Compassion in Cold Climates

Your name is Steinthor. You live in Iceland, the third generation of your family to do so. And, by the reckoning of some people far away, it is the year 987.

As a young man, you went on Viking voyages, but then came home and settled in as your father had, as a farmer on a fine patch of grassland by a river. You, your family, and your extended household work hard during the short summer to provide for yourselves during the long, dark winter. In some years, your household's survival during the winter is more assured than in others.

During this particular long, dark winter, yet another blizzard arrives, not the last you expect in the months to come before the weather changes. And on this night, there is a knock on the door. The person standing there, half frozen and hoping for your hospitality, is a noxious neighbor who has repeatedly proven himself to be no friend. He was traveling and was caught out, still miles from home. His horses are dead, he is wet to the skin, and visibility is nearing zero.

Will your life be better if you turn him away and he perishes in the snow? To put a blunt point on it: it probably will. Can he make it home alive if you don't take him in? Probably not. Perhaps even certainly not. If you don't take him in, someone will find his frozen corpse in a snowdrift two or three months from now.

What do you do?

Patheos columnist and friend Teo Bishop recently posted a piece on compassion, and what it means to Pagans. In the discussion stream following that piece is a paragraph by a Heathen writing as LaurelhurstLiberal (who is not me). If you want an excellent short version of what's to come here, you might go and read that, but Teo asked me to write more on the topic.

As I've said here before, Viking Age Heathens didn't write much. We don't know if they went in for abstract philosophy or theology. A reasonably safe bet is that they didn't. What we do know about them comes mostly from myths and family sagas written much later, at a time when a predominantly oral culture was giving way to a torrent of writing. This recorded the remembered culture of an immensely practical people, as their descendants realized that something worthwhile was slipping away from them.

The lack of the crisp logic produced by some cultures is regrettable. But if we don't have the points and lines and planes of a dissertation, we do have the colors and shapes and shadows of lives actually lived. An important part of Asatru, the Religion With Homework, is looking at these old stories to identify The Things That Change versus The Things That Stay The Same. I'm not the kind of Heathen who longs for life in the Tenth Century. I do look at life in the Tenth Century to help myself make sense of life in the Twenty-First.

If you're not familiar with Heathenry, let me introduce you to some new words.

Inangard and Utgard: Inside and Outside, Us and Them. While Us-and-Them thinking creates some of the world's significant ills, it's pointless to pretend that we don't live in communities of various scales. These communities have Insides and Outsides, and those distinctions often matter a lot. Now that we have that out of the way, we get to learn what we can wisely do with this knowledge. Don't be surprised if that takes up a lot of your lifetime.

Frith and Grith: Happy To See You versus We'll Put Up With You. While I'm sure we'd all prefer to deal only with those people we really like, the world works better if we are open to the possibility of going beyond that. There will always be lots of people we don't like, and they won't just go away. When dealing with such people, it's also helpful to have some protocol for piloting through these episodes without resorting to steel or, more recently, lead.

The ultimate Inangard is the self. There are whole philosophies based on the idea that this particular Inangard is evil, and must be blotted out of your mind and your actions. When you encounter such ideas and the people selling them, I suggest that you recognize them as Utgard and not even extend them Grith. They are working hard at selling themselves the idea that they may disregard you and your interests whenever these become inconvenient to their plans. If you argue the point, you are just being selfish, which by their definition is automatically bad if the self is you. This becomes especially evident when they want something, whether for themselves, or their friends, or people they don't actually know but like to think of as their friends. When this happens, they will expect you to simply give them what they want. Don't. If they won't take No for an answer, you may eventually need to rephrase your answer in terms that words alone cannot afford you. Much of the history of the 20th century was precisely this discussion with increasingly aggressive physics, and some people still haven't learned.

12/2/2022 9:09:57 PM
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  • Steven Abell
    About Steven Abell
    Steven Thor Abell is a storyteller and the author of Days in Midgard: A Thousand Years On, a collection of original modern stories based on Heathen myths. As of 2013, he is also Steersman of the High Rede of The Troth.