacted a trusted and more advanced colleague to have the “how do I keep from having a cult of personality around me?” conversation. I’m not one of the big fish in the Pagan pond, yet even at my level, this has still been my experience. 

Additionally, here in the United States, we have been fed a lot of programming that those who serve as clergy are morally or ethically superior. Despite countless examples of abuse of power within Christianity, this concept that priests are superior and infallible (or that when they fail it’s a Great Lesson of some sort) is everywhere. 

It’s a dangerous lie. Yes, the overwhelming majority of the priests I know (and I include myself in this) strive to be ethical and honorable. We know that we are holding a container for incredibly tender, vulnerable, and sometimes-broken pieces in our community. We strive to be worthy of that. And, also, we are human. So very, very human. 

To this day, I am a person who screws up. I drop balls, get overwhelmed and overextended, forget to schedule things, misschedule others, double-book myself, communicate ineffectively or just not at all, and routinely and regularly do not live up to my own expectations or those of others. My past also includes some really questionable behavior. In my young adult years, I was given a choice of the brig (military jail) or anger management counseling because my most recent fistfight was so violent, resulting in so much injury to my opponent, that it was concerning even by Marine Corps standards. As an adult, I was married to an abuser for over a decade and my behavior mimicked his in harmful ways for many years. I used my command of the language to say cruel, cutting, catty things to people who did not deserve it. I internalized a toxic message and subjected others to it. These pieces of my past are as much a part of me as the skill set I’m using and developing now. 

And I wrote all of this out to illustrate one incredibly important point: skill does not equate to superiority. It only equates to skill. 

I find two parallels useful for holding this in mind when we’re considering spiritual leaders. The first is sports. 

We do not expect moral superiority from a top-of-the-line multi-million-dollar-contract football player. We understand that the athlete’s prowess is a combination of natural ability and the honing of skill. When yet another top athlete is discovered to be an abuser/gambler/criminal/what-have-you, we’re not surprised. We know that the incredible skill set of the athlete does not mean any form of moral superiority – it just means that the athlete in question honed a skill to a razor-fine point. 

The second example is music, and it may be more useful as a parallel to spirituality simply because the creation of music includes a mystical aspect. Most songwriters talk about the way lyrics and melodies come to us from a numinous source. Music is a powerful force: good songwriters create music that is every bit as transcendental as the best ritual. And, also, some of the best songwriters and composers in the world are/were…well…terrible people. Mozart was a spoiled, entitled, drunken, womanizing letch. Wagner was an anti-semite (who published a paper on his hateful prejudice) and to this day he is associated with aryanism. Moving forward in time, Jim Morrison was an abuser who literally set a room on fire his then-partner was hiding from him in. I could list dozens here. And, despite the incredible music that these people made, we’re able to understand that their skill and connection to that numinous quality did not, and does not, mean superiority. 

We need to bring this understanding to our spiritual leaders, writers, and teachers, both to prevent abuse and out of mercy to them. Writer, performer, and thought-leader Alok Vaid-Menon said something in an interview that really stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing here, but Alok’s message was that pedestaling someone – placing them above us as perfect or infallible – is an act of violence. It is an act of violence to deny someone their humanity, imperfection, and fallibility. It is also an act of violence to the person who does the placing: eventually, all pedestals crumble, and we must then face a reckoning with disappointment and hard reality. It’s a self-inflicted wound that hurts everyone involved. 

By allowing our leaders, priests, teachers, and guides their humanity, we’re also better situated when someone strays from “normal” human flaws into something more sinister or antisocial. The magical world has a long history of visionaries and ground-breakers who are seriously problematic (looking at you, Crowley and Gardner). With older texts, most of us have learned how to take useful material from an imperfect source. We need to bring this way of approaching spiritual and magical skill into the present moment as well. A writer, teacher, or leader can contribute to their field, impact practitioners in a positive way, and also cast a deep shadow when their flaws or extreme behaviors and perspectives are revealed. 

So how do we do this? How do we hold useful material in one hand and absolutely gods-awful behavior or words from the same source in the other? 

I can only tell you what I do, and it’s to point directly at it. 

“This is a beautiful, impactful ritual that can really help you. Also, it was created by a person who is now a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist, or TERF. Please remember that material from them needs to be evaluated for bias and gender essentialism.” 

“This text contains many useful approaches and techniques for magic, and it was also written by a dude who wanted a good excuse to get in the pants of anyone young, female, and gullible, so you need to filter for some deep-rooted misogyny and patriarchal nonsense.”

“This course of study is a useful way to learn this magical system. It was also designed by a racist, so before you begin, you need to read up on dog whistles and how white supremacist messages can get implanted in a concept.”

“These books contributed greatly to our field. Also, they were written by someone who knowingly harbored, enabled, and was an apologist for the worst kinds of child-abusers and groomers.”

Does this suck? Absolutely. I wish our spiritual leaders were perfect, too. I wish anyone whose calling included the mantle of priest or teacher also had an infallible ethical compass embedded in that calling. But that’s not how it works. Our priests, teachers, leaders and visionaries are skillful, not superior. They are knowledgeable, not perfect. 

They are human in all the helpful and harmful ways that humans can be. 

We must break the pedestal. We must learn not to place people on them to begin with. And we must be willing to sit with the hard truth of complexity and nuance: skill and terrible judgment. Skill and lack of compassion or empathy. Skill and antisocial or sociopathic tendencies. 

And, as practitioners, we need to be unequivocal when we’re calling out those shadows even when we’ve had good experiences with the material a teacher generated. When a living teacher or spiritual leader is credibly revealed to be harmful, the response must be completely clear: this person is a problem. We do not work with them directly, we do not platform their message, we are not apologists for their brokenness. And, we do not throw out their contributions to the field immediately. We return to them for a second (or fourteenth) and more careful look. We filter for bias. We take the wisdom that’s truly valuable and carry it forward, and we protect the vulnerable with clear language around the red flags in the work. 

Our spiritual leaders are map-makers for the Pagan path, and going somewhere worthwhile using the map a flawed creator built doesn’t invalidate your experience. The magic lives within you. The connection to the gods, ancestors, spirits, and guides is yours. You are the power, the gateway to the transcendent, and the beloved of the gods and spirits. A teacher or spiritual leader can be skilled in building a map, but the one using it is you

The cycle of a skilled teacher or spiritual leader revealing a dark shadow will repeat. It is the nature of humans to be a mix of benevolent and harmful traits, sometimes in the extreme. Now the question is, can we adjust our perspective so that when it happens, we are quick to recalibrate and add caveats to their work? Can we become more resilient to the disappointment we feel when a human is revealed to be all too human? 

Can we break the pedestal? 

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