What do you call a group of introverts? A gaggle? A clutch? See, you can’t do it. It’s a trick question – there is no such word. Introverts are independent sorts who go their own way and rarely feel the need to form large aggregates. While we are capable of playing nicely with others for limited periods of time, spending every hour of the day with a group of excessively enthusiastic people is impossible. Even people of moderate temperament need to go home eventually, so that we can relax and recharge in glorious solitude. This nuance of introvert behavior makes us extremely poor cult members. I was reminded of this trait as I sat squirming while reading Alex Mar’s Witches of America.
To be a writer means accessing stuff on the internet that may put a person at the top of some government list. Reading books or articles that describe either bizarre practices from distant (or recent) historical periods or people who are verifiably unusual is a requirement to feed one’s imagination and sometimes fuel nightmares. Every especially cringe-worthy life experience also gets added to the pile of things that can be used to enrich stories. Writing Soul Search required me to delve into the exact features of a moderately decomposed human hand and also to query information on sin eaters in Appalachia. In the spirit of discovery (described earlier in the Curious Introvert post), I decided to read Witches of America.
This book is a memoir of one woman’s journey into the modern day witchcraft community. Like any community, there are practices, attitudes, and a certain vocabulary specific to the in-group that an outsider must master in order to be accepted. In general, students of the craft tend to work in groups, with more senior members of the coven training and initiating new members into the mysteries of their particular tradition. Based on this book, I believe that witches have a tendency towards extroversion, with a strong affinity for flamboyant appearance and a need to be noticed. The rare witches who are solitary practitioners are most likely to be the introverts in this subculture. They are derisively referred to by the mainstream witches as “still being in the broom closet,” as if they lack conviction and courage. Sound familiar? Ironically, even in the most esoteric of subcultures where individuality is a tenet of the religion, there exists a fundamental prejudice against introversion. “An’ it harm none, do what ye will” is the Wiccan Rede, the key moral system guiding correct behavior under this religious system. Perhaps an additional line should be added to remind practitioners that this is all well and good as long ye do what ye will under the auspices of a group structure.
In order to exert one’s will in an indifferent universe, practitioners of the craft believe that it is necessary to curry favor with more powerful beings through devotion and ritual. Alex Mar was convinced that there was secret knowledge she could access by demonstrating the right state of mind or set of behaviors and so, the author swallowed her skepticism and pursued initiation into a mystery cult that followed an ecstatic tradition. Ms. Mar’s intention was to harness some kind of arcane power to prove that magical forces governed our existence. Her assumption was that our boring, work-a-day lives could be transformed into something extraordinary by acknowledging this power and, as a consequence, life would become endowed with meaning.
While I understand the desire to have a meaningful life and to show the universe that we are somehow special, I think the talents we possess in reality are far more homespun than the ones Ms. Mar imagines. According to my mother, my brother’s super power is the ability to eat a mango without the dripping mess that ensues when lesser mortals consume the fruit. I have recently demonstrated an uncanny ability to fix toilets. I am sorry to say that this is probably my super power. (If you want to read more about super powers and super heroes, J. Edward Ritchie’s blog has beautifully written posts on these topics, described from a novelist’s and screenwriter’s perspective.)
For Alex Mar, her mission to acquire a super power consisted of engaging in a series of exercises designed to exorcise “the shapeless disappointments of pedestrian life” and to attribute a “heft and meaning” to one’s actions before ultimately confronting death. While the author wrote artfully and truthfully about her experiences, fearlessly exposing her self-doubts and vulnerabilities, at the end of the day, the journey was repetitious in the details of her attempts to exit the mundane in an attempt to commune with the sublime. I felt no trajectory or forward motion and my sense of the author was that she was willingly suggestible.
Others have been even less charitable and described Ms. Mar’s efforts as spiritual tourism. Some have called her out as being exploitative. My reading of her experiences paints her in a more positive light. I believe Ms. Mar portrayed her subjects sympathetically, emphasizing their dedication to their deities and their craft. These folks were sincere in what they did. Ms. Mar made a genuine effort to become a student of the craft and it was in reading these passages that I felt myself cringe. You did that just because everyone else was doing that? How can you give over your will so easily to a group? In a similar situation, my personal response would follow a quote from Green Day: Dude, I walk alone. Not doing that. Can’t make me. Won’t drink the Kool-Aid.
This form of stubborn introversion became especially apparent during the time I spent working in corporate America. When I interviewed for a job in big pharma, I was promised continued learning and lots of training to help me to maintain my professional growth as a scientist. What I got instead was a series of online and in-person trainings that ranged from deadly dull, practical (e.g. how long to keep various types of records) to touchy-feely corporate culture propagation. The latter type of training relied heavily on role playing and, not being one of the theater kids in high school, I found these sessions to be excruciatingly uncomfortable.
I felt a need to transform these role playing experiences into something more tolerable and so, I went to my fall-back position, bleeding these events for any trace of humor. I soon became a master of inserting the ridiculous extreme into the dialog of the characters I portrayed. Instead of merely being a slightly disgruntled worker, I became a union organizer, hell-bent on salting the earth and urging my fellow workers to walk the picket line. My partner for that training session came from a different department and did not know me. She became increasingly frightened, not because she was truly entering into the spirit of the role playing assignment, but because she was acutely aware that upper management might be present and watching. We were going off-script and there would be hell to pay. Of course, nothing of the sort happened, but we did amuse the person running the training session.
A different role playing session partnered me with my friend, Stephan. This time, my role was an under-performing worker who was trying to explain herself. My back story was that I was unable to focus on my job because my little brother had been abducted by aliens and I was exhausted from using my off-hours to get him back. Without missing a beat, Stephan told me that our company made drugs for this and that I needed to improve my performance. All hail Stephan. Perhaps role playing in corporate America is his super power.
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