Feet of Clay

How to have healthy elders

It seems to be a tendency in much of contemporary culture, including the Pagan movement, to put people on pedestals and hero-worship them, and when we discover that they are flawed human beings like the rest of us, to knock them off their pedestal and dismiss every good thing they ever did.

Sure, a genuinely wise elder is a pleasure to learn from and to be around, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us should put them on a pedestal and assume that they can never do anything bad. This encourages them to avoid seeing their own issues and to assume that they can do no wrong. That is dangerous because then they have too much power, and also means that when they do something wrong, it is hard for anyone to challenge it, knowing that the person will be completely knocked off their pedestal, instead of just taken down a peg or two. It means that people are less willing to believe that a community leader could have done something bad.

Stalin's boots by Laika Ac. CC-BY-SA 2.0

Stalin’s boots by Laika Ac. CC-BY-SA 2.0

It means that calling someone out for a bad thing they did whilst acknowledging the good stuff they did becomes harder and harder to do. The more we think in this binary either/or way, the harder it becomes to see nuance and put things in perspective. But, in order to progress as a movement (and for society in general to progress), we need to be able to challenge bad behaviour, and to set boundaries to prevent it, without dismissing the person completely. Obviously some behaviours are so terrible that they are grounds for ejection from the community. I’m talking about one-off instances of bad behaviour, not a string of repeat offences. When someone repeatedly behaves badly, then it is time to call them out.

Surely the answer, then, is to be more realistic in the way we treat elders. Loved and respected for their wisdom and/or their contributions to the community, yes. Put up on a pedestal and assumed never to do anything wrong, and therefore not held accountable for their actions, no. Ejected into the outer darkness for the slightest transgression, no. The higher we put them on those pedestals, the harder they fall. The answer? Don’t put them up so high in the first place.

The only reason that people get to be leaders in the first place is because others give them power, and because they have some quality that makes them leadership material – knowledge, or wisdom, or charisma, or the ability to make others feel safe. All of those are worthwhile and valuable qualities, and a good leader or teacher or elder has those qualities: that does not mean that he or she should be ruling their group with a rod of iron. A good teacher empowers others to develop those qualities.

It is also noticeable that many Pagan leaders have ended up suffering from spiritual burnout from taking on far too much work. This is perhaps because people have seen the high cost of leadership (the flak that leaders get for sticking their head above the parapet) and don’t want to go there. I think that a shift to a less binary way of looking at leaders and elders would help with this issue too.

We are generally quite an egalitarian movement – but the shadow side of that is wanting to knock people off their pedestals if we think they have got too big for their boots. But if we remembered that they are just flawed human beings like us, and didn’t elevate them so high, then they wouldn’t fall so hard.

The boy who was afraid of his own shadow

An original fable by Yvonne Aburrow

Tim was a boy who was afraid of his own shadow. It followed him around all the time, and it never said anything. It grew bigger and smaller seemingly at random. Sometimes Tim shouted “GO AWAY!” but it still clung tenaciously to his feet.

Only when everything was dark all around him did the shadow finally disappear, but then the whole room was full of shadows: the shadow of the tree outside the window, coming through the curtains – sometimes because of the strange orange glow of the street lamp, sometimes because of the pale blue moonlight. Then there was the shadow that lived under the bed, which seemed to move of its own accord, and the shadow behind the wardrobe that loomed up the wall.

One day, Tim was out for a walk. It was a cloudy day, so his shadow was only a watery fuzzy thing, and Tim felt that perhaps it was not so dangerous today. He asked it why it always followed him, but it still remained obstinately silent.

Tim wandered aimlessly through the forest, filling his pockets with pebbles and interesting-looking twigs. A blackbird sat on a branch and sang its liquid song. Tim came to a path he did not know. There was an old woman standing very still in the middle of a glade. She was gazing up at the canopy of leaves and the tracery of twigs above her. She held out her hand, and a small bird came to land on it. Tim watched as the bird fed from her hand. After a while, it flew away.

“How did you do that?” he asked.

