Monday, June 18, 2012

The Big Damn Hero Takes a Holiday

In the reasonably near future, I'll be taking the first 'real' vacation of my adult life.  It will only be three days long, but it's remarkable in the following things:

  1. I am going somewhere I have never gone before.
  2. I have determined my itinerary and my schedule entirely around what I want to do.
  3. I am traveling alone.
  4. This is not a family visit or a road trip someplace or a weekend off with friends to go to a wedding/gathering/whatever.
  5. I am not, by any definition of the word, working on this trip.

That last is kind of the big thing, for me.  Since 1996, I have been attending pagan festivals almost every year, taking up the vast majority of my available travel and vacation through work.  And since 1997, I haven't attended a festival I didn't work at least ten hours at.  Even when I moved to Texas and planned to attend my first festival at which I'd do only the basic community service needed of me, I found myself drafted into patrolling for the Guardians my first night.  When I drove back up to Kansas and planned a non-working festival, I still found myself doing dishes at 3am, carrying jump bags for the medics, and dealing with the usual slate of festival problems.

To be clear:  I do not at all regret my choice to give up that time and that energy.  It's an incredible experience, and it speaks to something deep inside me when I am able to walk into a difficult situation, calm everyone down, figure out a solution, and help everyone have a better day than they were having.  Knowing that people trust and rely upon my team for their safety and their festival experience is important to me.  But I've come to realise in the last few years that I am at a crossroads.  I can choose to be the person who always puts duty first, no matter what, or I can begin working to balance duty and my own life experience.

Over the last 15 years, I've watched a lot of people I love wrestle with this choice, and with its fallout.  I've seen good men and women burn out trying to live an image they couldn't possibly sustain.

In the pagan community, and especially in the Safety community, there is an almost hero-worship that develops around those who choose to serve.  I understand the impulse, honestly.  In many communities, especially those where Safety is an insular group, you only see a Guardian when things are going badly for you.  Into your crisis comes this person who seems to know what to do, who smooths everything and makes it better.  She is calm, collected, confident.  There is a desire, when that has happened, to view this person as 'better-than'.  Big Damn Heroes, as it were.  And there is sometimes a desire to reward that person with what you can give.  Here, have some of my cookies.  I have brought you coffee.  Hey, come to my shop and let me give you a discount.  Hey, you wanna come back to my tent?

We joke about it in training, that people will occasionally offer you gifts or food or sexual favors, and we try to instill in newbie Guardians the notion that we don't do what we do for that.  We tell them, "If someone wants to share what they have with you, then appreciate that and be grateful for your place in a close-knit community, but never fall into the trap of thinking you *deserve* that treatment."

The obvious reason for that part of training is to keep our team from abusing its position of respect.  The less-obvious reason for it is that it's a trapping of the Big Damn Hero status, and we're none of us able to live that full-time, even for the ten days a year we're in that space.  I've seen so many good men and women (on Safety teams, on Boards of Directors, in High Priest/Priestess positions) create larger-than-life identities, characters of constant duty and perfect integrity, absolute pillars of the community -- hollow pillars that fell because people are human.  Because they make mistakes, they get angry, they are heartbroken or hurt, they lose a friend, they get sick, they end up on one side or another of a community conflict.

It's bad enough when a person makes a mistake and people get hurt.  When a Big Damn Hero makes a mistake and people get hurt, the guilt and the regret can tear her to pieces.  "I should have done better, known better, BEEN better," she says, but she did her best, with what she knew, with what she was.  When we forget that devotion to duty cannot make us more than flawed human beings, we become subject to hubris and set ourselves up for failure and self-reproach.  It even feels arrogant to talk about it, but I think more people in pagan community, and especially more people who work Safety within the pagan community, need to explore the question.  We lose good people, every year, because they could not live an ideal.  I can count, without trying, ten people who burned out and left a community entirely because they had kept trying to live their legends even after they'd become too large to sustain.

I don't want to be a Big Damn Hero.  I don't want to be picked first for the team.  I would love some of those cookies, but only if you're going to sit with me and eat them and tell me how your life is going.  And more than anything, I never want to be larger than life or better-than.  I want people to trust me, to know me, but to understand that I will fail sometimes even when I am doing my very best.

To that end, I've instituted two personal policies.  The first is that at every festival, I visit as many of the camps and groups as I can, OUTSIDE of crisis.  I try to make friends and figure out who's who.  I listen to what people think about policies and answer questions they have about the festival and the community.  I walk through Merchant's Row at least once a day, touching base.  I am making it a point to interact with people more on their good days than on their bad days, whenever I can, so that they see my everyday face as the default and my It's OK I've Got This face as something I put on when it's needed.

The second starts with a vacation.  A self-pampering, completely me-driven, entirely my terms vacation.  I have no job to do.  I have no duty to anyone but myself.  I am completely selfish in my choices and in my expectations.  Here at this crossroads, I look down one road and see myself become completely driven by duty and service, motivated only by what I can bring to the community.  Along that road I see many friends, battered and beaten but still trying to hold to the path.  I am choosing a different path.  Maybe it will be easier, maybe it will be harder, but if I succeed at this balance, the balance of serving self and serving deity and serving community, I believe that I will be happier and healthier, and that I will be a better asset to my community besides.

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