Saturday, July 12, 2014

Ethics of Survival

Here is the thing: we need to live.


70. It is better to live | than to lie a corpse,
The live man catches the cow;
I saw flames rise | for the rich man's pyre,
And before his door he lay dead.

Death sucks.  It sucks our chances from us to do anything, to be anything.  Death is not the simply the death of flesh, it is the death of possibilities.  Death is the end of our world.  It is not the end of the world, indeed it cannot touch what we have already done, nor can it negate the changes we have made in the lives of others, but it is quite capable of wiping out all we ever could come to be, or could hope to accomplish.  Death is final. 

Life can often suck, but unlike death, it is not final.  I have had the worst day of my life a few times, seen everything that mattered, that which I could not live without lost or shattered.  Well damn.  Here’s the thing, life went on.  Life had good spots even on the worst days, and bad spots even on the good ones. Life can shatter us, leaving us broken and unable to continue, so we think.

71. The lame rides a horse, | the handless is herdsman,
The deaf in battle is bold;
The blind man is better | than one that is burned,
No good can come of a corpse.

So the ancestors occupied the same world, and spoke the same truth we told each other using the pithy expression “Suck it up, buttercup”, to capture the same sentiment that if you are not actually dead, you are not actually done.  What is left is coping.  Coping resembles life in two respects, it can often suck, but can also get better.  The latter point really separates living, and coping, from death.

I admit that I am as wont as the next Heathen to use the metaphor of a pattern welded sword to describe how the different parts of a human work together to forge a single stronger whole that exceeds any of its constituent parts.  It’s a nice metaphor, but you can get trapped in the good ones and forget that people are not steel, they are stronger.

When steel is stressed beyond its limits it shatters.  So do people.  A broken sword is scrap.  Broken people don’t have to be.  Here is the thing; we don’t actually always die when we break.  Ours are the gifts of harsh but loving gods, of a heritage of unbroken evolutionary struggle in which our adaptability and perverse unwillingness to accept a loss saw us rise to power over all the continents, and cast covetous eyes at the stars.

When we break, our minds and bodies develop what we call coping mechanisms.  Some are good, some are terrible, but none are free of cost.  Coping mechanisms are the price of survival.  Get this straight, sanity is NOT ENOUGH.  There are many times when the sane thing to do is give up, and yet we can’t afford to because our duties demand we fight on, we seek to heal, we seek to love, to live, to discharge the obligations that we hold sacred and important enough to bear whatever price is offered.

I am Odin’s man.  I am more comfortable on the shady side of sane than most people are comfortable with.  To stay functional in an insane situation requires that you find a way to break, yet continue on.  To stay fuctional and worthy in an insane situation requires you go a little crazy yourself; to ride out the tempests that wyrd has woven for you, and remain functional.  Against wyrd even the gods must bend, and even the gods may fall.  We simply have to deal with our own wyrd, choose as best we can, cope as best we can, and hope that we can win our way through to a brighter place, to win for ourselves a place in which sanity is again the wise and more successful choice.

When and if we get there, we have survived.  That was good.  Understand this, accept this, if you take no other words of mine ever as true, heed these :surviving is worthy.  Coping mechanisms are good when they are required, and we embrace the cost as long as they are necessary.  When they are not necessary, we strive hard to deal with the coping mechanisms that got us through, and minimize their damage.  This is called victory.  The dead don’t do this.  They burn, or rot, or while away the hours in the mound, but they do naught else in this world.  We who lived, do.  We use that time to deal with the coping mechanisms that got us through.

PTSD and addiction, well these are the most common ones, but those who have survived serious chronic illness, or long costly recoveries from life changing injuries or conditions also learned to find ways to make it through the times that were too terrible to bear, and came out the other side with scars, some of which you could see, and the most dangerous ones you can’t.  This is what survival looks like.  Odin is the guide I chose, one whose coping mechanisms ignore the boundaries of sanity altogether, and ride the whirlwinds of the ecstatic madness, to purge yourself of the pressures you can’t contain, so that when you put your skin back on, you actually fit inside it.  Usually that is a metaphor.  Sometimes not.

