Sunday, August 5, 2012

Set Story: Part 1

So, I was asked how I came to meet and be involved with Set and started to type a “short” version of the story only to find that even the “short” version is incredibly long. So I’m doing a series of installments called Set Story. (I just had a moment where I envisioned a sort of Kemetic version of the How I Met Your Mother TV show, I hope that’s just my subconscious being *funny* because that show stretched out its premise waaaay too long...)  
Set Story: Part 1

It took a long time for me to come to terms with the realization that Set was probably directly responsible for my childhood. I was born on a clap of thunder. Literally: the bolt struck very close to the town house and the thunder startled my mother so much that she didn’t immediately notice her water had broken. Or so the story goes. Regardless of whether it’s exactly true or not, I know now that he was with me even in the early years.

I never got to play on the blacktop as a child. Among my classmates there was an unspoken rule: the blacktop, where they played such wondrous games as four-square and double-dutch, was reserved for children who had social skills, average body types, and age appropriate vocabularies. Of which I had none. I knew I could ask an adult to make them let me play, but even seven-year-olds know that if you’re not wanted, you’re not wanted-- and forcing things won’t fix that. So I convinced myself I didn’t want to play with them anyway. That’s a summary not only of my childhood but of most of my life: I was an outsider, always too different to really belong anywhere.

I will admit that I don’t often talk about how I “suffered” as a child, because I find it embarrassing to defend that statement. It seems silly to say that, yes, I have lingering psychosocial issues because no one wanted to play with me. But it’s more than that: I had no friends growing up. None. By the time I had my first real non-familial relationship with another human being I was twelve. That sticks with you. It is suffering, in a way that those who haven’t known it can’t really comprehend. No, I wasn’t physically or sexual abused, I didn’t come from a broken home, I never experienced extreme poverty, and I never witnessed violence. I have students who could claim experience in each of the above. And I’m not saying—when I say I suffered or when I say that those who were socially accepted as children can’t understand what I went through—that those harsher realities are not suffering in their own right. I’m not minimizing other people’s suffering by asserting my own: suffering is relative.

Victor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, discusses that in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. He talks about relative degrees of suffering and how it always bemused him, when people would show him pictures of himself and other prisoners stuffed into a small hut during the winter, staring out at the world with hollow eyes, and then ask him how he could survive such suffering. “Here, we were happy,” he told them. Because the picture was of a medical “rest” tent, and the men in it had been excused from a day of hard labor on the chain gangs to recoup from illness. In his mind, the hut was a far better fate than the alternative. Later in the book he has this to say:

“To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into and empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.”

So I will go ahead and say it with confidence: I suffered. I suffered enough that I still pause before I hit submit on a message board post and wonder, just briefly, if I’ve said anything which might be cause for rejection. But I do hit send, regardless of that niggling feeling, because there was a blessing and a gift wrapped in the layered pain of my youth: the power of other. Because there’s a thicker skin that eventually grows and a sense of independence—a sense that “this is how I am, and if they don’t like it, I don’t need them”. It’s what happens when the natural fear surrounding large scale social rejection gets downgraded to a mild threat. It’s the been there, done that, got the t-shirt casualness with which one can stand up for something no one else seems to be standing up for merely because it’s a personal conviction. And if you aren’t afraid of being the only one who stands up for something, you have the capacity to be a great leader. You also have the capacity to be an arrogant, misguided psychopath…but powers are always more about how you use them than they are about intrinsic merit.

And having that power doesn’t mean being an outsider forever, nor does it mean liking the state of being an outsider. It only means that threatening to take my friends’, and my community’s, and my society’s acceptance away from me is not enough to sway me from a true conviction—because while I don’t want to be an outsider again, since I have been one and survived it, I’m not afraid of being an outsider again. That is a power worth having. A power Set wanted me to have—regardless of the cost.

 It turned out to be a power I needed in order to break away from the values of my conservative community and the skepticism of my atheist family; otherwise I never would have had the strength to follow a pagan faith of any stripe, much less eventually buck my family’s longstanding prohibition against organized religions. I needed that power to become the person I am. The person I have always been meant to be.

But I didn’t accept that power readily. I spent most of my life trying to change who I was enough to gain the acceptance I so desperately wanted. It was a futile effort, because even though I succeeded in my objective, even though I learned to “fit in” I discovered the curious fact that fitting in does not make one less of an outsider, it just makes one an outsider who is less alone.

I didn’t meet Set formally until I found myself exploring a Wiccan path in my late teens. Wicca was my private rebellion against my atheist upbringing, but it was also the first belief system I had found which tolerated the things that had made me so undesirable to my peers and family: my socially uncomfortable belief in the unseen things which “rational” and “sane” people don’t believe in, like magic and spirits, and my insistence on “playing make believe” years after that behavior is normally deemed appropriate.

At some point, I decided I needed to devote myself to some specific deity. I chose a random name from my Big Book of Goddesses™ and did a ritual to make contact. Brigid, if I remember correctly, though Brigid was not who I found once the vision actually came. There were candles lit and words said, then there was a shift into the unseen.

A woman greeted me, but she was different than I expected. She was dressed in white and she wore a single white feather in her hair—she pointed to another part of the vision-scape and I saw for the first time an animal-looking man, with red hair, drinking something from a bowl…hard-liquor, I realized.  A substance that made me uncomfortable. I could tell the woman in white wanted me to speak to him, but I was afraid (and disgusted, in truth). I insisted on clinging to her, and she didn’t argue. So it was her image to which I bowed and I drew a great sense of peace and reassurance from looking into the eyes of that drawing I made of her. What I didn’t know was that behind those pretty eyes, she was not there. The one watching me was the god she had shown me that night. A god who had always been there, observing silently as a storm brewed around me…

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