Two Kinds of Sympathy

In a recent conversation on another post, a fellow Odinist was talking about stanza 71 of the Havamal, which reads, “The lame can ride horse, the handless drive cattle, the deaf one can fight and prevail, ’tis happier for the blind than for him on the bale-fire, but no man hath care for a corpse.”

He said that he thought it shows a certain sympathy toward the less than able-bodied, though with some of Odin’s trademark cold utilitarianism. I think he makes a good point, and wished to expand upon it in a post.

There are two kinds of sympathy. The most common kind, what most people mean when they say “sympathy,” seems the most warm and helpful type. It is full of easy assurances that everything will be alright, thoughts and prayers, and good vibes. The second kind of sympathy seems on the surface to be cold and even heartless. Odin has little of the first type of sympathy to give, that’s true. But that makes sense, because it’s the much less valuable kind. It’s all empty promises that the person showing this “sympathy” has no way to keep and reassurances they have no real reason to give. It’s nothing more than a palliative, the sort of sympathy you show to a child who does not have the capacity to understand what is going on.

The second kind of sympathy has real value. It offers real reasons for hope, a perspective that can teach you take comfort and find joy where you can, even if it is a cold comfort and a bittersweet joy. It offers real help for those in need. And this is part of why I am an Odinist. I see little value in superficially positive pablum, and Odin offers no comforting lies for children. What he does offer is something I can actually use to make my life better.

Some see Odin as a cold, calculating, heartless god. That view is rather far from the truth. Look at the Voluspa, which tells of the god learning of his impending death at Ragnarok. He does not do anything to escape his death, but he does try to fight to preserve something of the cosmos for others. He teaches. He inspires poets. He tries to lift people up, make them stronger, wiser, more capable. He helps those in desperate circumstances. Odin loves. He just does not express it in a way most people are familiar or comfortable with.

A Different Kind of Courage

Death is the topic of today’s post. If that bothers you, now is the time to stop reading.

I had COVID-19 earlier in the year, and wound up with long haul COVID symptoms. Mostly, it was confined to a slight shortness of breath and racing heart rate. Then came September and October, when most of the west coast of the US was on fire. The extended smoke inhalation made things so much worse. Since October of last year, I have been so severely short of breath (and energy) that I got winded going up a flight of stairs or walking a block. Gasping for breath, sweating, I was in severely bad shape.

I’ve lived a rough life. There have been many times where I was pretty damn sure that I was going to die. An unavoidable fight with a gang. Black ice on a cliff road with no guardrails. Getting robbed at gunpoint. Getting shot with a hunting bow and arrow. I have learned how to face death with a certain amount of equanimity and courage.

This was different. Suddenly being almost completely incapacitated, and facing the possibility that the damage was permanent, I came face to face with my mortality in a new way. You see, no matter how bad the odds I had faced before were, I still had a fighting chance each time. This? This was no chance at all. I’d never really faced death like that before. Seeing nothing that I could do to change my fate, my equanimity and courage deserted me.

After an initial bout of depression that followed this, I got into learning what I could about my condition. And I learned that some COVID long haulers do get better with time. I also learned that scarring from smoke damage can be healed, in some cases. I have been doing what I can in the time since to help these processes. And I am a lot better now. I am not healed. But I am improved enough that I have hope that I will fully recover, in time.

And I have learned something, and that something is what I am trying to talk to you about today. After all, I am a man of Odin. It’s kind of my job to try to teach about and help with death.  Obviously, even if I do fully recover from this, I shall someday have to come face to face with this again. I will, after all, one day be old enough for my strength to start failing. Just like everyone else. And there ultimately won’t be anything to do about that. I can see that I need to start cultivating the traits that will allow me to face mortality in that way with equanimity and courage. Not really sure what those traits are. I guess figuring that out is where I start, then. I advise you all, no matter how young you are, to start figuring that out yourself. You don’t want to come face to face with all of that unprepared.

Accomplishment and Odin

Well, I haven’t posted anything here in a long time. That is because I have said many of the things that I had created this blog to say, and I only find it worthwhile to make a post if I have something worthwhile to say. I refuse to post filler just to be putting something out there. However, with the extra time on my hands while the nation is under lockdown, I have been thinking about heathenry and spiritual development.

