I’ve been reading up on ethics in the past years, including general texts on ethics, as well as various Pagan or Wiccan treatises on what Pagan ethics is and looks like and functions, or doesn’t function. In my time as a Pagan, I’ve seen a lot of Pagans talk about personal responsibility, and I’ve seen a lot of Pagan articles and books talk about how each Pagan is responsible for themselves.
Specifically, most Wiccan-related Pagan books cite the Rede as the penultimate personal responsibility, that we are each, in any moment, responsible for our own actions, for determining what constitutes harm and for not harming others. Most Pagans I talk to refer to Pagans being self responsible, with a focus in nonharming.
I must admit, I do not often see this in practice.
Ethics and Hypocrisy
I do see specific Pagans who live this value. Occasionally I see a really healthy group with ethical leaders and self-responsible group members.
More often I see pockets of people who are self-responsible and committed to not harming others, and a lot of others in the group who say they follow the Rede and then turn around and gossip and bash others in the group, or take actions that are ego-centric and selfish that harm the greater group in order to serve their own egos.
I’ve seen leaders talk about love and divine union and teach ethics, and then use their position as leaders and teachers to have sex with students and newbie group members.
I’ve seen leaders who teach the Rede, turn around and totally disrespect their group members by yelling at them in front of other community members and bitch and complain until they get their way. I hear people talk about how tolerant Pagans are, only to hear people bitching about other religions like Christianity, Islam, and trashing other Pagan religions not their own.
Disheartened by Community
I’ve had many a day in the past years where I’ve started to totally despair about why I work to serve the Pagan community.
I suppose I’ve had enough other days where I see people genuinely working on their own issues, giving their time and energy over to building communities and making things happen, that I keep going. I understand that humans (including me!) are a work in progress.
For me, self-responsibility is taking responsibility for our selves, our actions, for what’s going on in our lives. If I want healthy spiritual community, I have to help build it, not just wait for someone to offer it to me. I don’t get to complain about what people have done, or haven’t done, if I’m not helping to make positive things happen.
If things are going wrong in my life (like in the past years when my car has had major problems) I’m not going to blame the people who I know have issues with me and say, “Oh, I’m being cursed,” I’m going to acknowledge that I had a 1990 Dodge Caravan and not enough money to fix it.
If someone’s directly actually verbally attacking me, well–sure, then I can get angry about that and they can be responsible for the negative impact that’s had on me and my life. But I’m not going to blame my headaches or depression on a psychic attack.
Self-responsibility is looking at my life, and my choices, acknowledging their impact, and if needed, changing my patterns. It’s acknowledging that I always have a choice, even if that choice is sometimes a crappy one.
Choice, Responsibility, and Language
The pesky words “I have to” are usually actually a type of shorthand for, “I’m not acknowledging my responsibility and choice.” I used to say, “I have to do this work,” “I have to do this thing,” “I have to talk to that person,” etc.
Granted, sometimes it’s a crappy choice between, being miserable at a job or not having an income. But it’s still a choice. In my case, it’s the choice to live on a really limited income and have time to teach Pagan classes and run events. I’m broke, but it’s the result of my choices. I chose to live simply in order to do the work that called to me.
I find lack-of-choice is very prevalent in people’s language.
“I have to go visit my family for Christmas.” Well…not really. You don’t have to, unless your family is forcibly kidnapping you. You’re choosing to go visit family for Christmas because the consequence–an hour long guilt trip from Mom–is more than you might want to pay. But, if I find myself complaining for the whole 2 hours drive there, being miserable for 3 days of visit, and complaining the whole 2 hours back….is that a cost I want to pay? If I do, it’s a cost I *chose* to pay.
In my case, I like visiting my mom; it was her (now ex) boyfriend that I didn’t want to see.
I can choose to tell my folks (and I have) “Hey guys, I really need to stay home for Christmas and take some time to recharge. Maybe I can see you in a few months when you come into town for the ____ festival. I still love you and I miss you, but I really need this time to myself.”
