Embarrassment: An Invitation to Growth


Embarrassment has been a hot topic in the Pagan blogosphere this week, and it has me thinking about my own relationship with the Pagan community. But it also has me pondering my relationship with embarrassment itself.

The question of how we relate to our own embarrassment is not something I’ve seen discussed in any of the many interesting and provocative posts being shared on this topic by people like Teo Bishop and John Halstead. These posts focus, instead, on how the behaviors and beliefs of other Pagans are a source of disappointment and sometimes cause for concern about the maturity of the community. For instance, John writes:

Paganism for me was a rich and complex tradition with the potential to transform consciousness and, dare I say, save the soul of the world. But the public face of Paganism seemed to me silly and naive. […] I was not embarrassed about my Paganism. I was embarrassed by “their” Paganism. I was afraid of being associated with the public face of Paganism as I have come to know it.

I can’t say that I’m unfamiliar with this feeling of embarrassment. Unlike John, my introduction to Paganism was not in books or online, but through actual, in-person engagement with other Pagans. While working on my thesis, I attended Pagan rituals and interviewed participants as part of my field research. The Pagans I talked to tended to be earnest and studious about their work, pulling all-nighters in the run-up to a scheduled ritual doing research into the gods and goddesses they planned to invoke and their associated cultural contexts. But the rituals themselves often fell flat. (The choreographed sword fight that dragged on twenty minutes too long. The moment when all the lights in the circle were doused to evoke the mystery of the Earth’s tomb/womb, only to be disrupted by the ritual leaders fumbling around for props in the dark.) And the post-ritual wrap-ups, when the organizers gathered together to discuss the pros and cons of the event, were often filled with comments that sounded a lot like justifications for screw ups. (The strong presence of the Powers of Air served as an explanation for why the priestess couldn’t get her long plastic grill lighter to spark and catch on the altar’s candle. The challenging riddles of the gods, as an explanation for why the rune divination after an offering turned out to be nonsensical, irrelevant or in direct contradiction to the ritual’s theme.)

But while I was doing this field research and meeting Pagans in person, cringing sometimes at the lack of polish and professionalism, I was also reading. The philosophies and theologies that I found in my reading excited and intrigued me, and the aesthetic qualities of nature-centered ritual moved me in the same ways that great literature and poetry inspired me (even if the realization of this aesthetic was not always easy to pull off in practice). I was pretty young and feeling rather spiritually experimental myself, and so it was a combination of these direct experiences of Pagan ritual and my own reading that spurred me to start exploring Paganism in my own life. I vividly remember a conversation I had at the time with a Pagan friend: I mentioned my excitement over some of the simpler, personal rituals and how I saw in them the potential to challenge our deeply-held assumptions about the world and to connect more directly with Spirit.

His response was one of embarrassment: He was embarrassed by me.

This was the first time I was struck by how powerful a force embarrassment was within the Pagan community. My enthusiasm seemed to this other Pagan to be as “fluffy bunny” and poorly informed as some of the rituals presented by his very own Pagan group had seemed to me, and his response to my enthusiasm was to distance himself from it (and in doing so, to discourage me from expressing it). In fact, as our conversation continued, I came to realize that my own embarrassment at some of the over-blown, overly-serious rituals I’d attended had been interpreted as a failure on my part to fully grasp the deeper nature of those rituals. My enthusiasm and embarrassment alike were simply signs, to others, that I had not yet attained the cooly competent attitude of the “serious” Pagan. But it also seemed to me that this was really just the same detached, post-cynical “professionalism” that had led to the dull sermons and condescending intolerance of so many modern mainstream religions, the very problems I had so hoped Paganism would be able to challenge in the first place.

I can’t help but hear echoes of this experience when I read these recent posts about Pagan embarrassment. While John locates his love of Paganism in the feminist and process theologies that have informed his understanding of deity as the nondiscriminating All-of-All, it seems his response to his own embarrassment is to step back into the role of the discriminating gentleman of refined tastes who finds himself discomfited by the overly-emotional and seemingly irrational exuberances of his fellow Pagans. In other words, he is disturbed by evidence in our community of the messiness of the nonrational psycho-spiritual experience, when his own theology says he should be celebrating it. After all, this is the very aspect of the religious life that feminist theology encourages us to embrace as powerful and transformative, rather than dismissing it as “mere superstition” and therefore less authentic or less relevant than the rational, analytical part of our religious life. (And don’t get me wrong, I really like John’s writing in general and I have a lot of respect for him. This is more about our lack of self-analysis when it comes to the dual nature of our embarrassment and how that embarrassment sometimes reflects a lurking inconsistency in our own beliefs.)