More specifically, I have been thinking about various issues I have concerning accomplishment and perfectionism. In all areas of my life, from my time in college to my martial arts to my research, I have always been driven to measure how well I am doing by how much I have accomplished. The trouble is, a lot of the things I have always been involved in are long term projects, and that inevitably means that there are a lot of times when I work and work without making any progress, or life gets complicated and I can’t get anything done. That gets frustrating, of course, but it has also always tended to get me angry, depressed, and rather stressed out.

This is an entirely appropriate approach to life, in one way, as I am an Odinist, and Odinists are kind of supposed to be driven by achievement. We also tend to be obsessive. These things are a big part of why we tend to get a lot of things done. Hel, for me, “relaxation” means doing work that I am interested in instead of doing work for other people. It is difficult for me to stop doing things enough to watch a movie or a few episodes of a TV show. The only way I take a day off, in the way most people mean that phrase, is when I am made to by some outside force. This way of living is how I have managed to redevelop the practice of the berserkergang as a formal martial art, write several books, and much more.

It’s taken me a lot of years to realize that this attitude toward life is also something that gets in the way of getting things done. I have come to understand that pushing myself as hard as I can, all the time, is only good for short term gains. In the long run, it sets you back more. It’s like running at top speed through the woods. Over short distances, you make more progress than if you walk. Over long distances, you inevitably run into a tree, knock yourself out, and make less progress than if you had just walked. Something similar is true of too much focus on perfection. If you spend all your time trying to get everything perfect, you miss doing more things well enough, and you do less overall.

Now, I have always seen pushing myself relentlessly as an appropriately Odinic path in this world. After all, Odin’s path is one of hardship, of growing through challenge, deprivation, and sometimes even through pain. And that is all true, as far as it goes.

But my thinking on the matter did not go far enough. Have you ever noticed how heathenry has rather a lot of gods of war? Each of them serves a different purpose. They say you pray to Thor for the strength to win, to Tyr for the skill to win, and to Odin if you just want to win, period. Odin is crafty. His greatest weapon is his mind, and does whatever it takes to win, even if the methods are sometimes unorthodox. I have been learning, of late, how much more like that my approach to life should be.

Better to walk when I can, and sprint for short distances when I need to and when I can get away with it. Deliberately take a day off in the way that most people mean that phrase, every now and then. Learn, in other words, from the Old Man, whose example and advice is always of great value.

I seem to have some things I work out, spiritually. So I will probably be active here again for awhile. Good luck to all of you out there in virus-land, from my underground bunker. (Well, basement room in a boarding house. Close enough.)

Instinctive Nonsense

“Stay true to yourself, and success will follow.” “Always go with your gut.” “Trust your instincts.” These and a dozen similar sayings illustrate a popular attitude toward life. I have heard a number of variants on this theme lately, and found that it was really getting on my nerves. After thinking about it for a bit, I realized why: it is, in general, a really stupid piece of advice. And discussing why it is stupid leads inevitably to some important concepts about the Odinic path, so this will form the topic of today’s post.

Babies are idiots. Nothing against babies, it’s just an observation about where we all start in life: as drooling, incompetent morons. When we are young, we have no instincts at all. We’ll stick our hands in fires, tease large vicious dogs, eat poison, or anything shiny, and crawl off of fatal drops. The only reason we ever develop better instincts is because we learn and grow as people.

Instincts are not something you “just have.” You are not naturally inclined to be successful. You are not innately a person whose only problem is not believing in yourself, and not being true to yourself. Success comes from learning. It comes from failing, over and over again, and trying something new each time you fail. It comes from thinking. A lot. It comes from growing and changing. It comes, in short, from NOT being your normal, poorly educated, inexperienced, dumbass self, and trying instead to become something better.

 

This is what Odin has to teach. Never be satisfied with yourself. Change. Grow. That is the key to victory.

Some Thoughts on Chris Farley and the Odinic Path

Not long ago my brother and I were talking, and the conversation somehow came around to Chris Farley. He said that it was sad the man couldn’t overcome his personal demons and died before his time. After thinking about it for a moment, I had to disagree. I said that, rather, I admired the man for living such a successful life. The reasons why I said it have to do with issues close to the heart of the Odinic path, which I why I am sharing them with you today, dear reader.

