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Pagan adulthood: Expectations versus reality

Michelle Gruben opinion pagan

A witchy girl with wolves

Once upon a time, there was a witchy little girl with some big dreams about what the future would hold. Like many, I began my Pagan practice as a young teen. I was stirred by tantalizing contact with Nature, the Ancient Ones, and the Unseen. I couldn’t wait to learn everything I could about magick, to break away and begin my life as a real grown-up Pagan.

But I didn’t know any actual Pagans—not at first, anyway. I was too shy to share my experiences with others, or to ask for books on occultism. As a result, almost everything I “knew” on the topic came from a mix of gossip, fantasy fiction, chat rooms, and furtive library trips. I took handwritten notes and practiced divination, evocation, and devotional rites alone in my bedroom. As adolescents often do, I saw myself as a remarkable talent—someone who would surely excel in the magickal arts once I was living under my own roof and free to do as I pleased.

This Samhain marks 18 years since my early self-dedication. While that hardly makes me an elder, I’ve had some time to reflect on the trajectory of my path. Many of my greatest expectations have been fulfilled—but at the risk of sounding corny, I’d prefer to keep those private. Instead, I’ll share the misses: Visions of Pagan adulthood that were completely off-base. Is there disappointment about these shortcomings? Sometimes. (But for the sake of staying positive, we’ll just call it maturity!)

Here they are, the cold hard realities that would have crushed the hopes of a 13-year-old Witch circa 1999:

My clothes and house are way less cool than I thought they’d be.

Remember folks, this was the Goth era. There were some seriously sweet witchy fashions in magazines and television. Of course, I thought, when I have a job and can buy my own clothes, I’ll only wear things that fit my magickal personage. My mousy brown hair will be one of the two acceptable colors for a witch (red or black). I’ll have a whole closet full of taffeta skirts and spooky jeweled amulets. And I’ll get a house that looks like the Addams family mansion, only with a garden like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the library from Harry Potter. Everyone who comes within 100 yards will know I’m a Witch.

Fast-forward to age 30. I wear jeans and t-shirts more days than I care to admit. Black hair makes me look kind of sickly and red washes out too fast. My house isn’t particularly witchy, unless you count the cardboard boxes of merchandise on the floor, or the makeshift altars on every flat surface. You’d have to get close enough to see my eyes to know I’m a Witch.

Enthusiasm for my practice waxes and wanes.

My self-dedication was just that—dedicating myself to a magickal life. At the time, I couldn’t imagine that anything could be more important than practicing, learning, and growing on my path.

Actually, like most people of faith, I still feel that way. What could possibly be more important than the progress of the soul (and by extension, the world)? But let’s face it: Life happens. In the intervening 18 years, I’ve gone to school, fallen in love, traveled internationally, had a career (or two), started a business, and undertaken numerous projects. I can’t pretend that, through it all, I’ve stayed faithful to a daily practice or kept an initiatory oath at the forefront of my mind.

Nope. Like everything else, it goes in cycles. Efforts and opportunities will sometimes align for a period of intense magickal practice, and then my magickal self will retreat into the background for a while. I’m happiest when I accept this and enjoy a holiday in the realm of Earth.

Persecution isn’t really a thing.

The first Witches I met online tended to be—let’s not call them paranoid—people with an agenda. Many of them had experienced religious persecution for their beliefs. They would spend all their time forwarding email petitions and talking about “the Burning Times” (always capitalized) and “the broom closet”. This rather skewed sample led me to believe that being Pagan meant being constantly hunted down by mobs wielding Bibles and pitchforks.

Thanks to the ongoing work of brave Pagans (and to some broader culture war victories), this is definitely not the status quo. (It’s one bit of evidence that the world may be actually be changing for the better!) I can’t recall a single time when I have been discriminated against or persecuted because I’m Pagan. I don’t even encounter a lot of misinformation about Pagans and Paganism. The most common misconception I get is that I must be Wiccan because I’m Pagan—this usually coming from well-meaning people who are only familiar with Wicca.

Don’t get me wrong—I realize that practicing Witchcraft openly can still be dangerous, around the world and at home. There’s also still a fight to have Pagan beliefs recognized alongside the world’s major religions. It’s just not as bad as I was told as a kid. (And that’s something I’m certainly not disappointed about!)

