Month: January 2011

the smith’s virtue: perseverance

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

The next virtue in ADF’s list is perseverance, what’s colloquially referred to as “sticktoitiveness.” It’s not a flashy virtue; it lacks the panache of courage, for example. As with so many terms, it has a Latin origin: “very serious” or “very strict.”

Perseverance is quite the killjoy, if you go by the etymology.

And it can be that way by nature. ADF defines it as “the motivation to pursue goals even when that pursuit becomes difficult.” It’s closely linked with endurance, from the Latin term “to make hard”: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, another old saw. To endure, you must suffer without yielding, carry through despite hardship. To endure also means “to continue to live” — perhaps a reflection of the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, that suffering goes hand-in-hand with life.

Perseverance requires strictness, discipline, because it is hard — and it hardens you to the negative stimulus around you. We all want to succeed at the first try. Perseverance requires not only discipline, but a very pointed patience — and sheer will. Try, try again. And again. And again. Until your energy fails you, and then you still stagger up, brush off the dirt, and try and try and try,

Perseverance grits its teeth and swallows the grouses about folks who never seem to have to try. There’s no time to grouse — only time to work. It’s the virtue of the smith gods, Brighid and Goibhniu, as they pound, pound, pound the recalcitrant metal into the shape they wish. It takes innumerable strikes, innumerable beads of sweat, innumerable aches traveling down the arm, into the shoulder, into the core. Try, try again.

There’s another term for it: stubborn, one that’s been pinned on me since I was a toddler born under the sign of the Bull. Stubborn stubbornly comes from Middle English as itself, with no other etymological source; it simply means what it means, and that’s fitting. It’s set in purpose, unmoving despite of the force applied. It’s dogged — having the quality of a hound on a hunt, or the other end of that chewy tug-of-war toy, refusing to let you drop the game.

In our attention-deficit world, we shrug at perseverance. If we don’t get it at the first try, it’s not worth doing; we are shamed, and expect to be perfect at each moment. People who spend hours practicing are looked at askance, as if they’re secret spies from China.

Perhaps this is what I like most about perseverance: it begins where you are, that deeply imperfect self that always needs to try. It speaks to people for whom things have never come easily — people like me.

What is virtuous about perseverance, endurance, doggedness? Granted, it can be used for ill ends — think of a hit man, for example. But those noodles who seem to get everything right at first shot aside, perseverance is necessary. Nothing gets accomplished, learned or created without it. You’ll never excel in your classes if you can’t stick to your study times, and keep escaping into Facebook at the first available moment. You’ll never finish that painting if you’re distracted by the thousand things that plague every wandering mind.

Or run five miles. Or meditate. Or, or, or. You can follow it with any goal. Perseverance — discipline, endurance, sheer stubbornness — is what gets you through. Its rune is uruz, the auroch or ox. Its ogham is dair, the oak that is also the door. Both rely on strength — in this case, primarily that of will, which is the means through which perseverance manifests.

And yes, life brings a great deal of suffering and obstacles your way. So to endure, to persevere, is to live: to become strong and, to a certain degree, hardened to the darts of hail, the cold and the heat, to keep plodding your way on the Red Road of Life, the way that fate has set down for you.

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becoming integers

Integrity is the next virtue on ADF’s official list, and one I agree with wholeheartedly, down to the name.

ADF defines it as “honor; being trustworthy to oneself and to others, involving oathkeeping, honesty, fairness, respect, self-confidence.” My trusty dictionary has a threefold definition: “steadfast adherence to a strict moral and ethical code; soundness; completeness, unity.”

In some senses, integrity is a catch-all term for a number of virtues; its other name is honor, which means being worthy of respect and acting with integrity — a circular definition bringing us back to the subject at hand. How do you manifest honor? By keeping your word/oath, whether or not anyone is watching or keeping score. By proving oneself worthy of trust — mainly by keeping your word or oath. (Honesty is often equated with truth-telling, although the word itself is virtually identical with honor.) By being just or fair — a means of showing others respect, as well as yourself as a moral agent.

To unravel the tautology a bit: honor and integrity involve the propagation of truth in word (honesty) and deed (being trustworthy, keeping one’s oaths). They involve a recognition of an individual — both self and other — as a moral agent, and letting that recognition be expressed in thought (respect) and action (fairness/justice). By acknowledging yourself as a moral agent, you’re acknowledging that you indeed know what your moral code is, have thought about it deeply and are willing to live within its bounds.

Integrity means letting go of excuses. It shines a light on who you really are, expressed by your very real words and actions in the world. It doesn’t matter what you think or feel; it only matters what you say and do.

In other words, walk your talk.

Honor is, of course, an ancient term; you cannot really break it apart to find a hidden etymology. In a sense, you know honor when you see it. Historically, it’s been tied up with reputation; a person of ill-repute was deemed to have little honor and treated accordingly. In postmodern culture where no publicity is bad publicity, negative or harmful actions or words simply don’t lead to personal repercussions; in fact, they may bring you acclaim (hence reality television or pundits). Postmodern culture has completely lost its sense of honor.