I had once seen an interview with Farley, not long before his death. In it he described how he had got into comedy: by watching a lot of John Belushi when he was a kid. He discussed Belushi’s hard partying lifestyle. He got a bit into his own personal philosophy while doing so. He said that he believed that quality of life was more important than quantity of life, and that he wanted to live and die like Belushi did: like a meteor. Burning intensely for a short period, and then burning out. Not hanging around to deal with the consequences, not having to get old, not having to ever compromise. He said that he wanted everything, all at once, and that such an intense life was worth such brevity, to him.

How many people can say that they both lived and died in the manner of their own choosing? How many people can say that they never compromised, even a little, on their dreams? Farley was a real life version of a Byronic protagonist. I say that he did exactly what he intended. He had a very successful life. I admire that, and it seems a right Odinic choice, to me.

Not that I recommend that other people do the same as Farley did. I admit that I spent my own youth that way, myself, doing any and every drug I could get my hands on, drinking whisky like it was water, and doing a whole series of risky, stupid things. I should be dead many times over. But they say the gods look after fools, drunks, and madmen, so I suppose I was triply protected. Once I realized that I had been living like that for ten years and still wasn’t dead, I decided to actually start trying to do some productive things with my life, and make something of myself. I am damn glad that I did, too. I find the life I have now infinitely more rewarding. But still, despite my more mature perspective, I cannot look at Farley, or people like him, as failures. What matters most to the Odinic way is quality of life, integrity, and the freedom to choose for yourself.

Hardship, Growth, and the Gods

Recent conversations with a young relative facing difficult times prompted a conversation that I think bears repeating here.

Heathens have a different relationship with our gods than the people of the major religions do, and as a consequence,  we also pray in a different way. We don’t tend to ask to be taken care of, or protected. We might ask for help, we might ask for a specific boon to be granted, but we do not in general look to our gods to take care of us.

To illustrate my point, let me retell the popular “Footprints In the Sand” story from an Odinic perspective.

One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with Odin.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to Odin.

After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.

This really troubled me, so I asked Odin about it.
“Odin, you said once I decided to follow you,
You’d walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”

He yelled, “Of course I left you, you @^%#$ idiot! How the hel will you ever learn anything or become strong if I go around carrying you? Use your head!”

The heathen way is to develop the self, and to try to become a better person, in all the different ways we heathens define that. We heathens do not wonder why there is evil, hardship, and bad luck. We do not expect that our gods will protect us from these things. Instead, we try to use these things to learn and grow.

Hierarchy as a Religious Concept

Today, it is time to talk about an important, yet increasingly overlooked part of heathen religious philosophy: hierarchies. Ah, I can hear the outraged howls and lunatic rants of the Righteous Radical crowd already. You know who I mean. The crowd that believes that all hierarchies and ranks are inherently evil. The crowd that spends all of its time online ranting about how everyone except for them are fascists who need to be forced to think and behave Correctly. The crowd that starts screaming “Help! Help! I’m being oppressed!” every time anybody expresses an opinion that contradicts one of their own. The crowd that has to spend all of its time foaming at the mouth in cyberspace because it can never get anything real done. Because when they get together, every least detail of every proposal has to be debated by everybody. Because everybody’s voice has to be heard about everything. Because only the person who is holding the Talking Feather at the moment can talk, and there are a lot of people waiting for their turn with the Talking Feather.

When everybody gets to be Captain, nobody’s a Private. Trouble is, Privates are the ones who get the actual work done, and part of the reason why they can get the work done is that only one person is giving them orders. Instead of, you know, an unruly mob of puffed up egos all trying to give orders to each other. The reason that all human societies create hierarchies is that it is stupidly, fatally inefficient to reinvent the wheel for every single problem you face. Experience is required to solve any significant problem, to perform any important task. Not everybody has the right kinds of experience to solve every kind of problem, and the totality of human knowledge is so vast that no one person can understand all of it. So humans develop specialists. Some gain the experience to govern societies, others gain the experience needed to master a science, others learn how to educate children, and so forth. This way, each job can be done well, and there is no need to waste the enormous amount of resources needed to educate everybody about every single thing.

Look at it this way: when the leopards start dropping out of the trees, which group of people do you think is going to survive? The one where one strong, experienced leader instantly shouts out orders for defense, which are instantly obeyed because everybody knows their roles? Or the one where everyone sits down and pulls out the Talking Feather to determine whose vision of a defense strategy should be used?