Making Friends with Embarrassment

Growing up with an incredibly pale complexion that flushed as brilliant red as a tomato at the least bit of discomfort, I couldn’t avoid developing a personal relationship with my own embarrassment. I learned early on that when others perceived my embarrassment, they almost always assumed that it was because I was ashamed of myself, and I was encouraged — in all the subtle ways that culture shapes the individual psyche — to turn a critical eye on my embarrassment and question how it might reflect my various flaws. Maybe this is because, in our culture, male embarrassment is more often perceived as a value judgment about others, while female embarrassment is interpreted as a response to personal failing.

ConscienceAnd maybe this was unfair (no, scratch that, it was definitely unfair), but one thing it did was force me to confront the personal psychological aspect of my embarrassment directly. I had to learn to befriend my embarrassment, to allow it to be my teacher. Because embarrassment would be so clearly written on my face, I had to hunt down my embarrassment with a certain ruthlessness. If I wanted to interview for that job I wanted, or get along with those relatives who enjoy Fox News a bit too much, or simply be taken seriously as an intelligent, articulate person. I would have to master my embarrassment if I wanted to get through life without others constantly assuming I was ashamed of myself.

The result was a deep familiarity with the psychological sources of my embarrassment. Sure, there were times when I was embarrassed by something I had done or said, mistakes I’d made or social faux-pas I’d tripped into in ignorance. But just as often, I was embarrassed by what others were doing or saying — and it was this embarrassment that I had to grapple with if I was going to function as a socially well-adjusted human being, because the truth is, no matter how polished we might make ourselves, we don’t have control over how other people behave or what they think, and half the time, we don’t have enough information to form an accurate opinion anyway. When we stop and ask ourselves why we feel embarrassed, we soon notice that embarrassment arises from an anticipation of pain or discomfort.

Embarrassment is really all about fear and insecurity and, on the other hand, strength and flexibility.

I came to realize that my own moments of embarrassment almost always resulted from a shallow engagement with the person who was causing me embarrassment, and an impoverished relationship with my own sense of self. The more I was able to engage with other people and relate to their perspectives, the more my own embarrassment subsided because I felt more secure in my ability to anticipate and navigate social tensions. The times when I felt most worried about being judged as shallow or silly because of my associations were the times when I was least secure about my own reasons for doing and believing as I did, unsure that I had the strength or presence of mind to connect with others beyond trivial first impressions.

This isn’t exactly a startling new insight. Anyone with teenage kids (or who has recently or not so recently been a teenager themselves) knows how powerfully the experience of embarrassment is tied up with the tumultuously evolving self-identity that comes with adolescence. Teens are mortified by how stuffy and out-of-touch their parents are, and parents in their turn are embarrassed by the way their messy, emotional, irrational teenagers seem to parade around all of the family dysfunction in public. Teens are also deeply invested in belonging to the right in-groups that will guard them effectively against embarrassment, in part because all of their energy and focus is engaged in the very difficult, radical work of testing out new skills and developing new talents. They earn allegiance in a peer group through a strange mix of conformity and bold rebellion, and they do it in order to shore up their personal boundaries during a time when their self-identities are undergoing enormous change and they’re discovering the kinds of roles they will play in adult society. They need to do this work safely, in a peer group that will support them and even admire them for their messiness and experimentation, instead of judging them for their failure to have already become competent (stuffy, boring) adults.

Sincerity, Competence and Risk

And here we are again. The old, ongoing debate about sincerity versus competence. Despite what some have claimed, it’s been my experience that those who highly value sincerity within the Pagan community almost never advocate (or even excuse) incompetence. On the contrary, they are more likely to admit to incompetence, especially their own, and confront it as an opportunity to learn. They are more likely to push beyond the shallow judgement of externalities to look at the underlying influences that shape our actions and expressions, understanding how the latter give rise to the former. They often show a great appreciation for the talents and skills of others and are as enthusiastic in their support for others’ explorations, experimentations and successes as they are about their own. Sincerity is an attitude of honesty, openness and a lack of duplicity (even about one’s own faults); it shares etymological roots with words like “crescent” and “crescendo,” words of process and growth.

