It is worth saying at the outset that truly, deeply, my heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones, friends, and a sense of safety in the tragedy in Orlando that spawned this post. My altar is bright for you, as it is bright of us all.
There are things that happen that make no sense. They defy the words we have to offer, and the comfort we wish to share. They break our hearts, and they beat down our spirits. When you cannot think of anything to do
, it is even harder to think of something to say
When awful things happen to a community we are not a part of, but are allied with, it becomes even more complicated: how do you speak to a community that is hurting without speaking for them, and silencing them in the process?
I've spent a lot of time considering these questions. I don't know that I have all the answers, but I think that I've come to a place where I grok a sembalance of some answers, mostly as they relate to the work I do as an ADF Priest.
There are often discussions in online fora about the "need" for Pagan clergy, for Priests, and for institutionalized training. Generally, as a priest in ADF
, I come down on the side of "people don't require
priests for much of anything, theologically." Anyone from the eldest of elders to the most novice of beginners has the inherent ability to access the divine, and that's a cornerstone of my theology, actually.
But there are times when having skilled priests becomes an advantage. It's good to have a priest when you get married, for example, or when your child is born, or when you die. There, priests are certainly useful, even if you can probably do all the things you need to do yourself (except for that pesky "your own funeral" part). There's a subset of the "skills one learns when learning to be a priest" that can perhaps be best described as "making your important life event less of a clusterfuck."
It's not a course you take or get credit for. It's just something you learn through a weird combination of experience, coursework, and through being there for others over time. It's a valuable thing, a worthwhile thing; that's why most priests charge for weddings and funerals: the ability to have someone else handle the details and not screw things up has value and utility to folks.
But what that skillset does is prepare you in ways you never expected for things that no one should ever have to expect in life. When tragedy strikes, we are the ones who are expected to have words, to have actions, and to have ways of transmitting something meaningful in a world seemingly gone mad.
And that has been happening far too often recently.
I mentioned above, I don't think that I, as an ADF Priest, am necessarily uniquely
qualified to do these sorts of things. But through experience and work, I've found that there are ways to interact with tragedy that help people come together, rather than fall apart.
None of this is perfect, or easy, or even necessarily something you can duplicate more than once. But I want to share some of the ways I work to help others when something large happens, because I think it's important, and I think it's something I can learn more from explaining, and hopefully others can learn more about by reading.I will also point out that I was not at all very good at this when I began my work as clergy. I was, in fact, terrible. I still think I'm not really very good at this, but I also think that no one is very good at this: the people who appear to be are just more practiced in their process.
There are a few things I have picked up on in the process of working for individuals that have been important to carry forward into my work for larger groups, trying to help others through grief and fear. These are what I consider the starting point for any attempt to act as priest in a moment of tragedy, whether personal or international in nature:
- Read up on "things not to say to people who are grieving" - Seriously, I'll wait. Here are a couple of resources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (Trigger Warning: if you've recently gone through a grieving process, some of these might be hard to read because they are insensitive). The act of reading through those lists will do more for your ability to speak with meaningful support than anything else, because those lists are full of people speaking backhanded compliments, minimizing the person's feelings, and turning someone else's tragedy into their own. And why are the lists so similar? Because people keep saying these things. Break the cycle.
- Act on the information you know is true, not on speculation or gossip - Never approach someone with an assumption that you know what's going on. You don't have to know details to offer support, and you don't have to make an assumption about what a person is going through to tell them you're there for them. Also, don't assume hard data tells the whole story: people have broad circles, and it's not just people in France who were affected by the Paris attacks last November, for instance. Also, don't post about someone's death until you're certain of two things: 1) they've actually passed, and 2) their family has all been notified.
- Work on formulas, and develop a practice for tragedy - When it comes to people who have personal tragedies, the internet norm is to comment "*hugs*" and move on. You might reach out via a private message, or post something a bit longer if you know the person well. Know this: that person will get a lot of social media messages, and they can seem empty when they are all the same. Build a practice for this sort of thing. Mine is not complicated, but it's personal and meaningful: I often light a candle, take a picture, and send it to the person with a note letting them know it's for them. Because it is personal and meaninful, it lets the person know that they are special, and that their cares and feelings matter.
