The Power of No: the Secret and the Sacred

The Internet was practically abuzz with it from the moment the duet ended. “They must be in LOVE!” “Look at that CHEMISTRY!” The notes had barely faded away before helpful amateur commentators had determined that Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper simply had to be secretly lovers. And when Beyoncé dropped the tour de force album “Lemonade” out of the blue in 2016, everyone had their pet theory about who “Becky with the good hair” was, and took their bets on whether Bey and Jay-Z were headed for divorce, a speculation that the Carters have deftly used to create two more albums that people presume are exploring their marriage without ever actually revealing any details of their relationship. In the case of the “shipping” of Gaga and Cooper, the denials were immediate, out of respect for Cooper’s pregnant wife.

In both cases, the public presumed that the intense display of emotion simply had to be real. That there was no way that such a thing could be manufactured out of thin air. And that is precisely where the misunderstanding occurs — the feelings and intimacy being displayed are authentic. Feelings are universal and we all have them, and given the proper capacity for empathy, we can even understand how a situation might feel, even when it lies outside our direct experience. Beyoncé certainly knows how it might feel to be in the midst of a marital crisis, even if she isn’t at present. And Gaga and Cooper certainly both know what being in love feels like, even if they aren’t in love with each other.

The other presumption the public was making is that they somehow had the right to insinuate themselves into these relationships, that somehow they were owed an accounting of the Carters’ marriage or the status of the relationship between Gaga and Cooper. Celebrities face this constant battle, the constant pressure to reveal personal details of their lives and their relationships for public consumption. The price of standing out as a celebrity is that people think they know you, and want to feel close to you, want to know things about you that you might not be prepared to share with them.

But it’s not just the Carters or Gaga anymore is it? In the age of social media we are all of us in the business of making some display of our lives, whether we realize it or not. And while most of us are not being inauthentic in what we put on Facebook or Instagram, it’s also a fairly safe bet that most of us are not putting all of their entire lives online. And yet, there is that silent pressure to appease those that watch our lives unfold, to find the best photo, a clever status update. And when the big events of our lives happen, we now must contend with their impact not just on our lives as we experience it, but with the digital imprint it leaves as well — how do we tell our digital audience about the death of a friend, a new addition to the family, or an illness of some significance? What do we reveal? What do we conceal? And how do we know when to perform which action? And how do we keep that which we reveal authentic, without giving away parts of ourselves we don’t want to?

These are not new questions or issues. The intersection of public and private has always been a part of our lives as humans living in community. The nature of the Internet and social media has merely heightened the contrasts inherent in the choices.

Indeed, for some of us, public and private, that which is on display and that which is held in secret has always been an issue, one of great importance. In the pagan community, and especially among witches, keeping things hidden has its uses, and is at times essential. No matter how many times they bring back the “Charmed” franchise or how popular the Harry Potter books are, the fact remains that the real life flesh and blood witches in our communities risk a lot when they make their identity known. Being “out of the broom closet,” is often used to harass and discriminate against us at work, can impact our ability to keep custody of our children, and engenders lots and lots of social busgbodying and worse from those who believe their God gives them the right to browbeat others. When your identity as a witch can have an impact on your job, or your standing in your community, and even your physical safety, you do not put it on public display. And yet, when that identity brings you knowledge, wondrous experience, and wisdom, how does it not seep into everything you are, and therefore everything you show? How do you fully own your self as a witch if you cannot share fully that identity with those around you?

It’s an issue that has plagued many communities, but the parallels in the LGTBQ+ community are particularly instructive. Witches may refer to “being in the broom closet” but the term originated with people of differing sexual and gender orientation being “in the closet” for much of modern history, told by their social norms that their identity — who they are, and who they love — was somehow shameful and unfit for polite company, even dangerous. In many parts of the world this has not improved. There are still many places on this planet where revealing your gender identity or sexual orientation will get you killed, in some instances with the government’s blessing. When your identity can get you killed, keeping it hidden from view is not a philosophical matter, it’s a critical element of survival.

“Coming out of the closet” has always been a fraught proposition, and even in this day and age where Pride Parades happen with regularity in major American cities and where an openly gay man is running for President, what is revealed and what is hidden is still a contentious issue. The need to no longer be hidden, to be able to publicly integrate all aspects of yourself is strong. So strong, in fact, that in many circles, being firmly opaque about your sexual or gender identity is no longer seen as a social necessity, or even as a choice to be made by the individual, but as a moral failing. And yet, being “out” can still be a very dangerous thing, even in this country.

We live in an age where transparency is becoming increasingly important on political, cultural and social levels. Keeping secrets in the digital age is simply much more difficult, which is why Jeff Bezos made the calculated decision to admit publicly to his naughty texts with his girlfriend rather than pay an exorbitant sum to the National Enquirer to “kill” its story. By and large, his gamble has paid off. People may have lots of judgement for his decision to step out on his wife or the wisdom of sending “dick picks” (even to someone who actually wants to receive them), but most people admire his willingness to be transparent in order to avoid being blackmailed by a sleazebag. We are increasingly becoming more comfortable, or perhaps merely resigned, to the idea that “the Internet is always public and it is forever,” the modern equivalent of the old adage, “that which you do in the dark will ultimately be proclaimed in the light.”