“I was very very quiet, both inside and out,” said the woman. She turned to look at Tim, her long white hair swinging like a curtain to reveal her bright blue eyes.

“Quiet on the inside?” asked Tim.

“Yes. Perhaps no-one has shown you how to do that,” she suggested.

“No, they haven’t.”

“Just breathe,” said the woman.

“Is that it?” asked Tim.

“No, but it is the beginning.”

“The beginning of what?” asked Tim.

“Of not being afraid,” said the woman.

“How did you know I was afraid?” asked Tim.

“Most people are,” said the woman.

“Of what?” asked Tim.

“Their own darkness,” said the woman.

“Is that like being afraid of your shadow?” asked Tim.

“Very much like that, yes,” said the woman. “Is that what you are afraid of?”

Tim decided to trust the woman. She seemed friendly, and there was something bird-like about her. Tim had always liked birds, especially robins with their bright eyes.

“Yes, I am.”

The woman did not laugh at him, as other grown-ups had. She just looked at him intently with her head on one side.

After a silence, she said, “You need to make friends with it.”

“How do I do that when it won’t talk to me?” he asked.

“How do you make friends with other children?” asked the woman.

“By playing with them,” said Tim.

“Exactly,” said the woman.

Just then, the sun came out from behind the clouds, and there were both Tim’s shadow and the old woman’s, stretched out across the grass of the glade. The old woman crouched down and made the shape of a hare with her shadow. Tim laughed.

“It’s a hare,” he said.

“Yes. Your turn,” said the old woman.

Tim made the shape of a cat with his shadow. He had to assume such a contorted pose to do this that he collapsed in giggles.

“I think that was a cat,” laughed the woman.

“For a minute, anyway,” said Tim.

Next they played tag with their shadows. Each of them took it in turns to be “It”, and the other one had to chase them and try to step on their shadow.

“Still afraid of your shadow?” asked the woman eventually.

“No, it’s like a friend now,” said Tim.

“Exactly,” said the woman. “We all have darkness inside us, anyway – it is dark inside your body.” [1]

“So it is,” said Tim. “I never thought of that.”

Tim said goodbye to the woman, and walked home, whistling. He decided to call his shadow Tom.

That night when he went to bed, he wasn’t afraid of the shadows in the moonlight any more, because he knew that Tom was there to look after him.




[1] I am indebted to Crow for the observation that it is dark inside your body.

A note on names – Tim means ‘fear’ and Tom means ‘twin’ (and the story is not based on anyone I know called Tim or Tom). Other than that, I will let you work out the meanings of this fable for yourself.

Individuation in Pagan traditions

I have been thinking for a while that the aims of Pagan traditions with regard to the self, soul, spirit, consciousness and its relationship with the Universe are different from that of other religions.

The cultivation of virtue

One of the aims in several Pagan traditions is the cultivation of virtue. In Heathenry, there are the Nine Noble Virtues; in Wicca, there are the Eight Wiccan Virtues; many adherents of Religio Romana try to cultivate the virtues which the Romans of antiquity valued. The cultivation of virtue assumes that the virtues will grow in fertile soil – the soul in which they grow is not choked by weeds, although a certain amount of weeding might be required to help the virtues to grow.

In Christian mysticism, by contrast, in order for the divine image to grow in the soul, there must first be kenosis – a process of self-emptying. One is then filled with divinity (divinisation in Western Christianity; theosis in Eastern Orthodoxy), and one’s divine image is restored (previously it had been bleared by sin).

In Wicca, there are three levels of initiation, and each involves an encounter with a different aspect of divinity – but there is no self-emptying. There is a stage where everything changes and is called into question, but that is the nature of such a journey, and is found in most traditions.

The kinds of virtue that are being cultivated are also slightly different. Whilst compassion is a virtue, it is wise compassion rather than indiscriminating compassion (this distinction is very important in Buddhism, where I first came across the idea). Other Pagan virtues include strength, mirth, honour (three of the Wiccan virtues) and courage, honour, self-reliance (three of the Heathen virtues).

