Sixty-five million years ago, approximately fifteen minutes after the dinosaurs went extinct, I used to regularly attend science fiction conventions. These prehistoric conventions, the predecessors of today’s Comic-Cons and Dragon*Cons, were small affairs, often held in the ballrooms of local hotels. Guests were of the “guest-starred on Space: 1999″ variety, and most of the conventioneers were just there to meet and talk, wear costumes (“cosplay” wasn’t a word back then), and do the Time Warp at the Saturday night dance.
Sadly, I became aware very early of a specific sort of con-goer. These folks, for whatever reason, were extremely vested in sporting their fannish weirdness at full blast, every day, everywhere they could. Far beyond the usual level of fannish enthusiasm, their need to aggressively be very, very, very weird (usually around non-convention goers, or “mundanes,” as they were called) often left a very bad impression on hotel staff, guests, and other con attendees. We called this behavior “freaking the mundanes,” and the goal was to make non-convention goers as uncomfortable as possible. It was often some kind of subliminal retribution for whatever bullying the person had experienced, aimed at innocent bystanders.
It’s no secret that modern day witches and pagans have not always had the best experiences with mainstream communities. From The Burning Times forwards, those of us who march to the beat of our own spiritual drum have had to keep our heads down in many places to avoid persecution.
And like the bullied sci-fi fan encountering so-called “normal people”, when some pagans encounter Christians or people of other mainstream faiths, they sometimes get a little…aggressive.
Look, I get it. It hurts being different. It hurts being the outsider. And when it’s tempting to want to turn the tables on your oppressors.
There are quite a few reasons to ignore that temptation, especially at spiritual or New Age gatherings.
- It’s obnoxious. Everyone at your new age gathering has experienced the frustration of being odd person out. One of the best things about being at a pagan or new age gathering is the sense of community we get hanging with like-minded individuals. If a person is playing “freak the mundanes,” others often have to clean up their mess. And that takes away from the time and energy they have to enjoy the gathering.
- It’s ineffective. If you’re at a gathering and someone stares at your Pent necklace like you’re spouting demons from your armpits, they are likely not going to be impressed by you discussing black magic rituals loudly with your companions (even though none of you actually works black magic.)
- It’s wasteful. Every minute you expend antagonizing a mundane is a minute you could have spent learning, growing, and communing with people who have something to teach you. Even the mundane person you’re being aggressive toward has something to teach you, and it’s not “how to totally freak out a Southern Baptist auntie from the family reunion sharing the hotel with you.”
Kat and I have both been on the receiving end of strange looks. We’ll pull out our tarot bag anywhere, and not everybody is totally receptive to what we do. But there are better ways to deal with disapproval and even hostility from members of the mainstream when all you’re doing is being yourself.
- Smile and strike up a conversation. I used to work at a very conservative company in the Bible Belt with very intense born-again Christians. More than once, I saw coworkers eyeing my Kwan Yin statue, my goddess pendant, and other accoutrements of my pagan life at my desk. (Yeah, I’m not in any closets these days.) After sighing and ignoring them for a long time, I finally just spoke up and asked one of the ladies if she had any questions. Turns out, she was brimming with curiosity. As a died in the wool Born Again Christian, I was not only the first pagan she’d ever met, I was the first non-Christian of any type she’d ever meant. Just by reaching out to her, I opened up conversation that might never have happened otherwise. She learned a lot, I learned a lot, and in the course of our dialogue, a lot of misconceptions about pagan and new age spirituality were dispelled.
- Change the focus. One of the biggest stumbling blocks between the mainstream and members of marginalized groups is this sense of otherness. At one sci-fi convention in the 90s, my friend’s nine-year-old daughter came into the con late. She sat down next to us and the guy we were talking to–a young man with a six-inch neon blue Mohawk, multiple piercings, and tattoos. Libby was a little nervous, but her mom said, “It’s okay. This is ____. He’s an art student.” And Libby was fine. The fact is, if we focus on our similarities instead of our differences, pretty soon the differences don’t seem so important. If someone is freaking about the gauges in your earlobes, compliment their outfit, or ask about the book they’re reading. Common ground is holy ground.
- Be the grown-up. From time to time, there are going to be people who don’t want to listen. They will judge you immediately and nothing you say or do will change their mind. Whether it’s a pentagram or a hijab, a rainbow bracelet or dreds, what you look like will just set some people off. If they are not open to looking beneath the surface, take the high road and walk away. You don’t need to escalate. Walk your path. Be you. take the high road.
Whether you are at a spiritual conference, chatting outside a New Age store in a strip mall, or performing rituals in a public park, you have the opportunity to be an ambassador for your spirituality. There is a Muslim woman I met on Facebook who always wears heart-shaped sunglasses. And even though she wears full Muslim garb in scorching hot Phoenix, the only things you notice about her are her enormous smile and those crazy shades!
As our world becomes smaller and smaller, we are going to encounter more and more people who either don’t understand or actively fear our beliefs and behaviors. How we deal with those people will define us, as spiritual beings and as human beings.
Make good choices, ya’ll. Make good choices.