Each of us Has Impact
Personal responsibility is looking at every place I have an impact. When I use styrofoam at a restaurant, I’m supporting toxic chemicals that harm the earth. When I buy fast food, I’m paying to support unhealthy food. When I buy clothes produced in sweatshops, I am supporting child labor and unliveable wages. When I buy many cleaning products, I am paying money to companies that are dumping toxic chemicals into rivers where people downstream are dying of various exotic types of cancer.
When it comes to personal responsibility and ethics in Paganism, I see people looking at this primarily in a “magical” context of when they do spellwork.
I have seen Pagans carefully crafting an abundance/job spell to be sure that it does no harm….and then do something completely mean-spirited to another member of their group.
Given that most Pagan groups are organized with an understanding that each member is personally responsible for their own ethics and choices, a primary consequence is that there is no way to effectively bring “charges” against a community member or leader, there’s no way to hold leaders accountable if each person is determining their own ethics.
I’ve heard of people speaking out against coven leaders and members who abused their positions of teaching by taking advantage of students/coven members sexually, financially, or otherwise. It happens more often than you’d think.
I see Pagan group leaders verbally trashing one another over some offense or other, because they:
1. Don’t have any method of holding one another accountable to a common set of ethics, and
2. Don’t have a common agreement over what healthy conflict resolution looks like.
I feel that this is the idea of personal responsibility can be taken to an unhealthy place–the idea that none of us, as community members and community leaders, can be held accountable by anything other than our selves. This would be great if it worked, but it doesn’t usually.
I think that personal responsibility, taken into it’s final form, is what the Reclaiming tradition would call anarchy. Not chaos–but radical personal responsibility. Anarchy meaning, if you see a pothole in the road, you stop to fix it.
Doing our Personal Work
Personal responsibility has tremendous potential, and I’d like to live in a community that lives its values around this, but we have a lot of work to get there. Every time any one of us takes responsibility for ourselves, we are getting closer to that place, so I commend those of you that are working to live this value.
And, if you are finding that you aren’t living that value–you always have an opportunity to become more self responsible. I know that when I screw something up, when I take an action and it has a negative impact, and I hide from that rather than take responsibility, that I’m human. I make mistakes. And maybe next time when it happens, I can make a better choice.
There’s responsibility for self, and responsibility for my impact on others, which can be a gray area into deciding I’m responsible for someone else’s actions. It’s murky territory so I thought a few examples might serve.
Responsibility for myself:
If I’m working at a company or for a client, I’m taking responsibility for my self by showing up to work, getting my job done. Similarly, I’m being responsible for my self by bringing in the income I need to pay the bills, etc.
Choice: I might hate my job; I remember when I used to work at a large corporation, and I hated how things were done. Each day I tried my hardest and felt like I had no power to make any changes. Similarly, my husband at the time hated his job and felt like he had no choice but to go in every day so that we had enough money. I started feeling the same way. We did have a choice–we could have quit our jobs. It just was a sucky choice.
Going out from that is my responsibility to my impact on others:
If I hate my job, and I start doing a crummy job, it’s going to have an impact on coworkers who might have to pick up the slack.
I’ve been there, and it’s something that I’ve definitely regretted. At the time I felt justified–my boss was being an jerk, so why should I work harder for him? Unfortunately, my decisions had an impact on those around me as well, and a$$hole boss became even more of an a$$hole, and to them as well. It’s not my fault that he was being mean to me or to others, but I can accept responsibility for my actions, and that my actions had an impact.
In that case, I’m not responsible for my boss–for the actions of another person. I’m responsible for how my actions had an impact on the situation.
Codependence: That’s not Mine to Take Responsibility For
It’s tempting sometimes to think I’m responsible for other people, but if it’s a grown adult, they too are self-responsible. The best example I can think of here is when I feel responsible for someone else, and it becomes codependent.
Years and years ago, someone I was close to would sometimes say things that were really offensive. He usually didn’t mean to be offensive; he would go on these rants, and he thought he was pretty funny. Sometimes he was.
