I went to a couple of open rituals for Yule. At one of them, I overheard a truly awful conversation, so this is something of a cross between a Public Service Reminder and an invitation to discuss the topic of hospitality and how we conduct open circles and ourselves.
In the conversation I happened to overhear, a woman – we’ll call her A – went over to a young man who was sitting by himself and looking slightly nervous. A plunked herself down next to him, gave her name, asked his, and then said, “So, what do you define yourself as?” The young man kind of goggled at her, and gave a non-answer answer, in which I think he said that this was his first public ritual. Then he politely returned the question. Everyone within earshot was treated to a ten-minute monologue on A’s long history in the Pagan world, featuring highlights such as, “I’m an Isian, because she appeared to me as a child and again as an adolescent, so I’ve been an Isian for 32 years, I’ve been a Witch for 20 years, I’ve been a Reiki Master for 10 years…” There was a brief pause for conversation over the prevalence of studying Reiki, which the young man apparently also was interested in or had done, and then A repeated everything she said before, ticking each off on her fingers and went on with about three more, then lowered her volume marginally as she proceeded to regale him with the details of her long and distinguished career as a Witch and just how cool she was, and all the things she’d done.
The poor guy sat there for quite a bit of this, and I had privately resolved to go over and rescue him as soon as I finished the set-up task I was working on, but somebody else got there first. I was simply stunned at A’s lack of manners in any sense, mundane or magical. She was obviously more interested in beating him over the head with her own awesomeness than engaging him in any kind of conversation or paying any attention to making him feel more comfortable. I wonder if that guy will ever come to another open ritual again, by that group or any other; I wonder what he thinks of Pagans and Witches as a whole. I wonder if he’s going to think that he needs to collect titles to flaunt, too, and get drawn into that particular empty perversion of religion. I wonder a lot of things, but mostly, I just felt bad for him.
Politeness has taken a strange turn somewhere: I get the impression that it’s now less socially acceptable to call someone else out on being impolite than it is to be impolite in the first place. No, I’m not A’s mother. And I didn’t directly address her about the issue for a variety of reasons, including timing, our respective roles, and the fact that I’ve seen a pattern of self-aggrandizement on her part at other open rituals that makes me think this is part of her personality that I’m unlikely to influence. But if we don’t establish reasonable, respectful norms in our communities, we won’t have communities. If that guy never comes back, the Pagan community may have allowed him to be driven away by not fostering better standards of behavior.
I’m not trying to police everybody else’s p’s and q’s. I saw plenty of impolite behavior at that gathering. (Seriously, who brings cash to a holiday gift exchange???) But this cuts to the heart of a Pagan gathering: if we can’t be welcoming, show hospitality, and draw others in, if we can’t get beyond ourselves to try to even vaguely show an interest in others, then who are we to talk about the immanence of deity in all? The Christians have stories about “entertaining angels unawares.” When we believe that each person isn’t just potentially an angel in disguise but really and truly partakes of the essence of divinity, how can we not strive to treat them well?
Some Heathen writers that I’ve read place more religious and cultural emphasis on hospitality. Wiccans and generic Pagans could stand to imitate them in that. At my first public Pagan event, a little over a year ago, I was rescued by a very kind man whose path draws on those influences; he saw that I was extremely nervous and didn’t know what to do with myself, and he came over and struck up a conversation, making an effort to be welcoming and friendly. I was astonished to find that he hadn’t been to many open rituals either, but his confidence and acceptance buoyed me, and our conversation soon expanded to include someone else who is now a good friend of mine. If that man hadn’t done that, I don’t know if I’d have become as active in the Pagan community, or if I’d have grown as much in my beliefs and practices as I have since then. His simple act of kindness has made a real difference in my life. How much harm did A do by acting in the opposite way?