For Samhain, I met with a local coven for a dumb supper and vision quest.* The culmination of this quest was actually a very in depth reading by a woman who at first glance was very obviously being ridden by some divine being. She saw very plainly the questions of identity and purpose I have been struggling to answer with increasing intensity. Frankly, she told me a lot of things I was already aware of, and seemed to not expect that I was aware of them and able to answer openly about what she was bringing up.
I’ve been in a very introspective period in my life lately, so searching inward didn’t take me by surprise, nor did the reading into my motives for participating and what I was seeking. But it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Because it was Samhain, and I was there to honor the dead and see what wisdom they might impart. And I didn’t get any wisdom from the dead. I got some compassion, I suppose. But what I really got was an insight into why I function the way I do. I don’t know that this counts as wisdom, so much as a realization of things that were floating just below the surface.
“You don’t come to the dead for wisdom”
— Mr. Morden
I should have listened, I suppose. But I suppose that also depends upon which among the dead you seek counsel from.
My grandmother and I had a very turbulent relationship.
She was unstable and had a long history of mental illness. She was domineering and manipulative. She didn’t often listen, and ran on her assumptions of what you wanted or what she thought was best for you. After decades of therapy, my mother is still recovering from the psychological damage my grandmother inflicted.
She spent the last few years of her life in a nursing home suffering from full dementia. It was the only time I saw her happy.
She died about 12 years ago.
And in readings I’ve been getting for the past few years, she’s been showing up. Wanting to connect. Wanting to direct me to our family heritage.
And I couldn’t figure out why.
My grandmother was the child of an Italian immigrant family in Pennsylvania. Her father worked in the mines, and her mother kept the house for boarders. She was married at the age of 14 to a Spanish immigrant who abandoned her at 16 with their year-old child. She worked as a seamstress in a factory and raised her some as best she could, and eventually met and married my grandfather, a Sicilian immigrant.
He was a fairly traditional man, to say the least.
She dealt with mental illness through her entire life. Whatever the big new thing was, she was diagnosed with it. She received shock treatments in the 20’s. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia, multiple personalities, manic depression, hysteria, and whatever else they could think of. (Personally, I think she fit the profile for Borderline Personality pretty well, but I’m not a professional and it’s really hard to diagnose a dead person.)
She was highly intuitive as well, but rejected it as much as possible, which I think made lots of things worse.
She lived her entire life for other people. Her whole life was of service to everyone else.
And without that, she didn’t know who she was. Because without those other people, she was nothing. Her whole self was what other people told her to be, told her to do, or asked of her.
And she was miserable because of it. It drove her insane. Because she was strong, but wasn’t allowed to be and forgot who she was.
I define myself by how I interact with other people. The most I can do, I suppose, is find a way to help them feel better. Because making them feel better makes me feel better, because I feel what they feel. I think this is a reasonable starting point.
I firmly believe that we are defined by our relationships with others. And I’m taking that to heart.
Well, shit. This doesn’t bode well, now does it?
That’s what my dear grandmother wanted to tell me. That’s what she did tell me.
But that wasn’t the insight that I got that made me question everything and brought on a crisis of faith. That was just the hammer that slammed the point through my armor and into my tender heart.
It was a different dead person this insight came from. It was from me.
In a past life**, I was a general in ancient Rome. This was late Republic Rome, the time period that I have always been fascinated by, and that I focused on for my history degree. I led armies north into Germany and subdued the tribes that lived there. There were a great number of atrocities that were committed by my command. I did what Rome require. I lived to serve Rome and her gods. As a devotee to Jupiter and Mars, I took that service seriously, as a sacred duty, and endured the pain I inflicted upon my victims, my soldiers, and my soul.
I tired of it. When I served long enough and finished my campaigns, I retired, which itself caused quite a controversy. I apparently had a positive reputation, and was courted by Senators to join public life and further serve Rome.
But I had paid my dues, and wished to indulge in the rewards that were owed me, by the Republic and the gods I had served. I wanted a simple life, wanted to heal from the damage I had caused and endured. I had found love in an unlikely place: a slave girl that I had freed and married, and who was fiercely devoted to me. I grew grapes and vinted wine, and even some of the Germanic ales that some soldiers had grown a taste for. I was patron to a rather exotic inn/restaurant that featured cuisine from the far North, a curiosity for Romans who heard only tales of those faraway lands. And I tried to be happy, but still woke up in cold sweats.
