Naturally being a very private person, this is something I have a difficult time with: as polytheists, particularly polytheists devoted to particular God(s), is it our place to represent Them? I don’t mean, “Do we speak for Them,” but, you know — does our behavior impact Them, for good or ill. I want to say no. I want to say, They don’t need our representation, They’ve been doing just fine all along. Except, if I bother to look beyond my little fish bowl, I realize that we as polytheists and pagans are a pretty small minority, and that, for good or ill, our behavior does, indeed reflect at least on how others may see our Gods. Further, I don’t think it matters how “popular” They ever get — I know that when I see people who present themselves as devout or dedicated, be they Hindu or Muslim or Christian or pagan, how they act, how they carry themselves colors my understanding of their faith.
We do not have a proselytizing obligation that Christianity has, but we still are living examples of our faith. And, living in an interfaith culture, that means that from time to time there will be questions.
I work in the public sector, in a retail store. I wear a head covering as part of my religious dress. (Actually, that’s pretty much the entirety of my “religious dress” thus far). I frequently at work get comments about it — generally “Ooh, that’s so pretty!” “That looks so elegant on you!” “I really like how you’ve tied that.” Now and again I’ll be asked if I cover for religious reasons. I say yes. Even more rarely, there will be follow up questions.
This always throws me for a loop. For one thing, I’m at work. I’m not getting paid by my employer to discuss religious matters with you. For a second thing, where I come from, how I was brought up, you do not ask people you don’t know personal questions and “What religion are you?” is incredibly personal. I don’t know if it’s the influence of England’s Reformation on the history of New England, if it’s the influence of our own Witch craze, I don’t know if it’s stereotypical New England standoffishness, or, most likely, a little bit of all these things, but these are things you don’t ask of people you don’t know. To compound matters, I do not have a sound-bite answer. There’s no tradition behind what I do; I do it because Poseidon’s asked me to, period.
It’s always easiest when they’re questions come in the form of “are you”‘s. “Are you Jewish?” “Are you Roman Orthodox?” “Are you Mennonite?” (I’m still not sure how they came up with that one!”) I generally say no, because I’m not, and answer it with “I’m polytheist,” and now and again we go a bit further, but I’m usually flustered and stuttering at that point.
This past week, I opted for, “It’s personal.” Because, you know what? It fucking is personal. I didn’t want to get into it, I didn’t have the mental capacity to field personal questions and do my job, and I resented very much this idea that I didn’t even know her name but she decided that, because I was providing customer service for her, that she got to know anything at all personal about me. This apparently offended her greatly. I continued with my job, thought about it some more, and felt . . . guilty? Badly? Uncompassionate? Something not comfortable. I don’t want people to feel ashamed for asking questions; it’s great to be open to asking questions when you come across something you haven’t before, and I don’t want to be a person who is the last straw for someone before deciding to no longer inquire. So, I decided I’d find her if she was still in the store, apologize for being brusque, and explain a bit about my background and my reasoning for responding as I did.
And, I did find her! I did. And I approached her. And before I could say anything at all, she held her hand up to me and said, “SSSHHH!!” a la Cesar Milan.
At which point I no longer felt badly for not answering her and had to try really hard to not then say what I wanted to say.
But it’s made me reflect, so it’s good. It’s challenged me into letting go — she embarrassed me and rejected my good intent when I would have apologized; she’s challenged me to consider my answer, and she’s challenged me in my striving for compassion — which includes self-compassion.
I’ll be attempting, “I’m Hellenic” as a pat answer in the future. If they want answers in a public setting they’re only getting soundbytes and too bad if it’s not completely accurate; Hellenic sounds more like an answer than Heathen or Pagan or Polytheist for most people, and I do cover for Poseidon, and the goal here is to satisfy their curiosity without costing me time from my job. Pagan and heathen have the various misunderstandings for those who don’t know any better, which leads to more questions, pagan and polytheist are too open as to be accurate, for my comfort; further, too many people have never heard the word polytheist, to be content with that as an answer.
It’s still frustrating. Had I not been on the clock, my answer would have been way less brusque, because I accept that we represent our Gods, even if we’d rather not. People see faiths through the acts of the devout. Or, as the Heathens like to say, we are our deeds.