View Full Version : Joy and the Ideal of the Glorious Failure

Saturday, December 10th, 2005, 12:45 AM
"Cattle die and kinsmen die, thyself eke soon wilt die." These are the words of the Havamal, the speech of the High One. Everything ends. The Anglo-Saxon rune poem says that every man is doomed to fail his fellow, for every man is carrion, committed to the earth. A bleak view of the world. Such fatalism was quite common to our viking forebears. But Sigurd, arguably the hero who most embodied the "viking ideal" was supposed to have said:

"Ever the fearless but the fearful never will fare well in a fight.
To be glad is better than gloomy of mood, whether all fall fair or foul."

How to hold joy in the heart in the face of death? How can a man or woman be glad in the midst of failure? Sigurd speaks of joy as a source of strength, a tool for assistance in one's efforts (ever the pragmatists, our spiritual ancestors). But such a thing is easier said than done. The Anglo-Saxon rune poem says "Bliss he enjoys who knows not suffering, sorrow, nor anxiety, and has prosperity and happiness and a good enough horse." This kind of joy is easy to come by when circumstances are good and for most people it is the only source of the emotion they ever find. How do you feel joy when you've been diagnosed with terminal cancer? How can you be glad when you learn the woman (or man) you love hates you and is walking away? How can your mood be high when you don't even know where your next meal is coming from?

Clearly the kind of joy Sigurd was talking about is not the kind of joy that depends on circumstance. And obviously enough if it doesn't come from the outside then it comes from the inside, like Sigmund, Sigurd's father shows. At the beginning of the Volsunga Saga king Sigmund has been warned that an invitation from king Siggeir might be a trap. He says:

"Yet, shall a king hear murder when a king's mouth blessing saith?
So maybe he is bidding me honor, and maybe he is bidding me death;
Let him do after his fashion, and I will do no less."

King Sigmund is wise. He goes to king Siggeir's with a whole heart. His joy comes from performing right action, not from a need of safety, of having made the correct choice. His joy depends on himself, who he knows he can rely on and not the outside world, which he may not. This kind of joy, not depending on outside circumstance, cannot be taken from him by outside circumstance. And king Siggeir does betray him. He sends an overwhelming host to meet king Sigmund, killing him.

Sigmund gambled and lost. But even his death did not shake him. He did not cry out, or wail, or complain, or regret. He fought, performing the deed at hand

"Till all his limbs were weary and his body rent and torn:
Then he cried: "Lo now, Allfather, is not the swathe well shorn?
Wouldst thou have me toil for ever, nor win the wages due?"

What mattered to Sigmund were his actions, how he bore himself. The things that were important to him were how he performed, not what the world did to him or failed to do for him. And so even in failure he succeeded at failing gloriously. He could be trusting because being a trusting person meant more to him than what awaited him at Siggeir's hands. He could be brave because bravery was more meaningful than safety. He could accept, even embrace death because living well was more important than living long. He was unencumbered by fear, or worry, or weakness because his strength and gladness depending only on his making the right choices, not on how those choices turned out for him.

If all that matters to you is how well you bear yourself, is making decisions well rather than having to make the "right" ones, is giving the deed at hand your all then you always have reason for joy, for the only one you need to do these things is yourself. No one and nothing can ever let you down, for external events do not matter as much. This joy you can never lose, and the strength that comes from this joy will be yours always. Live right (by whatever your definition of right is) and even if you do not succeed smashingly you will fail gloriously, as a hero.

Source (http://www.winterscapes.com/diveteres/2000/november/index.htm#failure)