Witchful Thinking: On Pedestals and Power and Unpleasant Ancestors

Every family tree, I don’t care who you are, has some bad apples on it.

Maybe you have an ancestor who was a slaveholder.

Maybe your grandfather sexually abused your mom.

Maybe one of your great uncles on your mom’s side was responsible for an accident that killed dozens of people.

You don’t get to choose the accident of your birth and therefore you are stuck with your ancestors, such as they are. And by stuck with them, I mean that somewhat literally. Families have traditions, patterns of established behavior that are not always positive. Abuse, both physical and emotional, often gets passed down from parent to child. But it may even be more than that. We are just now seeing in DNA research that “generational trauma” might be a real thing — that ancestors who experience trauma might pass on negative impacts to their children. The Bible talks about the sins of the father being visited upon the children, and apparently that’s not just a pretty turn of phrase.

And just as even very nice upstanding families will have problematic people lurking about the family tree, organizations and groups of people often have unpleasant memories of past members, even past leaders. Thomas Jefferson may be a founding father of our country and an advocate for American freedom, yet he owned slaves, had sex with Sally Hemmings, who was enslaved to him, and fathered six children with her. Industrialist Henry Ford may have started the auto industry, and built Detroit into a mecca for cars, but he was also a notorious anti-Semite, accepting an award from Adolf Hitler himself. Father Bruce Ritter, the much lauded founder of Covenant House in 1972 as a safe house for runaway teens, who was praised by Presidents, resigned in ignominy when it was discovered he may have had inappropriate relationships with as many as 15 of the teens under his care.

Instances like this, where people who on the outside appear to be good leaders do reprehensible things, create a lot of confusion as those who come after them decide what to do with their clouded legacy.

Paganism too, has its fair share of founding fathers and mothers who carry the baggage of reprehensible behavior. Most recently, the druidic organization Ár nDraíocht Féin severed all ties to its founder, Isaac Bonewits, after evidence surfaced he may have molested multiple children. Bonewits was a well-noted magician even beyond ADF, and he died in 2010. ADF’s decision, even though made posthumously, was a conscious one to eliminate him from their collective legacy. Though I’ve read Bonewits’s work and found it useful, I am not an ADF member and didn’t know Bonewits personally. I offer his example not to cast any judgement on the situation and what was done, but rather merely to note that it happened.

Bonewits certainly isn’t the first instance of a noted pagan leader demonstrating they have feet of clay. And paganism as a movement doesn’t stand alone in having leaders fall from grace on the regular, even in such a spectacularly bad way. Abusing your power is a thing that can happen when one acquires power, and it matters little whether that power is spiritual, political, economic, physical, or social. Power, no matter how it is obtained and what form it takes, often attracts awful people who are willing to abuse it for their own ends. Yes, I’m looking at you, Harvey Weinstein. You too, Mr. Hate Yam living in the big white house in the District of Columbia.

And it doesn’t have to rise to the level of criminality to be upsetting. In some ways, clear instances of abuse of power are easy to deal with. Once you find out that someone is the kind of person who harms children, or embezzles money, or abuses a spouse, or is a white supremacist or some other awful thing, it’s pretty easy to know what to do about it. Such people need to be stripped of their power, immediately and without fanfare. One need not lose sleep about doing so. The only thing about which to feel any chagrin is how much damage they may have been able to do before you figured out what they were.

Where it gets tricky is when a usually trusted leader’s behavior is harmful, but either not intentional or simply not as bad as all that. Betrayals come in all shapes and sizes. The only sure thing about them is that they WILL come. That’s because being a disappointment to your fellow man is part and parcel of being human. It is one of the few inevitabilities in life, alongside death and taxes.

When I have had occasion to offer leadership advice to people,(or rather, when people have made the mistake of asking my advice on leadership) the advice goes something like this:

If you undertake a position of leadership, where you are being looked to as someone to emulate, or someone to provide direction, then you need to face the fact that you are doomed. Yes, I said it. You are DOOMED to failure.

Let me explain.

You are being placed in a position where people have expectations of you. And they should. You are being put in a place apart, and maybe even slightly above. You are being singled out as being the example, the one whose wisdom is supposed to guide and inform. Congratulations, you have officially been placed on a pedestal.

Now that we have you up there, we’re going to start expecting things from you. Some of those things you’re going to be very aware of and agree that we have a right to expect of you. For instance, if you are the High Priestess of a coven, we’ll expect you to do High Priestess type things like lead rituals and organize Sabbat celebrations, or at the very least designate someone else to do it if you don’t. That’s only fair. It’s kinda part of the job description.

But some of the expectations we will have of you will be things we haven’t shared with you. That’s because they are part of our own personal understanding of who we think our leaders ought to be. Those personal understandings are usually a curious mashup of idealized cherished notions from books and tv and history, avoiding bad experiences we’ve had with leaders in the past (or emulating good ones), and subconscious feelings that we barely acknowledge.

