Pagan Blog Project: “G is for Group” (i.e. Why Your Words Matter)

Before you roll your eyes (another person writing about community? So many people have written poignant posts on this in the past few days, isn’t just one more a bit of overkill?), I want you to think about something.

I want you to consider two symbols: 団 and 体. Yeah, that’s Japanese. Bear with me. The first symbol, 団, is often pronounced “dan.” It means “association.” The second symbol, 体, is often pronounced “tai” and it has a few meanings, notably: “reality”, “identity”, and “shape” or “form.” Together (団体) the symbols make up the Japanese vocabulary word “dantai”, which means “organization” or “group.”

In Japan, kanji –  the Japanese version of traditional Chinese written language (as used above) – often denotes a cultural truth about Japanese society (which is often true about language in general – language reflects culture). In Japan, one’s group IS considered one’s identity. The word for “group” (団体) visually represents this. Which means that a “group” in Japan is considered, literally, “an association of identity.” Japan has its flaws (I would argue it often takes its group-mindset a little too far in some respects), but there’s a reason it’s one of the cleanest, safest, and most efficient countries in the world. There’s a reason people work so well together there, there’s a reason there’s so few crimes, and so few public arguments, and such an emphasis on respect and politeness. And there’s a reason religious life there is so fluidly and beautifully integrated with secular happenings…and there’s a reason few people ever comment on “the religious strife/disagreements in Japan.” And that’s because it doesn’t exist – not nearly as much as it does here in the West, or in other parts of the world.

Devo has already wonderfully commented on how Shinto can provide us with a great example to follow, so I won’t go into it here. The point is that if we’re going to talk about community, we need to think about what the word actually means. And like the Japanese, maybe it’s time we took our language more seriously. Sannion wrote that “too many of us are writers” (which I can agree with, to an extent), but maybe the issue isn’t how many are writing, but how many don’t understand the meaning of their own words.

Arya, a brave little soul from George R.R. Martin’s notable series A Song of Ice and Fire, is known for her mantra “fear cuts deeper than swords.”  So do words. The old “sticks and stones” saying is a lie. Words hurt plenty, and they cut down to the bone. I can’t even begin to describe how many times I’ve cried – been so deeply hurt – because of something someone has said to me or written about me, or said to or written about others. Verbal bullying is real. And it needs to stop.

I could go on and on and talk about the same relevant topics others have already covered – about what needs to stop and who needs to stop doing it and how you even begin to build individual religious organizations in the first place – but I won’t, because others have done so well already in literally taking the words right out of my own mouth. I guess if I really wanted to state my opinion on the subject at large, I could link to all the posts I’ve already read and simply caption it as “I agree wholeheartedly.” Because that’s how it would go down.

What I want you to bring away from this particular post, on this particular blog, written by nobody important – just some 24-year-old girl in Philadelphia who spends more time translating insurance applications from Japanese-to-English than she does doing anything particularly mind-blowing in the field of religion – is that your words matter. I don’t care who you are – 50 years old or 15 years old, a “well known person in the community” or a nobody like me, an academic or a mechanic, a girl or boy or something else in-between…your words matter. Stop using them to hurt people, and start using them to educate people, to admire people, to politely disagree with people, to argue intelligently with people, to make connections with people. Think before you speak. Think before you write.

Kemeticism places a huge amount of value on the written and spoken word. Heck, we even have Deities Who represent these things. If you call yourself Kemetic, and you use your words in an ill manner (to cut someone down, to be disrespectful, to spread hate, etc.) do you really think you’re doing the work of Djehuty and Seshat? Do you really think you’re honoring our Gods? Plot twist: you aren’t. Nobody said words have to be pretty or beautiful at all times (this is by no means an argument against cursing or using graphic language to get a point across): This is about intention and the meaning YOU subscribe to your words. And it’s about understanding the original meaning behind words…words like “community.”

One of the definitions of the English word “community” is:

“A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals” (New Oxford American Dictionary)

Here’s the bottom line: if you don’t feel like you can get along with the majority of the people in the “Pagan/Polytheist/Recon” world, or even in the particular path you’ve chosen to follow (Wicca, Hellenism, Heathenry, Kemeticism, etc.), then maybe that isn’t the community for you. Listen, that’s ok. It might be better for your own health if you stepped back, and tried to focus on other communities in your life instead. Following the literal definition above…if you don’t have the same attitude, interests, and/or goals of more of the people around you (and you find yourself simply just getting mad or frustrated all the time)…that’s the first indication that you shouldn’t be around those people.