My psychic powers aren’t awe-inspiring. (And I don’t care.)

My childhood psychic experiences led directly into my early exploration of Pagan paths. I was looking for a belief system that could explain the things I saw, heard, and felt. Rational materialism and traditional religions didn’t. Pagan and magickal worldviews did.

So, it’s no surprise that my early practices focused a lot on the development of psychic skills: Intensive energy practice, visualization exercises, and attunements all with the aim of coaxing out those innate abilities. I assumed that my rapidly accelerating psychic awareness would continue to accelerate well into adulthood. But as I’ve matured along my path, psychic development just isn’t as much of a priority as it used to be.

Part of the shift comes from the acceptance that the psychic gifts I have are enough. They help keep me safe, happy, and connected with the world(s) around me—and what more does a person really need? I trust the wisdom of my guides, ancestors, and Gods with how and when psychic insights are granted. I’ve also come to the (unpopular) belief that psychic abilities are mostly beyond our control. They stem from ancient bloodlines, develop over many generations (or lifetimes), or are conferred temporarily in moments of need. I can go to 100 different Reiki shares or scry till my eyeballs melt, but it won’t propel me to new levels of psychic awesomeness.

De-prioritizing psychic work would seem like a crushing waste to my teenage self, but I’m okay with that. I’ve enjoyed relaxing into a more balanced magickal practice. Being able to read the back of a poker hand or stun somebody with an energy ball now seems less important than being a loving person, a happy person, and an ethical person.

There’s lots of us…but so what?

I used to read a lot mainstream trend pieces about the explosive growth of neo-Paganism. If you believed the news of the day, young men and women were leaving the churches in droves to forge their own Nature-based religious practices. There’s good anecdotal evidence that the demographers were right: The number of practicing Pagans in my life has expanded from zero to at least a couple hundred friends and acquaintances with fantastically diverse beliefs and customs.

And yet…it’s easy to be lonely in that crowd. The idea of a vast unified Pagan movement remains nothing more than a baseless nightmare of religious conservatives. Chalk it up to Pagans' independent streak, I guess. We’re just not that organized, well-funded, or group-ish. It’s rare for even a small coven or organization to survive more than a couple of years. Sincere dedication is surprisingly rare, too: Even in tight-knit magickal communities, there will always be people who are just there for the party, the titles, or the food.

At Pagan festivals, I’ve communed and reveled with hundreds of seekers in one place—a truly moving experience that I wouldn’t trade away. I’ve been blessed with magickal teachers and partners who have helped my along my way. But I often agree with my novice-Witch self on one thing: Serious magick is something that is best done alone.

It is always a gift to see one's path unfold, even if it means encountering some letdowns along the way. I'm certainly living a magickal life--just not the one of my childhood imaginings.

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  • richard tanzer on

    P.S. correction under the line i came to know many kind of spirits; i meant:
    ‘and i know a few bad ones out there.’ not ’or there is a few bad ones out there.
    sorry for that mistake.
    indeed there are good and bad spirits as there are good and bad people. but like us humans the good spirits out number the bad ones.

  • richard tanzer on

    hi, i read your article. found it very interesting. i never started out in my childhood. in fact i was raised a christian. albeit in a very luke warm christian family. so i was taught to respect other people’s beliefs and so forth. with that in mind i began studying other religions and spiritual paths later in life. although i believed in God at first. i felt there was something lacking. in the end i realized why wasn’t there a mother along with the father in the godhead?
    to address this issue i had learned that christianity, judaism , and islam had mystical paths that explain away that God had a Spirit called Wisdom or Sophia, the Shekinah,or Layla. that She was His Feminine Aspect. in the end that didn’t satisfy me. then i learn of Wicca. at first there was trepidation. most of the branches of these religions especially christianity condemn it as being evil or that of the Devil or Satan. but as i studied Wicca. i saw the beauty of it. and felt what i never felt before: Happiness and Contentment.
    i came to know of many kind of spirits including the Fae being mostly kind. or there is a few bad ones out there. as well as the Goddess especially by the names of Hecate, Inanna, Isis, Lilitu, Durga to name a few.
    Wicca for me became a turning point in my life for something better. and despite the negativity i had received from my place of employment and being ostracized from relatives. i have no regrets.
    a christian at my job once asked me: Why are you always happy? my spiritual path; doesn’t yours?


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