Odin is the heathen embodiment of the understanding of the need for hierarchies. He is the chief of the gods, the lord of Valhalla. He is the leader of the einherjar and the valkyries. In many ways, Odin is the god of hierarchy. His people tend to not only believe in hierarchies, but to see the spiritual world expressed in a wide array of hierarchies.

Odin is not only a god of leaders, societies, and hierarchies, though, he is also a god of individuals. He is the god of the young warrior trying to work his way up the military or political hierarchy of his people. He is the god of the scholar who seeks to learn and grow enough to work his way up the academic hierarchy. He is the god of the wargs and loners who reject hierarchies and choose to live outside of them. This seems like a contradiction, but in fact it embodies a profound understanding of human nature and the way in which human societies function.

Human societies function because of dynamic tension. A society run by conservatives would be a nightmare. So would a society run by liberals, though in a different way. A society where both conservatives and liberals hold some power, and pull society first one way and then the other? That manages to be almost livable on frequent occasions.

A society which is too rigidly hierarchical tends toward the fascistic, the bureaucratic, the inefficient, the evil. A society which tends completely toward the individual at the expense of hierarchies tends towards the chaotic, the savage, the divided, the unjust, and the inefficient. What is needed is a society that has hierarchies that are counterbalanced by strong individuals, some of whom work within the system and some of whom live outside of it or even fight against it. THIS is a healthy society. The individualism in it restrains the hierarchies from excess, and the hierarchies tame individual excesses.

This is why Odin is god of hierarchy and of individualism both. He represents the dynamic tension that a healthy society needs to survive and even thrive.

Two Battles

I used to be an amateur mixed martial artist. For ten years, I took part in an open-hand nearly-no-holds-barred tournament against a wide variety of fighting styles, in a setup much like the UFC was back in the days of Royce Gracie. I sometimes also fought in a collar-and-elbow wrestling tournament, and was also a member of the Broadsword League, dueling dozens of opponents (with wooden swords). I learned a lot from these experiences. One of the most important things that I learned was the fact that every fighter fights two battles for each fight. There’s the fight itself, of course, but there’s also the fight that happens before you step into the ring.

Every fighter who’s not an idiot or a psychopath knows what I am talking about. At some point during the lead up to the fight, whether it is mere minutes or days ahead, fear sets in. You know how much pain you are facing. You know that, even in a largely safe sport, you are still risking your life. You know that, even if you win, you are going to end up battered, bleeding, and exhausted in a way that few people could even imagine. You get assailed by doubts about your skills, about your strength. You can’t shake the thought that your past victories were flukes, due to luck, and that this time you’re going to get stomped. You worry that your opponent is tougher, stronger, and more skilled than you are. These fears can become powerful. It can take all of your nerve and willpower to take the walk and step into the ring. Those minutes before the referee calls “FIGHT!” can be amongst the most nerve-wracking you have ever experienced.

During the fight itself, of course, you are usually much too busy to bother with such matters. But I’ll tell you this for free: fighting that first battle builds character, and then some. It builds willpower. It helped me develop the willpower to quit smoking. It has helped me become strong enough to do absolutely anything I put my mind to. It has helped me to keep going at any task long after everyone else has quit or collapsed.

This is one of Odin’s most important lessons. Even in this relatively peaceful modern age, even ordinary people who have never seen a battlefield and who will never see one can still benefit greatly from what the god of battle has to teach. I recommend that everyone have at least one good fight in their lives, something that can serve as an initiation experience, or a coming-of-age experience. Something scheduled for at least a month away, to give you plenty of time to face that first battle. You may get hurt, but the lessons you take away from the experience will aid and enrich your life for the rest of it.

Hail Odin.

Everything Furthers

If I had to sum up the heart of the Odinic path into two words, they would be these words:

Everything furthers.

An Odinist does not shy away from doing something that is hard, because effort is beneficial. An Odinist does not shy away from doing something that is painful, because pain is a most useful tool. An Odinist does not shy away from sacrifice and loss, because these things too can be beneficial.

When times are tough, Odin does not offer mindless reassurances that everything will be alright. He does not claim that every bad thing is part of some mysterious, invisible greater good. He does not promise an eternity of reward in some future existence. Instead, he teaches practical ways to use and benefit from the world as it is.

The wisdom that Odin teaches is the wisdom to see the benefit in everything. By that I do not mean some blind Panglossian optimism, I mean learning to use all experiences for your own benefit. Consider:

Have you been injured, and find yourself in constant pain? Then you have the opportunity to learn how to focus your mind, be productive, and keep your mood up under difficult circumstances. If you can manage to do these things, you will be sharper, happier, and more disciplined for the rest of your life.

