My first hint that Wicca was intended as a happy path came over a year after I’d started down it: my not-terribly dour Christianity at some point morphed into a not-terribly dour but quite serious approach to what I considered to be my intended path. I started off because of my strong beliefs about natural stewardship (Christian terms to denote my still-Christian thinking at the time) and, in moments of raw honesty, because Wicca showed me a chance of clearing the icky energy around my then-dismal love life. I didn’t find the Charge of the Goddess until I got my hands on some Doreen Valiente lurking in my university library’s shelves. ((This was in 1996, well before the neopagan mini-Renaissance.)) I saw the Charge of the Goddess my very first time online, sometime after I encountered the commands of the Magus (now often renamed the Witches’ Pyramid.) That was the first place I read, “Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals. Let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you.”
Because, for all my levity I am and was a rather serious soul, I took this not as the call to pleasures aplenty, but as a serious responsibility to embrace joy thoughtfully. Perhaps this is why I never quite plug in with the ecstatic movement, much as I’d like to. From what I recall as to my first thoughts about this was, “This is in the divine voice,” followed with, “Oh, so gay people are totally OK then.” ((It was an issue I’d been wrestling with at the time.))
What appealed to me was how the happiness was balanced. It wasn’t just a hedonic fest, but in fact something much deeper, balanced, and allowing for reason.
It didn’t occur to me that happiness rated highest among those values.
About six months after that, a coven came to visit the new witches at Mankato State and to impart a little bit of knowledge to us. While I don’t remember much about it – one guy who couldn’t quite draw an inverted pentacle, and thinking that they were sweet people – one young man was recently divorced and clearly struggling. He said something like “Following your bliss does not mean abandoning your responsibilities.” These were clearly the words of a man in need of help, feeling lost. I did not know anything about Joseph Campbell at the time.
But, as I learned, “following your bliss” was essentially the same as “Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law.” ((Thelema, not Wicca, but sometimes gets muddled in by eclectics.)) Finding what truly brings happiness is a long, difficult journey, and while it’s by no means a “do whatever you want,” as to get to what you truly want always requires at least some impulse-control, it is in fact a responsibility. You are responsible to doing right by yourself. You may never achieve happiness, but you are responsible to yourself to pursue it.
Clearly, responsibility is a BIG core of my own values, and I like to think is among other neopagans as well.
In my case, I avoided taking responsibility for myself by placing my perceived responsibility to others above my own needs. I did not really want to marry anyone, ever. But I was in love (really.) When I found myself disappointed by my spouse, I usually pushed it aside. I told myself to accept that people don’t change (still true) but since I’d committed, I had to see this through – so on some level I was also slut-shaming myself. My family disapproved of cohabitation, so I pushed up the wedding. My mother was concerned I wasn’t married or “serious” at the same age she was. ((She is, like many mothers that lack self-awareness, often frustrated that I have not and will not live her life or follow in her footsteps.)) I also had the serious issue of finishing college looming before me, and my two-three jobs alone were not going to pay for it. I was actually in a very unhappy situation, and did not enter the marriage with the love and joy that you’re supposed to.
So, at the time of my divorce, I found myself in a dilemma: I took all those vows. But I was also miserable. There was not making mirth or feeling joy. I chose constantly between the needs of my passive-aggressively demanding spouse or my own; when I chose my own – or actually, just conceded to the relentless demands of my job – I was greeted with dishes to wash, a home I’d cleaned messed up or my ex, inert before a video game. While all was minor by itself, factor in 16 hour days while trying to get a graduate degree and it was stressful to the point of unfair. With children it would have gone right into the unseemly.
When I finally, after a heartbreaking day, let my soul speak to my husband instead of the social voice of his ever-tired wife, I found myself asking for a divorce. I was shocked to hear myself say it. But when I finally stilled, I needed something so badly that it outranked my vows, my perceived responsibilities, even my relentless job. I needed to be happy. And to be happy, I had to leave.
Divorce did not lead to instant happiness. It took years. While I’m happy now, it was not an easy journey and still takes vigilance and time out to truly listen to myself. I’ve found that happiness is not the same as years of hedonistic responsibility. To be able to listen to yourself demands care of yourself and others, because it’s when you get sucked down into negative patterns – all too often in the pursuit of short-term pleasure – you lose the ability to genuinely hear yourself.
It wasn’t just my ex that was forced to struggle with my own path to happiness: I was always trying to do something to bring happiness to another person, falsely convinced happiness would return to me. My efforts were always taken advantage of, but in truth, no one was going to give back what I wanted, and I realized that half my problem was that I was unable to actually verbalize what I wanted. I didn’t know how to ask for happiness. The people around me instinctively knew that, and most dropped me or were dropped by me as my personal development brought me to a place where I could truly ask for what I need.
So happiness is an inner value, where sometimes we struggle against our urges but most of the time we fight for them – because it’s not just smiling and clapping your hands. Happiness is work, and that’s what makes it a valid value.
Note: Thorn Coyle also wrote an ecstatic perspective on joy. It’s much shorter, more pagan-writing traditional and well worth the read.