- Value the person experiencing the tragedy - They reach out because whatever the tragedy is (and whatever your understanding of the level of "tragedy" in this case), it's real to them. Even if you think it's a "first world problem," look at it through their eyes. Don't devalue the tragedy and devalue the person at the same time.
- Choose which tragedies you can respond to, and how deeply you can respond - This is the hardest bit of advice. If you reach out and say, "If you need anything, I'm here," and then you go on a fishing trip and don't check your email, you've done worse than if you had not reached out at all. We all have a capacity to deal with a certain amount, and if you can't manage this level of tragedy, let someone else handle it. If the person reaches out to you directly for support and you can't handle it, that's okay. Have a place to refer them to, and be clear that you value them, but you cannot manage it right now. If you can't handle it, you need to outsource it, or risk making the problem worse.
On a personal level, these things are small, meaningful gestures. What I've been very surprised about recently is how well they scale for large groups of people, and how well they can reach people when applied well. But trying to share things broadly has some pitfalls, too:
- Create something easy to share - I want to be clear: this isn't about popular posts, or shares or likes or reblogs. Those are metrics and data that can help you understand how helpful your post is, but that's all they are. What this is about is crafting something that people can take action and ownership over, and giving them something they can control. Text is hard to share; graphics are easy. Video requires attention to tragedy, something a lot of people don't want to do. Rememer that lit candle? Look at what I did above for both Paris and Orlando. Paris was a Snapchat photo, saved and uploaded to Facebook and Tumblr. Orlando was a few candles on my altar. What you do doesn't have to be elaborate and staged. It just has to show action and provide a light in the darkness.
- Keep your theme on point - Simple messaging is key. In the 24-hour news cycle we have, it's impossible to have all the details when you first want to say something. Speak to the value of those affected, and avoid specific detail (with most tragedies, death tolls fluctuate wildly in the first 24 hours, and so do motives and understandings of whether the tragedy is over or still ongoing). If your message contains too many details, the fact that you care will get lost in them. Your first and most important theme? "I care. You're valuable. We're in this together." (If you can't honestly say those things, don't post about it.)
- Be timely - If you let the sun set on a tragedy, you're likely moving too slowly. Temper this with the knowledge that you can't always respond to everything, because there is too much. It's okay not to provide words for absolutely everything. By the same token, don't rush something out to "beat the crowd." Be considerate and careful about what you say.
- Recognize that sometimes, someone else says it better - It's okay for an ADF Priest to "say something" by reblogging another Priest's post, or even to reblog another church's (Pagan or not) post on a tragedy if it says what you wish you could say. Lean on others who have experience and voice, because, frankly, none of us has enough experience (or enough words) to speak to every tragedy, and there are no rivalries worth fighting over when tragedy strikes. There's no need for every person to speak, in their own words, about every tragedy. Simply put, we can't do that. And that's okay.
- Don't talk over the victims - Don't assume your post, your condolences, or your words will resolve the problem for everyone, or that it will cover every need. Check in with people in the area. Discuss with someone from that community. Make sure your statement gives ample space for their statement.
- Make more than one post, when appropriate - If you're going to be both timely and on point, you might miss details that come out later. There's nothing saying that two or three days later, you can't put out another prayer or thought on the event: one that is more informed, more direct, and that speaks to the issues that have been raised in the intervening time. See below, for my second post about Paris, as an example of how different a "first post" and "followup post" might be. The first post allowed me to get something out that was simple and effective, and the second one allowed me to spend some time. Both were helpful to a lot of people, each in their own way.
These are a few lessons i've learned about this "Helping Others With Tragedy" thing. Again, it's hard. It's practically impossible. It's stupid and dumb and we shouldn't have to do this, not in a sane world. But the power of being there for each other is immense.
I care. You're valuable. We're in this together.
May your fire burn brightly.