Let me tell you a personal story, because anecdotes are useful sometimes. When I was 16 and still considered myself Jewish, I was a part of a very fun state-run Jewish youth group (I won’t give out the name here, just to keep it more anonymous for all involved). Every few months (usually one per season) the youth group would have a weekend-long convention at a synagogue somewhere in the state (sometimes our synagogue, located outside Philadelphia, would be used, which were always the best ones because I could stay at my own house and not sleep on the floor somewhere ^__~ ). The conventions would include prayer services, rituals, community meals, educational workshops, community service, and social events (such as going bowling, or ice skating, or having a party). This youth group was fun, I met a lot of Jewish kids around my age and in the same denomination of Judaism as me (conservative Judaism). Right around the time when I turned 16, I became interested in becoming more of a leadership figure within the group…so I  became an applicant to fill the “Rel-Ed” (Religious Education, my favorite part of the conventions) vice-president position. The way it worked was that the entire group would vote on who could become candidates, and I was voted in that way. Then, the current committee of presidents and vice-presidents (for each “ruling area” of the youth group – Religious Education, Event Planning Committee, Social/Outreach, Community Service, etc.) and the “Overall” president and vice-president would interview the applicants and choose based on qualifications, personality, experience, etc. Sounds intense, but it was a good system.

So I thought.

Turned out that I didn’t meet one of their qualifications for becoming a youth group leader, and that was “choosing only to date someone Jewish.” Apparently, in that particular youth group, you could not be anything more than a base member (i.e. you couldn’t be a leader) unless you promised to only date Jewish people for the duration of your leadership. This was meant to promote the spread and growth of Judaism, and encourage same-faith couples/marriage…for varying reasons (to “keep the religion alive,” for one). Quite frankly, this seemed like bullshit to me. At the time, I was dating my current significant other (Jack, who I have now been with for six years), who is from an Irish Catholic family. I didn’t want to break up with Jack just to become a leader of some Jewish youth group that happened to be fun sometimes. I probably could have faked it – “said” I broke up with him but actually didn’t, but that was besides the point for me then – it was the principle of the matter that offended me in the first place. Why should who we choose to date or marry affect how good of leaders we are, or how dedicated we are to our chosen religions? It shouldn’t matter, in my mind. I became furious and upset. I was 100% qualified in every other way to lead, but they turned me down because of Jack, and because I didn’t like the idea of breaking up with him.

You know what I did? I left that youth group. Sure, other parts of it were fun, and they did great things for the greater Pennsylvania community…but I couldn’t agree with them on that one point about dating/marriage, so I left . That particular community did not align with MY attitude on what Judaism should be about, my interests as far as who should and should not be leaders, and/or my own goals of someday having a family and marrying someone based on love not religion. But instead of raging through the halls of said youth group’s various meeting places and screaming my lungs out and hating on them forever, I told them my opinion on the matter (stated intelligently and without malice) and then politely declined to pay for membership the next year and eventually cut all ties with them. I refuse to say anything bad about them even now, to this day, except when that particular issue of dating comes up in conversation (and I don’t call them names or anything, I just tell people where I disagreed).

And you know why I reacted, and still react, that way? Because I recognized that they interpreted Judaism differently than me. I also see now that there were other aspects of Judaism that didn’t end up working out for me (considering I’m now Kemetic)…so I might have found something else I didn’t like about that youth group eventually anyway. I also understood, then and now, that getting hateful and angry and using words simply to use them against a person or group you disagree with is the wrong way to go about it. If you don’t like a person or group, get the hell out of there. Simple as that. Stop subjecting yourself to things that make you upset or uncomfortable.

On the other hand, if you want to be a part of something more than you disagree with it, make compromises. I couldn’t compromise with that youth group (in my mind), so I left. It was better for me to do so. But if you find that you still want to be a part of something (such as the P/P/R community), but there are still many things you disagree with, think long and hard about how and if you can compromise. And if you CAN, and you decide to, use your words accordingly. When you disagree, do so politely. When you are upset, ask for help or guidance, don’t scream incessantly about it. That’s how we compromise. And if it comes to the point where you cannot compromise anymore, with yourself or with others, get out. Find a new community. Make new friends. Start over. There’s nothing wrong with that.

All I ask is that we, in this community and in all other outside communities, use our words wisely.

Words have power. Don’t ever think for a second that they don’t.

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10 thoughts on “Pagan Blog Project: “G is for Group” (i.e. Why Your Words Matter)

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  5. I used to belong to a youth group, too. Methodist. It was incredibly clique-like. When I “fell out” with the ruling caste, I left without looking back. I never explained to the adults what happened, but I had been bullied enough by then. It wasn’t worth it to bein a place where I wasn’t safe. I never regretted it.

    • Thanks for sharing that experience ^_^ I know how that can feel (obviously, from my given example). Sometimes we just can’t do it, for our own health/morals/beliefs/etc. It’s important to know ourselves and our limits: what we can and cannot handle when being a part of an organized group. There’s no shame in leaving something, especially if left for the right reasons. I think you (and many others who have had similar experiences in the past) had the right reasons.

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