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Practice what's not perfect

It’s back to school time, and that has me thinking about those of us who no longer spend much time in a classroom. I’d like to encourage us to think deeply about different purposes and practices of learning so that we can shape our own back-to-school intentions for ourselves. One of the biggest ways to make a difference is to practice what's not perfect.


Perhaps the most important thing the process of learning can teach us is that natural aptitude isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sure, we all hear about having a “gift” and how wonderful it is to be naturally talented. But that’s not the only way to be, and certainly not the only way to be successful with something. If there’s one thing I wish everyone learned in school, it’s that developing an ability through effort and practice can be more reliable and more rewarding than simply having a “talent” to begin with.

The over-valuation of inherent talent can be found in our attitudes towards both magic and ways of doing religion or devotion. It’s easy to think of these kinds of work as the product of an inherent ability which is more or less fixed. This conception is often misleading and always counterproductive.

People seem to hold a similar odd idea about mathematical ability, as if mathematical ability were determined for all time in the cradle when Athena either baps you with the math stick or she doesn’t. When I teach math, I run into this all the time: students don’t really allow themselves the possibility of practicing and getting better. This forever-fixed idea is so strange to me, because it seems to be applied in mathematics much more than in other areas of academic pursuit. There are lots and lots of efforts to get children (and adults) to practice their reading and writing skills, and all of these take for granted the idea that one can improve these skills with practice. But in math, people seem surprisingly willing to classify themselves as “not math people,” and accept that as unchanging regardless of practice.

In contrast, no one expects a child’s athletic ability to develop out of nowhere so that the child is suddenly able to perform all athletic endeavors skillfully the first time they are attempted. No one says, “well, you didn’t hit the ball, so you’re never going to hit balls, so just stop trying.” Any child who says something like that is scolded and sent back to the practice field!

Now, I’m not saying that all abilities are perfectly malleable. Goodness knows I have tended to give up on myself in the field of physical endeavor, and I am acutely aware that my abilities in that area will never be as good as many others’, regardless of how much I practice. I am not saying that all abilities are due solely to willpower or training; innate abilities, preferences, and limitations clearly play a role in our experiences. What I am saying is that we seem surprisingly willing to assume that practice will work in some areas - like reading and athletics - and surprisingly willing to assume that practice is useless in other areas - like math, and perhaps magic.

The assumption that practice cannot change one’s capacity is likely to be destructive by discouraging people from finding and developing whatever talents they do have. In mathematics, this destructive tendency leads to the bizarre idea that large swathes of our population are number-incompetent. That is clearly not the case, since these folks manage to lead everyday lives, including telling time and using money. But because they classify themselves in a restrictive way and don’t try to develop their abilities, they are potentially denying themselves access to a whole range of thinking techniques and approaches to the world.

In both religion and magic, similar risks are present, and are made more potent by the way that most Pagans are largely self-directed in our explorations. For the individual practitioner, there is little external encouragement to try to master at least a basic level of competence in things which we do not immediately take a liking to, and no one to encourage us and reassure us about the value of practice.

I would like to see Pagans give themselves a back-to-school assignment to set up a course of study and practice. Use physical activity as a metaphor: think about how you would design an exercise program for yourself, such as how you would find the right level of challenge and foster a commitment to practice on a regular basis. Maybe even think about this as physical therapy - find your weakest areas and begin to stretch yourself there to gain even a basic working ability.

Again, I’m not saying we should disregard our innate talents or basic preferences. It’s just that we shouldn’t limit our options to only those things we feel good at the first time we try them. We may be surprised by how much more we can develop in the areas that aren’t immediately easy, just through the application of practice. It’s also true that some people simply won’t be good at some things; if you are really limited in an area, you will have to decide what level of development you’re going to be satisfied with, and it might be less than you like. But in the process, you can learn things about yourself, about the process of developing skills, and even recruiting your other strengths to help you in your weaker areas.

All I’m saying is that just because you’re a natural energy healer doesn’t mean you should neglect your ability to work in trance, or that the fact you have an affinity for practical magic shouldn’t limit your willingness to try out different forms of connecting to deity through devotion, or whatever other areas you can think of to explore.

Working to gain skill in areas that don’t seem easy at first can have at least two important benefits. First, and most importantly, skills that you work to gain will be more reliable. Too often, people who seem to have a natural ability for something will actually be less tenacious in the face of difficulty than those who have honed their talent through practice. Learning that you can do something, and do it better than you think at first, teaches you not to give up - whether in math or in magic - and that can take you a lot further than an initial intuitive grasp that may falter as you reach more challenging matters. Second, because you know you’ve earned your skills, you will not only be more persistent in the face of difficulty, but you’ll be more self-confident and find the practice of your developed talent more rewarding.

Consider some of the following possibilities for a back-to-school challenge for yourself:

  • Learn a new divination system, or a new variation of one you already know (buy yourself a new Tarot deck!)
  • Learn a new type of energy healing
  • Commit to developing your meditation practice
  • Make offerings to a particular deity on a regular basis
  • Pick a book and work through all the exercises
  • Choose a new deity or pantheon to learn about
  • Study a historical figure in Paganism
  • Practice a foreign language for devotional purposes
  • Develop a course or write an article about something you already know - teaching is a great way to learn more!

Taking any of these options - or others you come up with - can give you great material for reflection and development. Try deepening your practice in an unexpected area, and be patient with yourself; remember that the purpose here is not to discover a new innate talent but to foster growth through the slow process of practice. Commit yourself to this for a period of time, whether it’s the school year or a few months, but give yourself time to let the results of practice accumulate. Investing in yourself this way will help you grow as a person and as a Pagan.

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Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation on the history of magic with the support of her husband and four cats. Please note that all opinions expressed here are Literata's alone and do not reflect the positions of any organization with which she is affiliated.


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