Bullying, Caretaking and Community

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And there is no peace, no true release
No secret place to crawl
And there is no rest for the ones God blessed
And he blessed you best of all.
—”King of Bohemia,” by Richard Thompson

By happy coincidence, this song lyric allows me to continue from my last post on those among us who are many-skilled, while helping me frame an assortment of thoughts I have been tossing around for a few weeks now.

Last month I wrote, “As a society, we cope uneasily with the fact that gifts and talents are not evenly distributed among the population.” Seeing someone in action who is incredibly talented can be inspiring, and it can also make us feel acutely our comparative lack of that talent or skill.

Because they are so good at some stuff, we often build up as leaders those who are gifted—especially if what they are good at includes speaking, writing or performance. Sometimes they even become spokespeople for entire communities formed around their ideas and aspirations. This is especially true in spiritual communities, where all too often the emotional release of a great performance is mistaken for genuine enlightenment or transformation. In this game, the ones with the most charisma usually win.

And what do they win? Power. We listen to them, we defer to their opinions, we assume they are right until we are forced to disagree with them—often through painful experience. Meanwhile, we trust them to guide us and keep the community’s well-being foremost in their minds as they go about leading things.

But being comfortable with power has very little to do with being a good leader. And sometimes those who like the power we’ve given them feel the most trapped by the responsibilities of actual leadership. One could almost say victimized.

Hearing these Richard Thompson lyrics in the car the other day reminded me how those moments feel. You give it your all, and still you get criticized. Blamed when things go wrong, sneered at by those who used to hang on your every word. Every parent knows this feeling—and if you haven’t felt it yet, just wait. :)

So much depends on exactly how we rise from this spot. Our response at this precise moment determines whether we truly are leaders, or just despots. If we lash out because we are tired, or pissed, or had a bad day, or even if we truly feel that nobody should ever question us, we have set in motion a bullying/caretaking dynamic from which our community may never recover.

Here’s how the bullying/caretaking game goes: Someone realizes that the person at the top isn’t leading well, and says so. The leader retaliates by participating (or in some cases being the instigator) in trashing the person who speaks out. Policy issues are re-framed as personality clashes, with the whistle-blower now characterized as gunning for one of the leader’s favored deputies rather than voicing a legitimate concern. The pile-on continues until the person who originally spoke out is either bullied into silence or driven out.

This is old news to anyone who’s read my book on Reclaiming, a community where I have watched this dynamic play out more than once. I’m kind of tired of thinking about it, and I’m definitely tired of writing about it. But when I heard about the latest kerfuffle, what got me interested enough to write again was the other side of the bullying/caretaking equation: the caretakers.

Caretakers are the peacemakers in the group. They strive to help everyone get along, they tend to avoid conflict, and they are so aligned with the group’s ideals that they will put up with a significant amount of less-than-ideal behavior to get to the good parts again. Usually they do a lot of volunteer work to keep community events running smoothly. They often have great leadership skills but may be more comfortable in a secondary role, so are happy to cede the limelight to the natural performers.

Caretakers find support and friendship in the group, and this benefit usually trumps their periodic misgivings. But caretakers are not completely altruistic. So long as they stay peacekeepers while others get trashed, they do accrue some power without having ultimate responsibility to lead.

And the benefits of the role can be significant. If your livelihood is dependent on the clients or students you gain from the group, why would you risk that income source to speak out? What could possibly compel you to try to change the group dynamic, if failure meant financial struggle or open conflict with your friends?

It is quite possible to be a caretaker until you are financially stable enough, or have a strong enough support network outside the group, to leave. Or, if you live far enough away from the epicenter, it may require only occasional gymnastics to stay out of the fray while building your network at a safe distance.

Changing the DNA of an established community is a daunting task. Because each role is dependent on the other, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to reverse the cycle. Leaders who don’t see the harm in lashing out have to actually listen, and begin the hard inner work of changing their patterned responses. Caretakers have to step out of their comfort zones and use their power to stop the cycle in spite of the personal risks.