Egil Skallgrimson was a purely Odinic figure.  A skald, a berserk, a warrior poet who spat in the eyes of the strongest kings in Europe, who carved his way into history with his blade, and praised his way out of execution with his poetry.  By today’s standards Egil would be a poster child for PTSD.  By any standard, his is a life embraced passionately, lived fearlessly, accepting the costs for doing so, and using the coping mechanisms his culture left to him, and thus, to us.

Egil was in service to King Athelstan of England when his brother Thorolf fell against the Scots.  His brother was the closest kin to him, dearer than life, but he fell in battle while Egil obeyed his King’s orders and held another part of the field.  Filled with rage, he sought direct vengeance by killing the Earl who felled his brother, and making satisfactory slaughter among the rest of the foe in the long pursuit.  His grief was boundless, but his coping mechanisms were in place.

He drank with those who shared the field with him, and he poured his heart out in great praise poems to his fallen brother.  He won acclaim for his fallen brother from his comrades, and great gifts to his brother’s memory from his King.  In this way, his passionate grieving was made a positive thing by his societies embracing the sumbel, the sacred space given where men can express their feelings without any loss of manhood, status, or perceived power, where other men can offer support without any suggestion that the one receiving support is showing weakness, or lack of manhood.  Grieving was accepted, histrionics were expected, grand gestures were part and parcel of the process, and were given a place and societal sanction and limits.  Coping mechanisms here are poetry (positive), sharing of feelings (positive) and shared social drinking (limits required to keep this one positive).  If you exceed the limits society accepts for this, you will lose status, but there is acceptance for the coping mechanism as a cost of the hard life they lived.

Not all losses are as easy to deal with, not all of them have the positive context of a death in battle, properly honoured and avenged.  Egil’s beloved son drowns, and his grief totally overcomes him, causing him to write some amazingly touching poetry (positive), and to decide that he cannot live without his son, and will starve himself to death (negative). CHAPTER LXXXI 

Here is a coping mechanism gone wrong.  The histrionics that externalized the grief he could not deal with internally now threaten his life.  Luckily the limits society sets on such displays come into play.  Egil’s daughter tricks him into taking poison, both food and drink, by telling him she cannot bear to live with her grief.  In fact, she has tricked him into eating food, and drinking milk.  Now confronted with having broken his oath not to eat or drink, she confronts him further with his remaining duties to the living.  He continues to deal with the death through the acceptable coping mechanisms, even as his daughter weans him from the self destructive ones.

Coping mechanisms are like wound shock; left untreated they can kill you, however they are what you needed to get through what was definitely going to kill you right then and there.  You live, you deal with the cost.

71. The lame rides a horse, | the handless is herdsman,
The deaf in battle is bold;
The blind man is better | than one that is burned,
No good can come of a corpse.

The cost of coping can be high, the cost of death is total.  You learn to grow strong in the broken places.  Our gods do not hide their scars.  Thor has a whetstone stuck in his head, Tyr did not regain his sword arm, and the High One valued his learning too much to begrudge the loss of his eye.  Scars are badges of honour, they are only worn by survivors.  Those who bear the scars, from whatever wyrd wove for you , understand the cost of survival.  It falls to those of us who have grown grey enough to learned to break free of the coping mechanisms we could no longer afford.   

Egil watched his world end, again and again, yet he lived on.  Many have known, or will come to know, how it is to lose everything.  What next?  Well, our ancestors lived in this world every day.

76. Among Fitjung's sons | saw I well-stocked folds,--
Now bear they the beggar's staff;
Wealth is as swift | as a winking eye,
Of friends the falsest it is.

Health, wealth, family, relationships, status and position can all be taken from you tomorrow.  If your life remains, you cope.  Not always the pleasant solution, not always the sanest solution, but day by day, you stumble from the depths of having lost it all and one day look up to find you have built something that you….like.  Coping mechanisms get you through the worst times, but some of them will trap you in bad times unless you learn to put them away when you don’t need them.  Look to your community to help  you put away the dangerous coping mechanisms when their work is done, but do not hate them for keeping you alive.  Never regret survival.  Never forget what our ancestors taught us, no good can come from a corpse.  Living matters.  Those who survive can work on dealing with any side effects of what kept us alive.

- John T Mainer

1 comment:

  1. Oh, elegantly and brutally stated! Thank you for making these lessons clear.