This week I’m continuing my answer to Wife of Pagan from Slate.com regarding how to deal with conversion inside a marriage or other close relationship. Read on for Part 2, or check out last week for Part 1. I’m jumping right in with no intro, so if you’re not already familiar with this story, you might want to read last week first.
Another thing that did concern me in the letter was Wife of Pagan’s distress over her perception that her husband radically changed. She said he became a “new age guru in training,” has gone “mostly vegan” and is suddenly performing a lot of “white magic spells.” I’m not sure how much of this is her misperception and how much is actually happening.
If she’s perceiving things accurately, and I think she has a right to question it. Converting didn’t change me, at least not suddenly in some outward, showy way. My friends who read TPP can correct me if they like, but I think they’ll back me up on this. I didn’t tell anyone except TheScott for a full year after I converted and nobody noticed. I’m not saying my faith has never challenged me to think about things in new ways or to improve as a human being – it has, a lot – but I’ve never felt pressured to put on an outward show of my faith. If I had suddenly started changing my dress, my dining choices, my topics of conversation, etc, my friends and husband would’ve been worried – not to mention annoyed. I think the fact that I didn’t change helped people understand that my conversion – and Paganism in general – aren’t such scary things. I would question the decision of anyone who joined any group, religious or otherwise, and radically changed who they were as a result.
Unfortunately, there are groups claiming they are a part of a faith but in reality are more interested in power than helping people. GG spoke a little of them in “Should You Pay to Learn About Your Faith?” and linked to the Seeker’s Bill of Rights. Too often people hear “Pagan” and erroneously jump to the conclusion of “cult.” But dangerous cults do exist, some claiming to be Pagan, some claiming to be Christian, some claiming a different religion or no religious affiliation at all. If Wife’s perception is accurate regarding the amount her husband has outwardly changed in a short period of time, I, too, might be concerned about what sort of group her husband has joined. Isaac Bonewits, a leader in the Pagan community who joined his ancestors in 2010, created the Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Frame (ABCDEF) which is not only in use in Pagan circles but has been used by the FBI and at least one foreign government to help separate dangerous cults from harmless minority religions. I recommend it as a tool for others who are considering membership in a group or who are concerned about an affiliation of a friend or loved one.
On the other hand, while it’s perfectly natural to worry about the social circles of people we care about, drawing a line between legitimate concern and trying to govern somebody else’s life for them can be challenging in these circumstances. Looking over Wife of Pagan’s fears about her husband’s changes, it’s also possible that he hasn’t changed much, but in her own fear over the label “Wicca” she’s not perceiving things accurately. Does she know the difference between New Age and Wicca? Has she asked her husband why he’s changing his diet? (And how radically has it actually shifted, or is she taking a few changes he’s made regarding ethical eating and blowing it into something bigger?) Enthusiastically dabbling in magic is a common phenomenon amongst new Pagans; it doesn’t imply a lifestyle change.
The only way to tell what’s really happening is for the two of them to communicate openly. She needs to be able to talk about the changes she sees and the fears they have engendered, He needs to be able to talk about what’s going on in his group and why he’s making changes.
We all know communication is key for a successful relationship. Sometimes when we’re on the outside looking in, though, we forget how damn hard communicating about deeply emotional topics can be. As I went through the long process of converting, I wanted to talk about my thoughts and feelings with my husband, my best friend, my family – everybody. I wanted to discuss what was going on in my mind, and I kept thinking that if I could just explain it right, they’d understand and we’d all be okay. But explaining my conversion is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to talk about. Even now, when facing another person who’s concerned about me, my brain dries up and I hear myself saying the stupidest things. (I practiced a lot before talking to the caseworkers at my adoption agency!) At the beginning, when I still wasn’t totally sure what I was doing with this new religion myself, it was a disaster. In addition to that, it’s human nature to avoid tricky or painful subjects. For TheScott and I it was rough. For a long time we had me in one corner alternating between pretending nothing’s changed and jamming my foot in my mouth, and TheScott in another corner trying to stick his fingers in his ears and sing “lalalala.” Not good communication at all.
It’s hard, seriously hard, but this is a necessary conversation to have if people want to understand each other. There is a wrong way to talk about conversion, though, and it is often the first way people try to do it. When discussing conversion with friends and loved ones, avoid framing the conversation as “Why did you leave?” (or in Wife of Pagan’s case, “If you were going to join a religion, why didn’t you join mine?”). Either way, this question means, “Why do you think I’m wrong?” I don’t care what the issue is, answering that question does nobody any good. Just. Don’t. Do it. And if you’re talking to a convert? Don’t ask it. The answer doesn’t matter and it will cause hard feelings, particularly at this incredibly stressful juncture.
What my friends and family needed to hear had nothing to do with why I questioned Christianity, and everything to do with my calling to Paganism. I explained it best in the article Convict/Convert, but to briefly reiterate, I converted when I realized fear was holding me back from a leap I felt a higher power had called me to make. It was a deeply profound moment that changed my life, and I would imagine most converts have some similar moment of awe when they let go of fear and took a step forward into their new faith. When I finally got up the courage to share my moment, that was when people, including TheScott, began to understand and accept what I had done. If you, too, can share your calling story, that would do everyone so much better than arguing the unanswerable and utterly useless question of who’s “right.”
I’ve got one more more article in which I finally tackle The Elephant in the Conversion: the belief that converts go to hell. I saved it ‘til last ‘cause, well, the hard truth is there’s little we as non-Christians can do about it. There comes a point in the conversation when we (the converts) have declared our commitment to the relationship, assured our partners/friends that we’re not trying to convert them (and we meant it), alleviated reasonable fears about cults, explained our calling, and answered all questions (except permutations of “Why do you think I’m wrong?”) as honestly as we can. At this point the relationship is out of our hands and into theirs. Stay tuned next week for elephant hunting, and keep posting those stories of your coming out experiences!
+ Featured Image: Wedding Rings Hands by Grand Velas Riviera Maya