A juvenile possum investigates a potted barrel cactus. The cactus's spines are as long as the possum's snout, but the possum is undaunted and eager.

Balancing confidence against inexperience

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own (in)experience as a druid. That is, to use the language of educational research, I have a very unbalanced set of competencies. On the one hand, I am relatively new to my path: I began officially-to-myself exploring a pagan spiritual practice in January of 2013, and would not have described myself firmly as a practicing druid until a bit more than a year ago. I have, one might well say and rightly, a lot to learn. And yet, simultaneously, I have a rather large amount of relevant background: I’ve studied comparative religions, with a special interest in neopagan paths, on a hobbyist level for nearly two decades. I’ve been developing my ‘bardic’ skills (as we’d call them) both as an amateur and through formal education for almost my entire life. And thanks to to graduate degrees in the humanities, followed by continual immersion in that same environment as university staff, my ability to absorb and critically engage with large amounts of complex information operates at a fairly high pitch. The gap between my spheres of experience is marked, and I struggle to integrate these mismatched skillsets.

This disjunction became abundantly clear to me over the weekend. I attended an ADF member’s initiate rite (the Initiate’s Path within ADF is an intense, introspective journey that culminates in a triad of ordeals: an oral exam, a <something secret I’m not privy to>, and a solo ritual in between) and found myself deeply impressed with Emerald’s skills as a ritual practitioner and a philosopher of her path. Her responses to her examiners’ queries were honest and insightful — I’ll hope to bear in mind her expression of the IP as “learning to be priest to oneself” — and it was a treat to hear a more analytical discussion of another practitioner’s development. And then on the other side of the scholarly/practical coin, her ritual was beautifully composed and most ably performed. It was obviously deeply meaningful to Emerald, but she took great care to bring us with her; it never felt like voyeurism, but rather like an invitation into someone else’s spiritual home. It was a beautiful experience that I was honored to be privy to.

During a brief break between the exam and the ritual, I introduced myself to another associate of the Grove who I’d not met before, explaining that I was relatively new. She asked me how new I was to druidry, and, quite cognizant of the depth of experience I’d just listened to, I demurred by saying that I’d only just begun the Dedicant’s Path. She then responded by asking “oh, so have you decided yet on a hearth culture for focus?”

I was, to be honest, somewhat taken aback. I’m chagrined to say that I even felt a bit insulted: I was being modest, but I’m not some rank amateur! I have strong and evolving relationships with deities, I feel comfortable in ritual, I have complex understandings of the position of my particular path in reference to both the contemporary religio-societal sphere and to its predecessor traditions. Immediately, however, I corrected my own thinking. While it’s true that I have a good deal more knowledge and experience than her question implied, that was hardly her fault. My own self-diminishing response had set up the situation.

A fire burns in the middle of a wooded clearing, beneath a dark-blue evening sky. The author steps toward the first, arm outstretched, to pour a libation.
Pouring a libation to Apollo at Emerald’s initiate rite. Photo credit: Michael J Dangler

So I’ve been musing about how to square myself. I certainly don’t want to represent myself to others (nor to myself) as any kind of expert. Indeed, my learning process within ADF so far has served largely to clarify my understanding of the various avenues of learning that are completely dark to me right now. By the same token, however, I don’t serve myself or my community by failing to acknowledge the abilities and knowledge that I do have.

There isn’t an easy answer. The long-term solution is to keep with the work so that my experience can rise to better meet my capacity; eventually, the disparity between the two will shrink and stop being so damned frustrating. In the short term, I’ll try to stand by two of ADF’s core values: Integrity and Moderation. In being moderate, I remind myself to keep a lid on my self-importance, but also on my humility. I’ll try to approach the work with an air of openness: not assuming that I already know what there is to know about any particular topic, but also not pushing down my instincts to bring my knowledge and analysis to bear, to complicate and problematize ideas that seem too simple. I hope that openness can lead to an integrity about my place on this path, while also allowing me to push myself forward using the ability I’ve already put in so much time and effort to gain.

Header image: Crop of “possum10” by glenn_e_wilson/Flickr. (License: CC BY 2.0).
(Why a possum? Why not a possum, I ask you.)


One thought on “Balancing confidence against inexperience

  1. A complex subject, applicable to many realms of life. If I had to weigh confidence against experience in a “one or the other” scenario, I’d go with confidence every time. Confidence lays the groundwork for experience. A lifetime of experience, without the confidence to express it, might as well count for nothing.


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