Readers of Barking Shaman are familiar with my questioning of identity. The very first BS post was about the hard-to-define nature of my personal identity.
As I have written about before, most notably in “Undercover :-)” the eclectic nature of my life makes my interactions with other people simultaneously easy and hard. In this essay, I’ll be looking at that subject from a different perspective.
“Outsider” is a word that has defined my sense of self to some degree or another for my entire life. It is a role in society that had become familiar to me before the spooky shit even became a notable part of who I am. Being the barking guy sets one out as different pretty quickly. Being the barking, overweight, nerdy, gay (and flaming) guy takes that to a whole new level. Once the gods got involved it went to another level still.
However, even before the spooky crap, I discovered that there is a real power to being on the outside. Being the flaming barking kid added a new set of social complications, but it also removed a significant number of social pressures as well. Once the option of fitting in is no longer on the table there is really no obstacle to being you. If some of my friends in high school enjoyed my company because of the novelty of being around someone who regularly screamed about Flying Penis Man in the mall, well there were many more who just liked that I pretty much had no need to try to hide who I was.
Once the gods got involved though, things got far more complex. Even in a historical context, the shaman is almost always an outsider. The title of this post is a reference to the fact that in many tribal communities the shaman’s home was on the outskirts of the village far from other people’s homes. In my opinion, adjusting to this role is one of the most common reasons that people fail to make it through shaman sickness. Unfortunately, failing to make it through shaman sickness often involves dying or at least going totally bat-shit crazy.
Living where my family does (while being who we are), has gotten me thinking a good bit about the subject of being outsiders. The addition of several taboos, some specific to one or another of us, others applying to all three of us, have complicated our existence in Middle America. In the case of some of these taboos, I can clearly see their purpose beyond separating us out from other people, even though that is a side effect. Other taboos I suspect exist for the purpose of making us different. All this raises an interesting question, namely what is the specific spiritual value of “difference?”
I suppose that a fairer question would have been to ask whether there is a spiritual value to being an outsider. However, part of being a spirit worker is accepting that sometimes the gods know what they are doing. Since the condition in question seems to be so prevalent in both modern and historical traditions of spirit work, I’ll work from the perspective that there is some reason.
The first and foremost reason I believe that the universe makes us different from society is that if we are going to be doing spooky work it helps not to give a shit that we are doing weird spooky work. If the only way we were set apart was that we were doing spirit work we could easily come to resent the work for setting us apart. As this would be counter-productive from the perspective of the gods, it makes sense for us to be set apart in other ways as well.
Witness the prevalence of body modification in the spirit work community. A significant number of spirit workers I know or have worked with have in some way modified there bodies in the service of the gods. In my own case, I have tattoos, a brand on my leg, and stretched piercings. I can explain the spiritual reasons behind each mod. While tattoos are perhaps the most common body mod I have seen among spirit workers, they are far from the only ones. Most of the modified spirit workers I know are required by their patrons to explain the spiritual significance of their body mods if asked, further setting them apart. A permanent body modification also makes it harder to tell the universe to f-off and try to leave the spooky shit behind. Other ways I’ve seen spirit workers set apart include the prevalence of non-traditional professions, relationships, gender-identity, and sexual practices.
But aside from making it more palatable to be doing this weird spooky crap, is there power to be found in the role of the “outsider?” I think that there is. For one thing, many of us find ourselves in the position of ministering to other people. The outsider perspective can be a valuable tool in doing that kind of work. Being an outsider also makes it easier in my opinion to be honest with clients, even when being honest means being brutal. It can also be important to be recognized as “different” by people who come to us for spirit work. There aren’t any Master’s Degrees in being a shaman (none that count at least) yet people need to feel that a spirit worker is “qualified” the way that they expect their doctor or therapist to be qualified. Being perceived as different and spooky can in a strange way make people feel more comfortable and confident in our skills.
I’d like to put forth a theory though. I believe that being an outsider in society in one way or another makes the literal working with the spirits or gods easier. The non-human are the ultimate outsiders in society. Being already disconnected in some way from other people makes it easier to make the jump to working with the spirit world. I also think it makes us more trustworthy to the spirits. In a more specific example, the fact that as a shaman I am “dead” in some not-small part is an essential component for me in my interactions with the literal dead.
I believe that accepting the idea that being different has spiritual and magical value, rather than just being another difficult side effect of this kind of work, is essential to having a good attitude toward the work that the gods want done. Not that it is an easy thing to do. However, the gods have amply demonstrated their willingness to take options away. Witness the aforementioned taboos. As long being different is going to be a factor in many of our spiritual lives, we may as well work to see the bright side rather than engage in the mental and spiritual equivalent of closing our eyes, spreading our legs and thinking of England.