And the awful part about those personal understandings is that not only can we barely articulate to you what they are, they will in fact vary wildly from person to person. The thirteen members of your coven probably have between them more than thirty-five significant expectations of you as their High Priestess that they can actually name, even more that they can’t, and many of those expectations will stand in direct contradiction to each other.

For example, one covener might expect their High Priestess to be incredibly transparent about everything they do and the decisions they make, while another will expect their High Priestess to have that witchy air of mystery and inscrutability that makes them compelling. One covener will expect that their High Priestess should be deeply involved in the emotional lives of their students, while another will want their High Priestess to give them emotional space and privacy. No matter how you choose to do it, you can bet your life that at some point, someone is going to think you’re doing it wrong.

And we haven’t even gotten to the part where you’re a human being with human frailties who doesn’t always do everything perfectly. Even if we could narrow the universe of expectations people will have of you down to something concise and consistent that a normal human might actually be able to do, the thing is, humans mess up. We make mistakes. We try things and succeed, but sometimes we try and fail. Because that’s what humans do. And at no point in this process of placing you on this pedestal did anyone make you superhuman. Nope, you got put up there with all your humanity and accompanying capacity for fucking things up intact.

So at some point during your time on that pedestal, it is an absolute, stone cold guarantee that you will fail to meet someone’s expectations of you as a leader. Maybe because you messed up. Maybe because the person’s expectations were simply impossible for anyone to meet. It doesn’t matter how it happens, because no matter how it came to pass, the person you disappoint will feel that disappointment keenly. All they will know is that you have failed them.

What distinguishes good leaders from bad ones is not whether they fail the people they lead (because they will inevitably do so), but what they do in response to that failure. Do they acknowledge their shortcomings and instances where their behavior fell short? Do they acknowledge the harm they cause and try to repair it? Do they encourage people to hold them accountable for their words and actions? Do they work to improve themselves and do better when mistakes are pointed out to them? Do they readily acknowledge their humanity and the possibility they might be wrong? The question is never IF you will disappoint those you are leading, but what happens WHEN you do.

Which means that collectively, we all need to get over ourselves a little bit.

Those who are in power, who find themselves placed on pedestals have to work hard to make sure they are being realistic about their failures and their foibles. They have to not let that place on the pedestal go to their heads. They have to be willing to be held accountable when they inevitably fail. The idea that leaders need that kind of humility is widely understood.

But what is often less understood is that those who are looking up to people on pedestals need to put away the hero-worship and get real about the fact that their leaders are not perfect. Leaders will always, inevitably fail them. Those expectations that we carry around with us of who we think the people we look up to ought to be are more than a little unfair. Our insistence that leaders must be flawless angels who never disappoint us puts those who attempt to lead others in an impossible bind, where they are being set up to fail. And when the inevitable happens and they show that they are, in fact, human, we punish them for that humanity, instead of seeing the moment as an opportunity for them to demonstrate the very human capacity to learn and do better.

None of this is to say that reprehensible behavior should be tolerated or that people should get endless second chances. Because accountability for one’s actions means accepting consequences. When you fuck up, there’s a price to be paid for that. And if you keep fucking up, that price ought to keep going up. Leadership is ultimately about taking responsibility for yourself and the people you lead. But not every failure requires we “cancel’ someone. We can impose consequences without imposing social exile on someone. We can impose real consequences that demonstrate the seriousness with which we take their failure, yet still leave room for a person to demonstrate they can and have learned their lesson.

Which leaves us with the challenge of leaders who are dead and gone, who may or may not have been held responsible for their behavior in life, but whose soiled legacies potentially taint us as their descendants. We cannot deny their existence. They are not alive and so visiting consequences on them for their failures is a more complicated proposition. We are stuck with our ancestors, such as they are. Like all our leaders, they have failed us. The question is not whether our legacies have been tainted, but rather how much and in what way. And it is therefore up to us to face that unpleasant ancestor’s legacy head on, to acknowledge its existence, its potential ramifications, and decide what, if anything we owe to those who come after.

Because there is one solid truth in the midst of all of this: whatever legacy we received, in whatever condition it arrived, is now ours to manage. We did not choose what we got. But we are damn sure responsible for what we do with it while it’s in our hands. We cannot shrug our shoulders and pretend that because it was not of our personal making we may ignore it as irrelevant. Once a legacy passes into our hands, the condition we leave it in with those that come after us is very much on us.

What dealing with an ancestor’s troubled legacy looks like will vary from situation to situation. When it comes to things left us by those who have gone before, who has inherited what and what must be done about it can get very confusing very quickly. There are no formulas here, no pat answers. The only sure thing is that whatever we do, at some point, in some way we’ll probably disappoint somebody. And if we are to judge ourselves, it’s not on what our ancestors did (we didn’t choose that). It’s not about our all but guaranteed failure (we don’t get to choose that either). It’s about the only thing we ever get to choose — what are we going to do next?

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