Permission to fail. Quite a few years back, I was always amused by this phrase. Who needed to have permission to fail? Failure just happens. Thus, I would look at the phrase as an amusement rather than a particular way of rephrasing one’s everyday approach to life.
I am more than half Germanic. Germans are known for their precise approach to things, according to popular misconception. Not that I believe my DNA pushes me in that direction. But I do have that tendency. A need for a precise approach to things. And when things don’t work, my frustration will set in very quickly. What I am about to set forth here is a manner of how I learned to deal with my frustration over things not working the way I expected. None of this happened over a short period of time. More like years. Quite a few.
When I first encountered Wicca, I had no idea what I was reading about. I brought all my questions to my much older girlfriend of the time, a Wiccan High Priestess. We would sit and talk about what I read, and she would provide a warmer narrative from her own experiences. When I finally decided to ask to be accepted into my Rainbow year of learning, I had a concept of what I was about to expect. Lots of talking, an occasional ritual, and some formalized classes in the living room of whoever was handling the lesson. The talking and the lessons went exactly as I expected. The rituals, on the other hand, were confusing and jarring to my senses. Frankly, I was not really prepared to be naked in front of others. Later, it was relayed to me that I had not been told about the nudity because they were sure I would have issues with it. They were right. But not in the way that they thought. For me, it was a moment where everything that I had expected was wrong. My state of mind did not like the unexpected failure of what I had prepared myself for.
The first time I tried to work a spell, I followed a formulaic aspect that I found in one of Donald Michael Kraig’s books. I gave the spell nearly a month to work. When I didn’t get results of any kind, I sought out a ceremonial magician friend and asked why. She could not tell me exactly why but noted that the formulaic process could always be altered in ways that were more personal to me. This only made me even more frustrated. How was I supposed to learn the basic process when I needed to find ways to improvise to make things work properly?
These are only two examples of how processes within my Pagan practice had “failed” me. Many, many times over, I would find myself not doing things “correctly” and become increasingly frustrated with my approach to Paganism. There were times that I sat down and thought that the Christians had it so much easier. All they had to do was show up at church on Wednesdays and Sundays, sign some songs from a book that was provided, and just listen to the admonishes of some intercessory that stood at the front of the congregation.
At this point, I had found myself handling my own approach to my Spirituality. I was in Germany, stationed there by the United States Air Force. Most of the Pagans I knew there, which admittedly was an extremely small number, followed various aspects of Wicca, Heathenry, or something else that I didn’t follow. I would gather with them to talk and discuss Paganism from a generic perspective. At one point, I met with members of a small coven to perform a ritual on Kapaun Air Station, the first such religious accommodation made for a Pagan group by the United States military anywhere in the world. But I was a guest, not a member of the group (though their leader had counted me as a member to inflate his membership numbers to the Ramstein Chaplain that had sponsored his group). Much of my Spiritual practice was spent wandering the wooded areas around the Kaiserslautern area. During my wandering in those woods, I would think about my own Spirituality, and began forming my own personal approach to Paganism. I often wondered if I was doing any of this correctly.
Upon my separation from the United States military, and my subsequent return to the United States, I found myself more alone than I was in Germany. The Witch Wars in Dallas had occurred while I was gone. Dovetailing with that was the back half of the Satanic Panic that had gripped much of the United States from the fanatical Evangelical corner. Many Pagans had gone to ground. Finding ways to hide in plain sight. I had very few people that I could contact to find out if I was doing things right or wrong. So, I continued doing things my own way. Right or wrong, my focus was on doing things in a way that felt “correct” for me. During this time, much of how I handle my own Spirituality came to be.
I wish I could impress on you how many failures I ran into in this period. It was a lot. I would lay out an idea of how to approach an aspect of my Spirituality, only to be frustrated over how it did not work the way I had expected. Or to have it completely backfire in my face. The first few years was quite humbling. However, at some point I realized that each failure was an experience that I could build on. When I found something that did work, I was ecstatic. Slowly I built my own approach to Paganism. Granted, its not a pretty one. There are plenty of scars upon it. There are mismatched pieces within it. But it works for me. That’s what counts most.
Over time, I came across the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD). I looked through their information, even looked deeper into their ritual framework. What I found was much closer to what I had been doing in my own Spirituality – trying to find connection, reveling in experience. The ritual framework is not necessarily to my liking (and still is not), but it was a perspective I could live with in groups and gatherings. I don’t use it in my own personal rituals.
At some point, I had decided to give myself permission to fail. I just didn’t see it in those words. I saw it as an aspect of trying. But in trying, I had to prepare myself for the possibility that things wouldn’t work. From that, I learned the value of improvising, finding non-traditional techniques to try and make things work. However, I cannot give my work in my Spirituality the credit for that. Rather, I learned the value of improvising in my work within the military.
In Germany, I was attached to a multi-national NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) unit. Funding for all areas of this unit were sparse. You learned to make do with what you had on hand, or the mission did not get accomplished. That was not an option. I learned not to worry about what something was designed to do and see it for what it could be made to do. Somewhere, that started to translate into my own Spirituality. Did the Gods really give a shit if I called a Guardian at the four quarters? Did I really need to create a circle boundary between my ritual space and the rest of the world? Granted, for some workings – these aspects were necessary for a variety of reasons. But did that mean it had to happen all the time? Through this, I learned my most valuable lesson – question it. That was the only way that you could break things down to the necessary components and remove everything that wasn’t necessary. Or everything that you thought wasn’t necessary. Trial and error. Try it. If it didn’t work or didn’t feel right – add back a component you removed and try again. If that didn’t work, keep adding back and retrying until you find the combination that does.
I know there will be many folks who will find this to be sacrilege. However, I would point to the “fun” little rituals that are out there, such as the Rite of Chocolate, and ask why that could be accepted but little changes to ritual formatting cannot? Believe me, I am not saying that all this works for every single individual or that every Pagan must utilize this concept of alteration as holy writ. That’s not the point. All I am trying to say is that we need to be accepting of the idea that we can fail. And that in failing, we learn. In failing, we can find humor in what occurred. In failing, we can step forward to try again.
Failing, in my opinion, is a part of living. It is a part of growing. It is a part of feeling. In my opinion, our approach to the Gods is not a strict, unbending Path of ritual. Our approach to the Gods, our approach to our own Spirituality is a growing, changing, living relationship. If we place ourselves in a place where we cannot fail, we will wind up frustrated when we do. And our frustration can drive us away from our Spirituality.
I cannot count the number of times I have fucked up, the number of times I have failed. Numerous times, I have sat down and just cried over my frustrations at those failures. I am glad that I picked myself up each time, wiped the tears from my eyes, and resolved to move forward. If I had not, I do not believe that I would be the Pagan I am today. In fact, I know I wouldn’t. Without those experiences, those failures…