Last year, I sat on a pier with a friend, watching the lake reflect the sky, as we talked about being strong, about enduring, about surviving brushes with death. In all honesty, neither my friend nor I have had the kinds of harrowing experiences that others around the world and throughout time have had, and that is precisely why we were having this discussion.
The day I met this friend, we bonded excitedly over watching the show Vikings, since no one we knew watched it. We are both drawn to Old Norse culture and history, and we love the way the series showcases life from the perspective of Vikings, finally clearing away irrelevant and careless stereotypes about their society and illuminating the complex, gray-area layers that gave them the reputation they have today. One of the themes in Vikings that grips us most tightly is the intense power and strength exhibited by its characters, sometimes to the point of brutality. Most of the characters are warriors, in addition to being rulers, farmers, builders, fathers, mothers; Viking women fought in battle alongside men, and Lagertha is one of the finest examples in modern story of a female warrior (e.g. “You couldn’t kill me if you tried for a hundred years.”)
When Lagertha or Ragnar or any of the characters go into battle, they know by their faith that if they die in the fight, if they go down swinging, they will go to Valhalla, the afterlife where fallen warriors are free from their earthly existence to feast and be merry. When the warriors go to battle, they carry this faith like a shield, and they are not afraid. One of the reasons that invading Norsemen were so incredibly feared by monks and townspeople in surrounding countries was because of this fearlessness. They were not afraid to die. In fact, they welcomed it and the challenge of battle, for it was the door to paradise. Neither life nor death had an ending; neither was empty or hollow; both were filled to the brim with blessings from the gods.
It is important, I think, to have some faith in death, whether one believes in an afterlife or not. To have faith could simply mean to believe in spirit now, to know that the mystery exists and to have courage in the face of it, to see inevitability and vulnerability as part of the gift of being, to believe in death as a form of change. Faith, in a way, is an alchemical balancing act of acceptance and determination. Often, the path to this sort of conviction is found in struggle, in battle, in the hard kind of life the Norse people endured, in the hardships my friend and I were yet to face in life.
However, relativity allows for all kinds of battlefields. Some of our most profound connections with the spirit happen when we are lying on our back on the cold, hard floor of our very own rock bottom. After having spent over a year loving and living with an unstable addict, uncertainty had become a fact of my life and a disease that would surely get me killed one day. The fear of what could happen at any given moment had become a gnawing pain that I learned to live with. But at rock bottom, after almost a year on my own, I was absolutely numb. I had dug and dug and dug a hole for myself until I couldn’t feel, which felt at once much better and as horrible as horrible can get while still feeling nothing.
It was in this state that I came across a quote in a picture on the internet (a 2009 art installation by Sebastian Errazuriz) … it read, Death is the only certainty in life. And from that, a sense of faith was born. Acceptance of that fact felt secure when nothing else did, like a promise that I could finally rely on, like something very true by my side. It wasn’t as morbid as it might sound. It felt like I was finally being given a break from fear … and in that relief was a vastness I hadn’t felt in years, an open door to live each day knowing that this is all by chance, that of course uncertainty is very real, vulnerability a necessary part of life, my personal battlefield a means to an end, the struggle not for nothing, but to learn how to approach life in a better way. Like the Vikings, like Tyrion Lannister’s advice to Jon Snow in A Game of Thrones, I decided to wear the unavoidable like armor. I decided to balance fear of the unknown with faith in the unknown.
Another year or so after that, I was sitting on that pier, watching the water lie back to face the sky, and my friend and I spoke about Vikings and being sheltered by our privileges, about craving the chance to prove ourselves, about the strange hunger for danger we knew better than to want, about facing fears, about the true experience of life being an amazing tightrope dance on the edge of life itself, about the hero being the one who confronts the rope and sees what they’re made of. She told me of a man she met when she was studying in Japan, a man who survived the tsunami there in 2011 by literally holding on for dear life. She was captivated by this man’s story, his bravery, the very fact that he experienced what he did. As well, she was captivated by the oddness of her yearning for a similar experience. Of course she was aware of her luck, she said; of course, she knew her easy breezy life in comparison has been a blessing. And yet, and I understood, she wanted to hold on for dear life. She wanted to fight in battle, fear or none. She wanted to face challenges and to save herself from the uncertain elements of life. I agreed wholeheartedly.
I think what she wanted, what I want again and again, what maybe many of us want, is the chance to look the unknown in the face, and so, have a moment of faith, whether in ourselves or in something outside of ourselves. We want a chance at being brave, at being bold, at being, quite frankly, badass. When the going gets tough, we want to say we handled it with courage. We want to be the heroes of our lives. And we know that our favorite heroes are flawed; this is not a fantasy wish, not a daydream-believing desire for perfect happy endings. The grit and grime is necessary. Blood, sweat, tears … that’s all right if that’s what it takes. The purpose of the battle is to take everything you’ve got, to push yourself to the breaking point and bend a little more, to hold on and not let go, or perhaps, to let go and survive still, and in that, to trust something at the core of oneself, whether it’s the gods or the guts or a miraculous combination of the two.
Alas, we are, indeed, very lucky young women, and Vikings is an experience we can watch on a screen and not have to survive. But in all lives, there are relative challenges. Recovering from rock bottom, I found daily tasks and basic self-care to be a challenge. Everyone knows what it’s like to run from a responsibility at some point, or what it’s like to want to do something, but not find the gumption to get up and get it done. We want to be battle-worn badasses and self-saviors, storm chasers and fear conquerors, and yet sometimes we can’t even face our shadows or get our act together. And there’s the wishing for that big wave; there’s the hope that if all our daily crap was washed away and our task was to hold on for dear life, that maybe we could prove ourselves. Maybe if life was harsher, it would make us warriors. And if we were warriors, maybe life would be fuller, and death would have a place at the table. Maybe it would all be worth it: a hero’s journey.
There is another quote that I hold dear, by a wise woman that I have deep respect for, Kelly-Ann Maddox … in a vlog about the creative process, she said that when we face obstacles, we need to reframe them and view them as challenges. She calls them a chance to test our mettle. Sound familiar? Her advice is to meet this chance by responding, “Oh, a challenge – I’ve been waiting for you.” The gratitude in this reframing is where the magic is.
Natural disasters and medieval battles may not be in the cards of everyday life. But challenges are a certainty. Perhaps death is not the only certainty, but the ultimate. Challenges and change are around every other corner, waiting for us. And funny enough, I think we are waiting for them too. These days, not only am I reframing obstacles as challenges; I am reframing ordinary challenges as battlefields and tightropes and hands held tight; and I am reframing the inevitable changes in life as small deaths, and having faith that by doing so, the greater the challenges become and the greater the changes, I will one day face them as the hero of my story, the shieldmaiden reaching glorious nirvana, ready for what comes next.