“Spirit is the life that itself cuts life.” This Nietzchean statement puzzles and challenges. What might a spirituality that cuts life -- rather than just skimming over its surface -- look like?
On Heathen Humanism
Better alive (than lifeless be):
to the quick fall aye the cattle;
the hearth burned for the happy heir –
outdoors a dead man lay.
May the halt ride a horse, and the handless be herdsman,
the deaf man may doughtily fight,
a blind man is better than a burned one, ay:
of what gain is a good man dead?
– “Havamal” 70 & 71
These words warrant our reflection. They articulate, baldy and unambiguously, the high worth placed on human life among the Norse Heathens – for these sentiments are attributed to Odin himself.
We might say that they provide strong evidence for a kind of Heathen humanism. At the very least, they suggest that in premodern times folk were hesitant to dismiss any individual’s worth out of hand.
This is not surprising, of course. Premodern life does not permit the poisonous luxury of radical isolationism that we find in (post)modernity. The illusion of personal separation, that I can get along just fine without anyone else, is almost non-existent prior to the advent of the Industrial Revolution.
This is particularly true in harsh climates such as that of Northern Europe, where communal co-operation often meant the difference between survival and death.
Of course, it has been fashionable in modern times to cast the Viking as a rugged individualist, disdainful of weakness, contemptuous of all but his own narrow interests.
Naturally such individuals existed, but they paid a high price for their lack of imagination. To be outlawed was no easy thing to bear, precisely because survival without the warmth of the social fabric was so difficult.
The rugged individualist, though as appealing as any Wild West anti-hero, is nonetheless unable to find himself validated by “Havamal’s” advice on the good life. He is an artifact of the mounting abstractions of modernity; where he was an error, a marginal figure, among the old Heathens, he has now become an almost idealized form.
This goes not just materially but also emotionally. The courage to have an open emotional life is not easily cultivated; for men in particular, occluded emotional expression is often a difficulty.
The isolationist mentality that modernity allows us to project onto historical Heathenry, however, provides a perfect pretext for hiding away from growing or cultivating depth. It is a shame that ancestral stories should be put to such a dishonest, self-destructive purpose.
But let us return to the sentiments quoted above. “Better alive (than lifeless be).” What an optimistic statement! So different from the sneering nihilism that scars modern consciousness!
It hints at an exuberant embrace of life on its own terms, an ability to appreciate what is. It puts aside the urge to judge life by some set of (no doubt arbitrary) pre-determined categories. It chooses instead to “save the phenomena,” to take things as they present themselves, to honor the world for what it already comprises.
“The hearth burned for the happy heir – outdoors a dead man lay.” Yet this tremendous optimism is not blind or untempered. For every stroke of fortune there could just as easily be a stroke of misfortune. The implicit suggestion is that we should not be too attached to the external circumstances of our lives.
By implication, then, it is our inner attitudes – our optimistic outlook, not our material possessions or lofty status – that determine the quality of our lives. Simple enough though it sounds, this is as penetrating an insight as any in the tradition of philosophical or psychological thought – from Cicero through to Jung.
Then we have a catalog of how various persons with permanent injuries or other seeming limitations (deaf, blind, handless, lame) can nonetheless contribute to the well-being of their community.
The underlying point is that we tend to get what we look for. If we look for how an individual can apply themselves fruitfully then we are likely to find just such a means. But if we look on an individual as worthless because of their limitations we are likely to shut off our capacity for helping them imagine their way into a constructively lived life.
Psychiatrist Milton Erickson often explored these themes in his work. He was a tremendously observant person, and used his attentiveness to great therapeutic advantage, sensing subtle cues and reading the many layers of his clients’ psychological processing.
This acute sensitivity was especially useful for him as a practitioner of hypnosis – and Erickson was so skilled that he could hypnotize a client with a word, even just a meaningful glance. There was no magic here – just a man who really attended to his own senses.
Erickson was tone deaf, color blind, and lamed by childhood polio, and he attributed his tremendous capacity for intuiting the inner experience of others to these very shortcomings.
Paralyzed as a child, his only amusement was to study the rich texture of interaction among his family. Hard of hearing and limited in his visual perception, he did not take his senses for granted but sought to grasp every last drop of information afforded by them. His “disabilities” gave him strengths that seem quite supernatural to those of us who are supposedly “normal.”
“A blind man is better than a burned one, ay: of what gain is a good man dead?” Here the “burned one” refers to a corpse on a funeral pyre. When we go past the ideal of the rugged individualist, we come to see how community can help each individual to reach his or her potential, regardless of seeming barriers along the way.
Such a sentiment is progressive by today’s standards, controversial even. Yet it was evident enough to the Heathen Norse that the author of “Havamal” saw fit to attribute it to Odin. We might like to question whether we really have “progressed” beyond the ethical achievements of the so-called “Dark Ages” after all.
Of course, I am sure that the old Heathens often failed to live up to the lofty ideals that they placed before themselves. But this is no different to the present day (“We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men [sic] are created equal”).
Regardless, we might find some inspiration from the humanistic sentiments of the Old Norse Heathen tradition in seeking to live more creative, community-oriented, and optimistic lives in the present. Personally – I’ll gladly take all the help I can get.
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