Or, nothing can change. Caretakers will keep things running, while a new crop of gifted people sees the model of leadership in place and figures their performance skills are up to the job. Sadly, no one is there to teach them otherwise.

7 thoughts on “Bullying, Caretaking and Community

  1. Charlotte Allen

    This article explains a lot about leadership – turns out that narcissism may be the most important factor in determining who becomes a leader:


    Anne Reply:

    Yup. And for those of you keeping track at home, narcissism is the death of community—install narcissists in positions of power and watch your thriving group dwindle to a very small band of caretakers.

  2. Pitch313

    I suspect (more and more) that the leadership/followership skill sets that we learn from the bigger surrounding culture are, in fact, less appropriate to and within alternative communities and movements than I used to imagine. And I used to imagine that they weren’t all that appropriate.

    It’s almost as if we have to go back to scratch. Only we really can’t. But if we don’t, we get far less an alternative than we aim for.

    Magic and the communities that grow up around it are about Change. They do, I think, motivate Change and bring about Change. Including Change in the leadership/followership dynamic. But they also, because the participants come from the bigger surrounding culture, fear, resist, and subvert Change.

    What’s more, I’m not really saying that we shouldn’t fear. resist, or subvert Change. I’m more saying that The Way Things Are has to Change whether we enjoy it or not! Magic!

    Anne Reply:

    Well Pitch, I’d like to agree with you but that ship has flown…about 15 years ago by my estimation. People are social animals, and every collective dream has its own hierarchies.

    I use leader/caretaker instead of leader/follower, because that’s how the relationship feels. Caretakers aren’t blind or passive followers but they are not leaders, and many don’t have any interest in the job. And every group does need leadership, whether it’s a person, a couple, or a circle.

    Our brains perceive power and status, and the best we’ve been able to do sometimes is use identity politics to invert the equation. The hierarchy remains, though it only gets really destructive when you add narcissists to the mix. But that’s another damn story.

  3. Fox

    I have been following the kerfuffles of Reclaiming lately, largely because of the lack of motivation in ‘real life affairs’ on the part of my personal community. Which is to say, that I was looking for a possible different home where personal direct action was considered part of self-actualization and the physical manifestation of what is termed magick. I have since learned, that outside my cloistered BTW/TIW world, the same problems are happening everywhere. Forgive me if I deem all this superficial in the eye of the storm, but I can’t help but feel that Pagans are losing touch as they become way overindulged in their personal bull. This might be because I returned to Wicca from Reconstructionism (20 years of reading academia), but I can’t help but believe that we’ve just got way too caught up in ourselves, at the cost of what is actually important to community, the environment and the evolution of Paganism in general.

    The reason I am commenting is not to critique the community, as a WHOLE, for forgetting that in the wake of our personal discomfort that we can’t always rework the framework of Paganism into a personal self satisfying vision of our egos – but to relate the lyrics of “King Of Bohemia” to my own personal situation… Weird, huh?

    I have just severed, amicably, my relationship with my personal teacher who suffers from CFS. These lyrics were about as true of any I could apply to her, and my wife and I commented that it was almost as if the lyrics were crafted around her life of reaching for an almost unattainable height of brilliance and then crumbling under the disease. It is amazing the depth, and interpretations, of Thompson’s lyrics when you actually consider your own experiences with other humans. In my own life, as a musician and a human, I have found more resonance with the words of secular musicians (Thompson is, however, a Sikh – though that rarely shows through) than in the chants and incantations of Pagan ones. Primarily because they deal with our conditions and the universal truths of that.

    So, in short, bravo for Thompson! Boo to egotism and hierarchical narcissism.

    Anne Reply:

    Well said, Fox. As a musician myself, and as the person who coined the term “Pagan music” and then educated the Pagan community about it for many years, I have thought a great deal about what makes a song resonate deeply within the psyche and affect the culture at large. Lyrics like these that evoke complex emotional states with great beauty, have a transformative power no matter what the religion of their author. I’m glad they gave you the opportunity to comment on your own life. They certainly did a number on me. :)

    Fox Reply:

    I’m a musician as well, and it does make you pay attention to the resonances a little deeper. That song just shakes me down to my core :)

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