Tuesday, 23 June 2015

A Question Of Identity

Identity has always been an important concept, though lately it seems to be coming more to the forefront of cultural awareness and discourse, even if only because we moderns have a media machine ready and eager to seize upon any facet of the zeitgeist and thrust it forth as the Most Important Thing Ever. The current trend seems to be to parse one's identity down to the rarest levels of minutiae, even while adhering to a perception of fluidity, the end result being generally incomprehensible to anyone but the individual doing the self-defining. It may be a generational thing (although a cursory glance round the interwebs would indicate that it's taken hold beyond the bounds of the younger set), and it may not be a bad thing unto itself; taking the longer view, it's not that difficult to see how this cultural pendulum will swing back eventually, settling into a territory at once less diffuse than the current one but more expansive than what was envisioned before. Still, as someone who came of age eschewing "labels" as being constraining and constricting of my full self-expression, much of what I see these days is head-scratchingly odd to me. (Since I now have a lawn again, I will soon have to purchase a cane, so that I may go outside and shake it furiously at the sky while muttering imprecations against These Damn Kids.) 

Spiritual identity is also a thing these days, with people out here in the provinces of Alternative Religions also indulging in the same extremely precise parsing that we see in the realms of sexuality (and of course, there is plenty of overlap). There have been times when I've attempted it myself, coming up with mocking and self-conscious descriptors like "Celto-Kemetic Zen Dru-witch," but labels like that seem hopelessly entangling and inaccurate; either they're too all-encompassing, or they're still inadequately broad. I'm mostly content to go with "Pagan" and let that enfold all the facets of my practice and study, despite my occasional flare-ups of agony over what I see parading under that banner often looking rather markedly different than what I perceive myself to be. It often appears that people want, simultaneously, both the right to define their own identity, and to police the boundaries of others' (lest they step beyond the acceptable parameters of a particular definition). If I had a dollar for every time I've chafed under another's inference that I was not Doing It Right by their definition of "It," I'd have more than a few dollars, and I'd still have a rash from rubbing up against the irritant of others' expectations. If you, dear reader, have been at this for any length of time, chances are you have experienced this, too. 

Some twenty years ago, my husband/partner and I decided to break away from the tradition we'd both been initiated and elevated in, and form our own based upon a synthesis of what we'd learned and inherited and gleaned, but filtered through our own philosophical and ethical viewpoint. We put a lot of time and care into its development, and in time met people and trained them and initiated them. We were upfront about our antecedents, and in some cases, a funny thing happened: the identity we'd presented them with was no longer acceptable to them. They started clamoring to be initiated into our parent tradition, perceiving it as being more "valid" for whatever various reasons. (All of this led us down a rabbit-hole, the story of which is not relevant to the present discussion.) Looking back on that now, I find that I am surprisingly offended, in ways that I wasn't at the time--if only because I lacked the experience and the perspective that I have now. It's like we'd baked a beautiful cake, based on our interpretation of an older recipe, and given that cake for free to people that we cared about and with whom we wanted to share it--and they said, "That cake is OK, but we want the REAL cake that we know you had, so bake THAT for us and give it to us." In hindsight, I think we might have done better to take back the uneaten remains of our cake and show them the door. 

Don't think I'm painting myself as an innocent little snowflake; good gods, I had the social acumen of an abandoned wolverine when I first started in this biz, and probably had the least amount of business trying to run a coven or a tradition or anything else of nearly anyone I've ever met. (I got better.) But at the heart of that was identity, you see, and what that meant to others and to their self-perception and to their perception of a thing's worth. I've fallen afoul of the identity trap myself, being bullied in the past into not identifying as something because I defined that identifier differently than did others. I feel sometimes as though my/our current practice lacks a definite identity; my partner and I have initiated people who have gone out and in turn initiated others, and their practices have stayed aligned with ours in some ways and morphed interestingly and sometimes dramatically in others. We're the same and different simultaneously, so how do you define that? It has a name to identify it, given to it by those initiates; and it's been called a tradition, and although perhaps it's not a "tradition" in the sense that many seem to use that term, there is absolutely a family resemblance and a bond there. I am inclined more to thinking of it as a "lineage" rather than a "tradition" that we have passed on. That may be as clear an identity as I can concoct for it, and for me.