On the other hand, I’ve noticed that those in the Pagan community who worry overly-much about the competence or incompetence of others are often just as embarrassed by expressions of sincerity, regardless of the competence with which that sincerity is expressed. (Indeed, being enthusiastically sincere can sometimes be taken as a sign that you must therefore be incompetent, by people who have no other criteria on which to base their judgement!) This is not because sincerity is actually a sign of incompetence. Although someone who is honest with themselves and others about their own imperfections might provoke our embarrassment as we anticipate the potential for failure, it’s perfectly possible for someone to be both sincere and competent. They might just be more interested in cultivating and refining their skills, and more willing to push themselves to try new things, than they are in resting comfortably on the competencies they’ve already developed. But we need people like that, who are willing to push themselves to grow and risk failure, risk embarrassment.

I Promise Not To PeekBut I think this embarrassment about sincerity also has another explanation, beyond simply our aversion to risk-taking. I think it actually stems from the unchallenged attitudes of mainstream society itself, which equates the emotional, nonrational aspect of the self with what is “feminine,” and views it as less valuable than detached, professional, rational — that is to say, “masculine” — aspects. In this view, these feminine traits are supposed to be kept in the home, a private matter, and only masculine traits like polished competence and educated reason are deemed acceptable for the public forum. People are perfectly welcome to experiment, take risks and mess up, so long as they do it privately and present only their best, most composed face to the rest of the world. So concerned are we with this distinction that we’ve even invented a term to mark the difference between private exploration and community acceptability: Unverified Personal Gnosis, or UPG.

Making a Mess of Community

The irony here is twofold. First of all, we cannot engage in building community and navigating social tensions in the privacy of our own minds. This kind of work has to be public. If we want a strong, flexible, mature community, than the process of our exploration and experimentation has to take place publicly. There’s just no other way to do it.

Furthermore, the obsession with embarrassment, this fear of incompetence, is itself the biggest stumbling block to the process of maturing into a serious, spiritually authentic community. There is a very good reason why teenagers balk against the stuffy, boring restrictions of adulthood — plenty of adults really are out of touch with their own creative processes because they’ve allowed themselves to become overly concerned with their fears of embarrassment. Creative endeavors falter under the yolk of constant editorial critique and oversight. If we cannot allow ourselves to be whole, messy people in public when we are in community with each other, then our spiritual community will remain largely an excuse for private posturing and play-acting.

It is when we confront our own messiness in the presence of others that we are forced to grow, but to do that we have to first overcome our fear of being seen as messy. And that means confronting our embarrassment at the thought of being perceived as messy-by-association. Like adolescents (for we are a very young community), we need a safe social space within which our experimentation and courageous rejection of old norms is not only welcomed and supported, but applauded and admired. Otherwise, we remain children trying to dress up in our parents’ clothes.

And that also means we need voices like John’s and Teo’s (and others’) to remain part of the community, to bring their sober perspectives and their appreciation of complexity to bear on the ways we express ourselves and communicate with each other. I might not agree with John’s take on Paganism, but I’m disappointed by the reactions to his piece that suggest he should stop calling himself a Pagan unless he’s willing to accept all aspects of Paganism uncritically, or that he can hang out under the Pagan Umbrella so long as he doesn’t jostle anyone but leaves each person to their own private devices. These, to me, sound like the reactions of people who haven’t come to terms with their own sources of embarrassment and do not want to be confronted with the mirror that John holds up to their practices and beliefs.

But even though creative work is hindered by constant criticism and self-analysis, it is equally handicapped if attempted in isolation. Creative work engages with the resistance of the medium, and the creative work of community-building absolutely demands that we overcome our embarrassment to have real conversations with each other about the things that matter, and that we do that openly and publicly. We can’t do that if we are politely escorting those who disagree with us to the exit, but we also can’t do that if we expect those disagreements to be pleasantly shelved for the time being while we all light candles and hold hands in a circle together. The one is a recipe for intolerant theology, but the other is a recipe for shallow practice.

Ritual gives rise to theology, and vice versa. There is no scenario in which we can practice together without that practice both shaping and being shaped by our shared beliefs.

We have to learn to be friends with our embarrassment, because the only way we can engage in the deep work of the authentic spiritual life as a community is if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and messy in the full awareness of our awkwardness and the awkwardness of others. We’re all just going to have to get used to seeing each other naked.


Photo Credits:
Numb” (CC) Khan Mohammad Irteza
Conscience” (CC) KnockOut_Photographs
I Promise Not To Peek” (CC) Jari Schroderus


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Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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