But it hurt the feelings of some of my friends. So I’d apologize to them for him, and I’d try to maneuver situations so that he wouldn’t go on his rants. When he did, I’d get embarrassed and try to get him to stop, but in all of that, I was trying to take responsibility for someone else, and his actions weren’t mine to be responsible for.
Nowadays, my response to that would be directly addressing someone and saying, “You said something rude and hurt XYZ’s feelings, and you need to apologize. I also do not appreciate your behavior when you do ABC and you’re trying to be funny, but really you’re being rude.” Similarly, I wouldn’t apologize for someone’s actions to my friend–I’d say, “I’m sorry that that happened, and I’d like you to tell ABC that that upset you. His/her actions aren’t mine so I can’t apologize for them.”
Of course, it’s usually easier for folks–especially recovering control freaks like myself–to try to control the situation by ensuring the thing someone else does, doesn’t happen.
A more extreme example is if you have a friend or partner who has a major temper and pops their cork. Years ago I dated someone who was bipolar and had major mood swings. He was involved in the Pagan group I was leading, and trying to keep his mood from swinging into the bad place finally landed me in a terrible spot. His mood swings had gotten worse and worse; he was really good at ritual, but he was also incredibly unpredictable.
We had a huge and important fundraiser ritual, and that morning as I woke up to get ready and head out there for setup, he told me he wasn’t going to come to the event, and that he wanted to break up with me. He had several key roles in the fundraiser.
I think it took this for me to realize that, in trying to keep him “under control,” in trying to mitigate his mood swings so that he wouldn’t embarrass me, I neglected to acknowledge his self responsibility.
I kept on taking more and more responsibility for his actions, and really, that wasn’t mine to take responsibility for. What I can take responsibility for is falling into a codependent pattern where I tried to control the situation, instead of looking at his pattern of actions, and deciding that he really had no business being counted on to do things for the group with his unpredictable mood swings.
What’s Mine to be Responsible For?
I could also take responsibility for some of the pressure I had put on him in the beginning to be part of the group, and to share his talents with the group. But his failure to show up and do what he said he’d do, was not my responsibility.
What was my responsibility there, as a leader, was getting myself to the event, triaging, and reassigning his roles so that our group was able to recoup our funds (we’d planned a small conference which we had to cancel due to a freak ice storm). I cried the whole drive to the venue, sucked it up, got it done, and finally when it was over and the guests had left the venue, I cried my eyes out again when I was safe among friends.
Since then, I have definitely understood the difference between being responsible for myself, and trying to be responsible for someone else who wasn’t doing what I wanted them to do or who was acting out in embarrassing ways.
As for choice, another thing with choice is, I can’t always choose what happens to me, but I can usually choose how I respond. Most people aren’t choosing to be hurt, yelled at, abused, or hit. I certainly won’t take responsibility if someone attacks me or otherwise harms me.
Nor are most people choosing to work for people who are mean to them. But there’s usually a point in there where you can choose your response. Do you choose to stay in the relationship, or do you make choices to change the situation like leaving a relationship, getting help, deciding to look for a new job, etc.
I know that I’ve often made the (poor) choice to stay in relationship with someone who was harming me. Physical abuse is so much easier to spot; it’s easier to brush off emotional and verbal abuse and let that build up over time, and that’s a spiral I’ve found myself in several times before. It’s far easier to see on the outside of a relationship when hindsight is 20/20. When you’re in the middle of the maze, not as easy to see and discern.
Responsibility for my Actions
Or even just the choice to not take out what’s been done to you onto others around you, which is probably one of the harder ones to notice. I know when I noticed the places I was taking things out on others, even in small ways, I began working very hard to not do that and to find a more appropriate place for my anger and frustration to go.
I’d like to see more personal responsibility in the Pagan community. Not just being careful when crafting spells, but people who choose to treat others well.
It takes a lot more work, an epic amount of work. Thinking about our actions and their consequences all the time, not just when we’re doing a piece of spellwork. Thinking about our words and how they heal or harm. But, it is what I believe is required for the Pagan community at large to grow and become a healthier, more vibrant, and sustainable body.