Saturday, February 11, 2017

Seeking Inspiration in a Time of Exhaustion

Dear Friends, if, like me, you are a liberal, a leftist, or even just a compassionate person in America, or if you are somewhere else in the world looking in at this country, I am sure that you must find the non-stop barrage of insults, threats, aggression and intolerance issuing forth from the Trump White House mentally exhausting and spiritually depleting, as I do. I have been especially appalled by the ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, which disrupted so many people's lives for no good purpose, and which sets the tone for increased animosity and ill will between the USA and the Muslims of the world. It had become the norm in recent decades to hear U.S. presidents extol the virtues of diversity and inclusiveness, but Trump has turned his back on all this in order to push the country on a retrograde path back toward the worst moments in American history, the ones that cause intelligent Americans to hang their heads in shame, the times when blacks were enslaved, segregated and lynched, when native peoples were exterminated and dispossessed, when Japanese-Americans were interned in concentration camps, when artists and intellectuals were hounded for real or imagined communist sympathies, when Vietnamese were demonized as “gooks,” when Iraqi prisoners of war were tormented and humiliated in violation of the Geneva convention, when gays, lesbians and other non-heterosexuals had to live in constant fear of harassment, humiliation and beatings ranging from the frightening to the fatal. As we see with the Muslim Ban executive order—which in Trumpian terms is of course NOT a Muslim Ban even though it mainly affects Muslims and is the fulfillment of a campaign promise Trump made for months—Trump is obviously going to use “national security” as the justification for all manner of oppressive actions toward ethnic and religious minorities and any and all who dare to criticize or oppose him. I fear that we are living in a time not unlike 1930s Germany, where the storm cloud are gathering and the storm troopers are massing.

But I digress. There is much to say about the actions of the Trump regime and what we can and must do to fight back against them, but my main point today is to muse on how we must be careful to not let the constant din and doom of Trump and his minions so exhaust and deplete us that we are unable to do anything besides reflecting the darkness and dishonesty that is now emanating from the White House like radiation from Chernobyl. We need sources of solace and comfort, reassurance and inspiration. Different people will seek out different points of refuge and recharging. For me, this means turning toward Paganism.

As my strongest affinity is for the Norse (Germanic) Pagan traditions of Scandinavia and Iceland, I look there first. I see first of all that the world of the Norse myths is a world of uncertainty, struggle and often great sorrow. It is one in which the god of wisdom and knowledge is tortured, first gaining wisdom in a painful, shamanistic self-sacrifice, second, seeing his own son killed and being unable to help him, third, preparing to lead the gods in battle against gigantic forces of destruction, all the time knowing, owing to his power of foresight, that his side is going to lose, despite their best and most valiant efforts, and the world is going to be ruined and burnt. We are told in the Eddic poem Voluspá that in the end, or rather, after the end, after all has been destroyed, there is the possibility that the world will re-emerge, and that the gods too will be restored; or maybe not.

Relating this to our own situation, I see that we who seek knowledge and wisdom in difficult times should not be surprised to find ourselves feeling tortured, psychologically speaking, when we see our society electing a dangerously ignorant, rage-driven buffoon who unleashes a maelstrom of chaos, confusion and brutality, cheered on by equally ignorant and rage-driven hordes. Obviously, this mental torture could even become a physical experience, should we internalize our anxiety and sorrow to where it causes bodily ailments like hypertension, ulcers, strokes or heart attacks. It could also become a physical reality if the Trump regime decides that “national security” requires the interrogation, detention, and/or public shaming of regime opponents, echoing the “Red Scare” tribunals and blacklists of the 1950s.

I also think of Yggdrasil, the “World Tree” in Norse mythology, which supports and connects all worlds but itself suffers daily from being continually gnawed and damaged by various beings who come to feed on its branches and shoots. This reminds me of how in our modern world, the kinds of institutional systems that support and connect the world and provide succor and aid to many are under constant threat from the right-wingers like Trump, Pence and Ryan who seek to cut off the branches of government and let the tree of international cooperation wither, so that all will be left to fend for themselves, the weak and poor having no recourse, the wealthy and powerful feeling no responsibility, and institutional supports that make life better for the disadvantaged and lessen animosity and inequality between the peoples of the world, degraded if not dismantled. I would not doubt that right-wing Pagans have different interpretations, perhaps viewing Norse mythology through the lens of Ayn Rand and thinking of the tree as the society of the "maker" elite whose wonderful works and wealth are unfairly drained and diminished by the parasitic class of unproductive "takers," the world's underclass, regarded here as the architects of their own infirmity through their laziness, stupidity and "poor choices," with Ragnarök as the necessary destruction of an evil, socialistic world order that caters to the demented underclass rather than their majestic overlords. Myths, like any texts, are of course open to interpretation, and I can only say that mine is the one that makes sense to me and meshes with my values and concerns. I would hope it resonates with some of you as well.

I feel a special connection to trees. Whenever I see them, they comfort me and seem pillars of natural health and vitality, rooted deep, reaching high, providing shade and shelter for all living beings, free of charge. I always lament when I see trees harmed or cut down when there seems no urgent necessity. The status of trees seems to me a bellwether of the state of society. A society that values trees and greenery, and does not feel the need to mow down trees to create a blankly utilitarian landscape, is a healthier, saner one, in my view, than that which sees trees as a nuisance and would prefer dead concrete or an artificially perfect, chemical-drenched green lawn.

The plight of the World Tree is reflected in so many situations that one sees everywhere, everyday, above all the horrendous threat to the world's weather systems posed by climate change and global warming, which echoes the disturbance of nature said to presage the final destruction in the prophecy of the Voluspá. The Tree suffers much but still sustains us all, and I think this is the right way to think of one's moral duty in society in troubled times such as ours. We may have to suffer with and from people whose ideas and intentions seem ill-informed, distorted, destructive and hateful, but we must never forget to support and sustain human AND humane society and the health and well-being of the natural order which in turn gives us our health and well-being. Like Odin, we must seek wisdom, even if the quest is torturous and painful, and we must muster all our strength, intelligence and courage, even if we sense that the forces arrayed against us are truly ferocious and horrifically powerful.

The ambiguous ending of the Ragnarök tale in Voluspá gives room for hope that the powers of destruction, whether Frost-Giants, Fire-Demons, or Fascistic American Presidents, will not prevail forever. Their day will pass and a new day will dawn. We just have to hold on as best we can and make sure that the things we hold in our hearts as true and valuable and life-enhancing are not forgotten or erased, so that they may rise up as beacons of hope after the floodwaters of darkness subside. Like the gods in Voluspá, we must keep in mind that while our own time is limited, the world will go on, and we should dedicate ourselves to giving what we can to make that future world better than the one that we now see engulfed in flames. Pagans tend to look to the past, to enjoy reliving and reviving traditions of many centuries ago, but we should not forget that those traditions also looked to the future. The Vikings didn't stay at home and remain passive when times were hard. They went out and created a new world, reaching toward the future.

The hour of Trump will pass. Remember that, and don't let him drag you down into his angry darkness. Find peace and courage in nature, which endures much, but always regenerates.... eventually. Even Chernobyl, site of one of the world's worst environmental calamities, has green plants growing and animals roaming.

When his son Baldur was dead and his body laid out for his cremation, Odin bent down to his corpse and whispered something into his ear. According to the myths, no one knows what it was that the All-Father said. As there would seem little point in speaking to someone truly dead and departed, it may be that Odin knew something about the future, a future in which Baldur--and the world--would be revived, as is indeed suggested in the final lines of Voluspá.

I like that idea just now.... Something beyond the darkness.



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