Seeking the authentic self

Sarah Pike, in her anthropological investigations of Pagan festivals (documented in Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community), found that the goal of the Pagan quest is to find the “authentic self” or the “true self”. This suggests that we are uncovering a pre-existing treasure, rather than erasing what exists and starting again.

The authentic self may turn out not to be “nice”. The Romantic poets were true individuals who produced great poetry; but they were not necessarily nice people (thanks to my friend CA for this example).

Most Pagans view the divine and/or deities as immanent in the world (or as immediate). Therefore the world is not fallen, and a multiplicity of forces – creation and destruction, yin and yang, growth and decay, energy and entropy, are in dynamic balance within it. These forces are also at play in microcosm in the human psyche, and that is entirely natural. Being angry, or sad, and acting on those emotions (in a controlled way), is not wrong – activism comes from anger, creativity can come from sadness.

The shadow and the psyche

A person with their shadow well-integrated can use its energy to provide them with power and decisiveness. A person with a well-integrated shadow knows how to say no, how to offer constructive criticism, how to avoid foolish compassion, and how to accept, welcome, and use the “dark side” of their personality (including anger, assertiveness, power, etc). They are also more interesting to know.

A person with no shadow (or no conscious access to their shadow) appears to be all sweetness and light on the surface, and presents as either generous, receptive, or passive, but when they eventually lash out, they do so from an ungrounded place, and are unable to connect their anger with the emotions that would balance it. Often, such people are “touchy-feely” and not analytical.

I have met a lot of “spiritual” people who are just too nice, and it seems false; they even talk in a high-pitched voice that sounds fake. There’s a great Monty Python cartoon where there’s a ‘nice’ vicar type with a soapy smile, but his smile keeps unzipping and letting monsters out of his head, so he has to keep nailing the top of his head back on. In other words, the more someone suppresses their “dark” side (shadow) and fails to integrate it, the more likely it is to lead to an explosion and an eruption of the shadow aspects (“monsters from the Id”).

Jung said that the work of individuation is all about integrating the energy from the Shadow and being able to use it creatively and constructively. As we bring the obscure unconscious material into the light of consciousness, it is transformed.

The psyche and the world

In Pagan communities, people do not attempt to shape others into any particular mould – there is no template for how the authentic self should look, because it is unique to each person.

Heelas and Woodhead, in The spiritual revolution (2006), talk about religions of humanity, that attempt to mould their adherents to a particular way of being and a set pattern of virtues. Most Pagan traditions refrain from doing this, and instead encourage individuality and a quest for the true self.

The relationship of the individual with the Pagan community tends to be more network-based. We meet in pubs for Pagan moots and gatherings, and the actual spiritual work happens in small groups such as covens, groves, hearths. People come together for large festivals, but there the quest is for freedom to be one’s true self.

Spirit and matter

In many spiritual traditions, especially those descended from Gnosticism, the aim is to leave the body and return to the divine source. (The radical rejection of matter may have been one of the reasons why orthodox Christians persecuted the Gnostics, apparently.)

In Pagan traditions, I would argue, because we love the land, or the Earth, or Nature (depending on the tradition), the aim is to awaken the soul of Nature, and to commune with the spirits of place (land wights, genii loci, and so on); therefore we want to bring more spirit into matter, not to separate the two.

Some people interpret “spirituality” to mean “the things of the spirit world”. Personally, I have always interpreted it as “a response of awe, wonder, and gratitude for the beauty of Nature, art, literature, scientific insight, and poetry” but increasingly it is being used as a term that means something to do with the non-material. It has also been described, by L Bregman, as “a glowing and useful term in search of a meaning”.

So I am starting to prefer the word “embodiment”, which is all about being in touch with your body, and not alienated from it. I am still (slowly) learning about embodiment practices. However, I think embodiment is probably a more Pagan concept than spirituality.


Given that Pagan traditions generally seek to cultivate the authentic self, and to put us in touch with the physical world, the wider community of other-than-human people (animals, plants, and spirits of place), and given that Pagans generally regard the divine and/or deities as immanent in Nature, we should be wary of importing spiritual practices, norms, and goals from other traditions without first checking how they fit with our existing goals, norms, and practices.