Hungry? Then you have the perfect opportunity to use the clarity of mind that hunger brings to sharpen your meditative state, which brings mental health benefits.

Lost your job? Now you have the chance to work on your powers of persuasion, which will benefit you in all areas of life.

Have you been betrayed by a loved one? You now have an unparalleled opportunity to work on disciplining your emotions, on being productive even while heartbroken, on not lashing out in anger when you feel pain. Learning to do these things will make you a better person.

Are you suffering from depression? Then you have the chance to condition yourself to think in ways that do not reinforce the depression, and instead lead on to better moods. While medications may help, conditioning your mind to steer clear of depression naturally will be a much more effective treatment.

Everything furthers. The mind of an Odinist is like a bonfire: everything put into it becomes fuel. Good things, bad things, indifferent things, all become fuel. Pleasant things, unpleasant things, the mind of an Odinist takes all that comes his or her way and turns it to his or her benefit.

This makes an Odinist unstoppable. An Odinist does not run from fear, or pain. An Odinist keeps going long after everyone else has quit or collapsed. An Odinist can be knocked down, but cannot be kept down.

Some people find Odinists to be dark, strange, even unpleasant. They do not understand why we embrace pain and suffering the way we do. Let me tell you something. It isn’t masochism. It isn’t even really darkness. It’s more a matter of being able to recognize power and opportunity where most people cannot see them. Odinists desire growth, strength, intelligence, and wisdom above all other things, so we take advantage of everything that comes our way.

And you know what? Being able to see value even in scary, painful things means that fear and pain aren’t such big deals to us. It actually makes us happier, and more well adjusted in general.

Now, Odin’s way is most certainly not for everyone. However, his example is something that anyone can learn and benefit from. Especially when times are dark. All you have to do is remember that everything furthers.

May Odin bless you.

The Power of Negative Thinking

People talk a lot about the power of positive thinking, and it does indeed have its benefits. I, however, often think I have gotten more mileage out of the power of negative thinking. Before you think I’m just being funny, let me try to put it to you from an Odinic perspective.

Life is hard, sometimes. Sometimes, it’s hard all the time. Occasionally it seems unbearable. Positive emotions such as hope can sustain you through these times, but the darker the times get, the more difficult it is to experience them.

Odin’s way shows another, surer, form of motivation. One of the paths that he teaches to his devotees is the path of the warrior. He is the god of war, and often gifts his followers with war-related skills and experiences. Another is the path of the ascetic. As his sacrifices at the Tree and the Well show, his particular type of mysticism utilizes pain and sacrifice.

Both of these paths make extensive use of negative motivation, negative thinking. Any fighter knows what it’s like to be knocked down, gasping for breath, vision a tunnel, stomach a hell of nausea, with the enemy still on his feet, strong, fast, closing in. It isn’t the power of positive thinking that comes to your aid then. It’s the cold, heartless voice from deep within, or far without, that says “Get on your feet, you pathetic weakling.” Any ascetic who has used the Fast Path, the Diamond Way, knows the point where all of your resources are gone, and all of a sudden you AREN’T resisting the pain any more, and there’s a moment of panic, and that moment’s enough to trigger a vicious cycle of doubt and fear. At that moment you are beyond self confidence. You are beyond hope. You are naked and alone before everything that ever hurt you. The motivation to hang on, re-establish the meditative state, and reach then end of the rite instead of giving up comes instead from sneering, mocking laughter at your failure. It comes from the fear of negative consequences.

This principle does not just apply to extremes of Odinic practice. Sure, use positive thinking, positive motivation, when you can. But do not neglect the power of negative thinking. Adopt the principle that “Everything furthers,” everything is useful when approached properly. Feel guilty about treating someone badly? Don’t just try to get over it, USE IT TO CHANGE YOUR BEHAVIOR. That’s what the emotion’s for, after all. Fearful of failing midterms? Don’t try to relax. Use that fear to drive you to go study some more, and increase your odds of passing. Feel a lack of self confidence? Don’t paint over the problem by learning to “love yourself as you are,” use the badness of that feeling as a goad to make yourself become someone with the skills and abilities to give them self confidence.

Negative thinking. Is it nice? Hel, no. But it’s damn useful.