Younger people especially seem to have a difficult time accepting when things are hidden. Having grown up in a culture where the whole of human knowledge may be accessed via a device that can be slid into a pants pocket, they look in askance on the idea that they can’t, or worse yet, shouldn’t know something. And the idea of universal accessibility also renders them resistant to the idea that being privy to certain kinds of knowledge requires a process by which they demonstrate their fitness to possess it.

This has implications for the Craft. And not just because of the increased pressure to “come out of the broom closet.”

Because there is, at bottom, power in being able to hide something from view. The ability to deny access to something is fundamentally an exercise of control over that thing. One of the most compact yet authoritative words in the english language is “No.” And the right to say it, and enforce it, is significant. And being able to say “no” is an essential element of creating anything that purports to be sacred in any way.

Consider again the issue of public and private, this time through the lens of the power of no. The ability to maintain certain spaces, certain information, certain objects as being “private” is governed mostly by your ability to exclude others from their use. Indeed, this is one of the tests courts use to figure out who legally owns property when ownership is in dispute — who has asserted their right to exclude others from the property’s use and have they actually enforced it? In copyright and trademark cases especially, failure to defend your creative property when others try to use them can lead to them being declared public domain, and free for anyone to use.

In the Internet age, there is a massive amount of information about paganism and witchcraft available online for anyone to use. It is one reason why paganism is one of the fastest growing religions in the United States — before if you wanted to find a local group, or a teacher, you had to get lucky and meet someone who was already involved who could share with you the meeting times and places. Now, a few words to Alexa or keystrokes in Google and you can usually turn up reasonably good information about which pagan groups are active in your community. More and more of our lore as witches is readily available as well. Indeed, the increased exposure of who we are and what we do as witches has led to some interesting issues with people outside our community misunderstanding our words and our ways. It is possible at this point to be a fully digital witch — acquiring all the things you need to practice the Craft using information you find online. While I would really recommend against doing that for a lot of reasons, it IS possible. There are many things that are no longer secret about the Craft.

When witches perform magic in secret, it is in part because discovery would be dangerous to us. But it is also because secrecy, excluding outsiders from the knowledge and access to what we do, gives those actions power and weight. It would be easy to dismiss this power as vanity — after all, does being initiated into some super secret degree of witchcraft by a group really DO anything? The worth of the witch is not in his or her cords, but in the magic they wield, isn’t it? We’ve all met that witch who seems way too enamored of telling you they are the High Priestess of such and such, initiated by so and so, as a way of asserting her superiority, and we’ve all rolled our eyes at her cluelessness. But then again, dangling bits of knowledge in front of someone as a way to impress them isn’t actually keeping it secret, is it?

The fact that something is not secret does not mean that it cannot be sacred, but even sacredness requires the ability to exclude the profane. The definition of the word “sacred” is “that which is dedicated and set apart for a specific use or activity.” When we as pagans create sacred space, or dedicate objects to a specific sacred use, inherent in that act is the exclusion of other activities and uses. We are exercising the power of no — banishing that which is not to the purpose in order to make what happens in the space or with the object more intensely fit for the one purpose we intend. But if sacredness provides more intensity, then secrecy ups the ante even more. When we make certain rites and knowledge available only to certain people, we imbue those articles with more intensity as well. When we do a working that is solely between us and the powers of the Universe, the resonance of that is still more powerful. To reveal the secret is to sap its power, and the more times you do it, the more it drains away.

Holding onto a secret requires energy too. The constant care of secret knowledge — keeping it set apart on a day to day basis, keeping it hidden — that’s a lot of work. That’s why professional secret keepers like spies and undercover cops recommend that if you must tell a lie, make it as close to the truth as possible, because keeping up appearances, and thereby concealing truth is a lot of work. Sacredness and secrets — the acts of holding something apart and holding something hidden — require extra energy on your part to keep them going. In cases where the secret is a traumatic one, say, a history of abuse, or where the secret is one that injures someone if revealed, keeping it in is highly destructive, and letting it go becomes a necessary element of healing. In the case of sacred secrets, the energy of the sacred can make the act of keeping something secret an opportunity to resonate at a higher level, but even that has a cost.

Because the ultimate power of the secret and the sacred, the power of no, is about separation. Remember, to make something sacred is to set it apart. And to make something secret is to put it out of reach, hidden from view of others. And in keeping secrets, in holding something sacred, one is choosing to separate themselves from the people around them in a fundamental way. And we as humans tend to do poorly when isolated. (Yes, that goes even for you introverts.) We are creatures of community, and we thrive on intimacy. Setting yourself apart is to go against that grain. It should come as no surprise by now that power, particularly the magical kind, comes at a price.

A believer in magic and justice and the right to be exactly as you are. Anything passing for wisdom here is likely the product of surviving my own stupidity.