Part one in a series on supporting newcomers in your spiritual community. May, 2011
I repeatedly see newcomers to spiritual communities treated appallingly. When I see wrongdoing, I try to do more than point a finger. It’s not that I bury my head in the sand. But recognizing a problem is half the solution. It is pivotal to think up positive action—key word action—to replace the wrongful act.
Part one focuses on the power of giving a newcomer a simple hello. It might seem overkill to devote this week’s blog to saying hi, how to get yourself to say hi, and why to say hi. But I’ve been in a position to have met a large number of individuals who suffered immense pain from the lack of a brief bare-bones greeting. It is a more widespread and injurious problem than some folks might think. (I am referring to alternative groups—e.g., pagan, Wiccan, new age, shamanic. I don’t want anyone to let themselves off the hook by thinking I’m addressing mainstream religion, which there is not space to address in this essay. Also, I love and am part of these alternative groups, so I want us to improve.)
I was at a conference. I met someone there who later became a student of mine. One day, she confided that I had been the only person at the conference who had said hello to her. I was horrified that this should happen at a “spiritual” conference.
Some people do not realize the warmth, acceptance, camaraderie, and even love conveyed by a simple, unadorned “Hiya.” They might not understand how much pain is caused by a complete absence of greeting. (Among other things, it gives the message, “Your presence is not important enough to even acknowledge.” Oh my Goddess!) Maybe that’s why people have given me a lot of (albeit valid) reasons that they refrain from saying hi to a newbie.
One reason is being too busy. At that conference, I was a presenter for a workshop, gave a one-woman concert, and was the organizer for the opening ritual that 300 people attended.
Here’s the thing. You can smile and look somebody in the eye (or not look them in the eyes, if you’re too shy), and say hello as you run past them. I cannot tell you the number of times a one-second greeting from a stranger at a conference—or even a smile from them—has made all the difference for me when I felt out of place. (A long-time spiritual seeker can still be a newbie to a community and in need of welcome. It can be enormously reassuring and embracing. Small acts do make a difference.)
If you don’t say hi because you are shy (people don’t believe it, but I’m painfully shy), say hello shyly! Mumble hello or, again, just smile. If the most minimal greeting feels overwhelming, I suggest you try all the harder. That might seem counterintuitive, but I do understand how painful it can be—and impossible it can feel—when you try to overcome shyness or fear of rejection. Sometimes the only way to conquer them is to help someone else. (You might even watch for someone who seems shy or nervous, then greet them.) In fact, it is one reason I’m able to interact with so many people: If I’m focusing on the fact that they need support, my fear instantly vanishes. This simple remedy may sound ineffective; you have to actually use it to see whether it works for you.
If you’re rushing from one end of a building to the other, or are otherwise pressed for time, you may be concerned that greeting someone will cause them to corner you to instigate lengthy social interaction. Maybe you fear you’ll get trapped because you don’t know how to tell someone that you can’t hang with them.
When I trained the crew of that 300 person ritual, I felt it imperative that the attendees be greeted. Ritual should be a community interaction. And mystic ceremony is a hollow sham if it excludes any attendees (exclusion doesn’t require action; it can result from inaction, eg lack of welcoming), becoming like empty words from spiritual books that are recited but not lived. Nevertheless, it is challenging to authentically greet someone when there are only minutes before the event, you’re frantically getting last preparations in place, and extending a greeting might get you cornered. So I told my crew to practice saying hi (or smiling while looking people in the eye) while running past.
The gesture is usually appreciated; folks are made a bit more cozy from the sincere effort you’ve made amidst your busyness. Connectivity! If they try to corner you nevertheless, try these words: “Oh, I’m so sorry. I would like to chat but I’ve got to run. Sorry!” or “Oh, grab me after the ritual, I can talk then. Sorry!” It would not be rude to rush by them even as you’re saying all this. Practice this little speech until you feel confident that you can make your boundary. Practice saying it in a warm, caring voice. Practice saying it until you mean that warmth and caring.
It’s worth the effort of practicing, because a simple heartfelt greeting can make all the difference to a newcomer who may feel just as, if not more, nervous and out of place as you. In turn, greeting the newbie can help you in ways that words cannot describe; again, it is something you have to try to see the benefit.