Eventually, they came rather aggressively for me. But there were problems. I didn’t want to return to the army. I didn’t want to serve in the government. I didn’t want to leave my wife. And these were big controversies. A retired general that refused the call for further service? A man of standing and status married to a freed slave? Unheard of! Insanity!
But I was owed my due. I had paid for it in blood. Mine and others.
So many others.
The bastards went after my wife.
They convinced her that she was holding me back, That I could have further glory and fame. That I could be important again. That Rome and the gods needed me.
She killed herself to free me of the stain of her on my reputation. To free me to serve Rome once again.
And with nothing else left, I gave my life over to the Republic. That had given me everything I had. And then taken it away casually, because all that I had given it wasn’t enough. I killed for Rome again. I killed myself inside. And I still bear those scars, lifetimes and thousands of years later.
I gave them the service they wanted. Rome got the service she wanted. Mars got the service he wanted. Jupiter got the service he wanted.
And I got jack fucking shit. I got teased with happiness that was taken away from me. I was told where to go and what to do, and denied the happiness I was promised.
My Republic betrayed me. My gods — the same ones I worship now — betrayed me.
I’m just a little bit pissed.
So I’m having a crisis of faith (which is awkward for a pagan). Because the gods I am worshiping now have screwed me over in the past. And because even now they have attempted to call me to restoring their glory and to serving in government positions. (When Jupiter tells you that you need to run for office, you take it seriously.) And because I can’t trust that they will allow me the happiness and success that they are promising.
I am by nature a being that reflects the emotions of others. I don’t know who I am when I am alone. And I’m struggling with that. I define myself by my interactions with others. And I have always looked for something greater than myself to serve.
And I truly believe that this is a relic of that past life. That this is a spiritual scar that is lingering. That it is a challenge to overcome.
If the readings and memories I have harnessed from past lives is indeed accurate, then this is the oldest I have lived to in the past four lifetimes. I have died in Vietnam, in World War II, and World War I. By all accounts, that is a very fast turn around.
I’ve pondered for a long time why there has been so much focus on war for me. And now I may be on the verge of figuring it out.
I’m still not quite sure what to do. I’m accepting my roles as healer and bard with increasing vigor, But I don’t trust the gods I have been dedicating myself to. I don’t trust the tradition they belong to anymore. I don’t know who to turn to or who to seek guidance from. And I still don’t know who I am and what my purpose is.
Although I’m starting to think that who I am isn’t really that important. And I’m realizing that my purpose is more under my control than I had thought. I had taken it for granted that I had to devote myself to something, to someone, and to some destiny that was determined by them.
What does it mean to realize that your gods may not be leading you to your Great Purpose, but leading you away from it intentionally?
And what will it do to my life to walk away from them? If they tormented me so after my service to them, what will they do to me if I stop?
This is disconcerting.
I still have some refuges in the divine world. But I’m kind of distrustful of all of them. If I make an agreement, there’s not too much I can do to enforce it should they decide to break it, at least that I know of.
But I’m a bit freer, I think. The notion that I have to love a life devoted to such beings had been becoming more and more engrained in my thinking, and I am free to reject that idea. And it is becoming clearer to me that the appeal of the Roman gods was tied very much to this idea of service, and to the idea that they could give me purpose. And I am free to reject that idea as well.
I will still ask them for help, solace, and comfort, as they have provided this to me. But I will be cautious of what prices they demand. And I will make my own decisions of what is best for me. I will find the kind of love and success I want and not be stuck complying with their mechanations of what they would like for me to do for them.
And this doesn’t just apply to the gods and their divine plans. I don’t need to live a life of mindless service to others. I can put my own needs first. I can decide who I am and what I am without seeing what other people need me to be first.
I’ll still make connections to people. I’ll still help people. I’ll still offer service to people.
But on my terms.
Not a bad message from a dead guy that I used to be.
* By “vision quest” I mean the newage version: a series of guided meditations at various stations along a set path. I do not mean to imply in any way that I took part in a Hemblaciya or similar Native ritual. Unfortunately, as with the term “shamanism,” even though the term is incorrect and appropriative, it is simply easier to go along with the common usage of the term instead of correcting people all the time. Forgive my laziness.
** I will always equivocate over what “past life memories” are. Did I really live back then? Is the story I tell here historically accurate? Who knows? I don’t think it matters. What matters are the themes in the story resonate with my life now. And I need to address them.