Partially, that’s because we no longer have a shared moral code. An ancient Celt knew what qualities were held in high esteem, and which were to be avoided. The generous were praised and the niggardly mocked by bards, for example. In my opinion, the shared moral code met its end not through the mixing of cultures, but through the commercialization of nearly every aspect of life. When the social world is defined solely in terms of the marketplace and commodity, there can be no honor since everything has a price, as they say. Honor, on the other hand, involves a refusal to be “bought,” a refusal to compromise your own deeply held beliefs for the sake of money, power or influence.

Some cultures still do have honor — particularly tribal ones. And in these cases, the danger of honor comes to light. The individual’s actions not only reflect on her own self, but her family and clan. The choice of pronouns is deliberate here, since it’s often women who bear the brunt of family honor codes, right down to being slaughtered by their male relatives for not living up to them, or even just not appearing to. Honor in these contexts is all about appearance — what’s traditionally called “saving face.” It doesn’t really matter what you say and do — only what others think you say and do.

The shared moral code can be wrongheaded, destructive and flat-out murderous. Honor can be a justification for evil actions just as much as those which preserve a culture.

So screw honor. Let’s talk about integrity.

Integrity does have a root: integer, what we know as whole numbers. It simply means “whole.” Therein lies the value of integrity. Acting in accordance with what you truly, deeply believe makes you whole. Failing to do so doesn’t make you evil, but simply broken, incomplete — a flawed creature, as we all are. Integrity isn’t one choice, but the stream of infinite choices we make every day.

When you profess to believe that something is right but do the opposite, you are acting from a place of brokenness, of dis-ease. It unsettles your stomach; the doubts stick in your throat, even if you try to keep up a brave or smiling mien. You may offer yourself justifications, excuses or lies and even trick yourself into believing in them, but the truth is still there, twisting your insides. Personally, I think that’s the origin of a lot of suffering and internal turmoil, even it it bubbles out into far different manifestations.

Integrity is a difficult, thorny path, and we all stumble for different reasons. A single mother who takes a job with a collection agency may engage in all sorts of actions she finds at her core to be morally repugnant — but still she does them because she needs the paycheck to support her son and herself. On one hand, she’s not acting with integrity. On the other, who can really blame her? It’s a matter of survival. A soldier who refuses an order he deeply disagrees with is acting with integrity — but can we condemn his comrade, who fulfills the command because he fears being court-marshaled?

Wholeness is a practice and one we never master. Sometimes, our ethical obligations and beliefs conflict. An example of this can be seen in Celtic myth, in which conflicting geasa inevitably fell the king or hero. Cuchulainn cannot eat dog, but he also cannot refuse hospitality. So, what happens when the Morrigan offers him hospitality — with dog-meat stew?

Human algebra is more complicated than simple lists of virtues allow. We’re striving to be integers, but we’ll always have fractional pieces — difficult choices, moments of failure. And that’s okay.

So, we strive to do what we most deeply believe. When we fail, we should acknowledge that and the reasons for our failures, but not beat ourselves with a club. Virtue isn’t about masochism. Integrity needs to be tempered with a virtue that’s not on ADF’s list: compassion. Those two, in tandem, are the core of true ethics (at least in my book).

A winter exorcism (an ode to the Morrigan)

I admit the message is a bit ambiguous, if not flat out disturbing: She who inflames anger and violence — the warrior’s rage — also provides for its catharsis. Indifference and rage can both kill. The Morrigan, however, is an ambiguous figure herself — like Kali of the burning ghat, dancing the world’s destruction. She and the dance are neither good nor evil; they simply are. How hard that is to express in a world obsessed with hierarchical dualism!

Oh, the taste of it on the tongue!
Steel. An icycle edge. Deep ice.
A coldness so keen, its touch burns
pine tips, torches the ridge with white.

Cold etches blue whorls on my face.
It strips me of armor, my skin
bared to the bullets of the wind,
lover’s embrace of the tundra.

Let Her fire fill you with wildness.
Return the cold blow with the hot,
a steel clash so loud it rips the
veil of silence from the secret.

Phantom Queen, she turns all lands to
the pyre of our hate, of grievance
methodically stacked as for a hearth.
It waits for your brand, that tinder.

Let Her fire fill you with wildness.
Do nothing — but dance, pound your feet
into the ash. Sweat drives out cold.
Pounding feet still the killing blow.

Let Her fire fill you with wildness.
Fire and ice: both kill the world
and create it. It’s all the dance.
Oh, the taste of it on the tongue!

A prayer to Brighid in times of violence

It’s sad how often I tend to repost this poem. I wish we lived in a world in which it was no longer applicable.

Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those who hear the crack of thunder from a gun in a place of refuge, who see the sunlight glint off its barrel.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those where shots are as common as the cries of sparrows, where each step on the crumbling walk is taken with held breath and a prayer half-believed.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those who put the softness of their own flesh and the strength of their bone in the path of the bullet or the blade.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those with the swift feet or the limping, who flee pain to preserve life.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those sheeted in red, the wellspring of their blood spilling words and meaning on the ground.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those whose bodies are unmarred, but whose minds bear the scars of their witness.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those who stand confused on the shores of the Sunless Sea, their lives the unplucked apples of the Western Isle, their farewells and jokes and love notes unsaid, unsent.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those whose tears bear the barge to the Otherworld, who hold memories in shaking hands and hearts webbed with cracks.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those who knit limbs, who tend to souls and hearts, who offer the bread of comfort and the milk of nurturance.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those who bear witness, who share the words of truth and so drive off the black wings of silence and its carrion crow with their telling.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Bring peace to those who fire the gun and loft the grenade, to those that maim and those that kill, so that the fire of their rage is quenched in your well’s sweet waters.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Let your waters pour out with the peace of the singing brook scattering sunlight, the peace of the roaring white-maned sea, the peace of the drumming rain and the lake ringed with reeds.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Let your waters knit wounds and quell the blaze of rage, of pain, the starless deep of despair and the gray slate of indifference.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
Let us swim in your healing waters until we know that we are all enfolded in the same sea, that we are the sea itself, the sea coursing through the salt of our tears and of our blood, turned sweet by your palms into the deep well of compassion.
Brighid, Lady of Healing, fill us with your peace.
A Bhrigid, scar os mo chionn do bhrat fionn dom anacal.

Paradox

Look: the weathered wood of the barque
rides the leaf-green sea.
Look again: the white foam streams in
the wind, mane of mares.
A chariot skims the grass-heads.
Birds fly silver-scaled.

Another mystery of the road
poured out from a bag of crane skin.

Speak false, and cracks splinter the cup,
the mead splashing out.
Speak true, and wounds heal in metal
and flesh, silver bells
sound on the branch, bringing laughter,
sleep, surcease from pain.

Another mystery of the cloak
he shakes between us and other.

With meadow grass, we pay the rent
to Fand’s beloved.
Yellow blossoms, a cask of ale
where the foam touches
the sandy shore, echoing cliffs
or the fall of mist.

Another mystery of the gray
at the joining of dusk and day.

Son of Lir, all land is your fabled
isle, all seas your sea,
the changing of light in the depths.
All is mystery.
Look and look again: flowers, fish, grass
What is and is not.

Courage, valor and bravery

What makes a king out of a slave? Courage!  — the Cowardly Lion

It seems an apt morning to ponder the next in the list of virtues: courage, defined by ADF’s official list as “the ability to act appropriately in the face of danger.” It’s a definition I agree with.

Courage ultimate stems from cor, the Latin word for heart. This sets it apart from a similar term, bravery, which is linked to the cry of bravo! and ultimately to the Greek word for barbarian. Braves are native warriors — barbarians, to the Europeans who often used the term of American Indian tribes — or even bullies, an old meaning attached to the term. As the cry of bravo suggests, bravery is tied in with display; one of the definitions of “brave” is “to make a fine appearance.”

Bravery, then, is associated with appearances and even foreignness — the vision of the exotic “primitive” warrior battling the more sure and steady force, whether you’re talking of the stereotypical Indian brave or the Roman perception of the blue-painted naked Celt. Bravery is all about the display of daring; the heart isn’t a factor.

Valiant, on the other hand, comes from a Latin term meaning “to be of worth”: valor. And indeed, by facing down danger and acting appropriately, you are proving your worth to your tribe, your society, the Gods. Valor allows a person to pull her weight in the world, to use her autonomy in service to a larger whole. It reminds me of dharma: an Indian term encompassing not only duty, but one’s place in tribe, culture and the universe as a whole.

Courage is a bit more intimate, at least to me. It consists of action driven by the heart: that internal bellwether of integrity and unadulterated truth. It’s taking risks to do what you, in your deepest heart/core/self, feel to be right. And what is right or true? That which fosters the universal order: rta in Sanskrit, an Fírinne (Cosmic Truth, courtesy of Aedh Rua), or the Norse orlog. That inner recognition of heart-truth appears to be the key to courage.

I used to think that courage always involves fear, but I don’t think it does. An adult who snatches a child out of the path of a car may not have time to feel or recognize fear, but only a nonverbal, instantaneous recognition of this must be done. Yes, courage can consist of doing what is right in spite of fear: a whistleblower may fear losing his livelihood, but contact the appropriate agencies to report the truth anyway.

Courage by its nature dances with risk and pain. It’s not foolish or useless risk: that falls under the aegis of bravery at best, or foolhardiness and masochism at worst. The risk needn’t be physical harm, either, but it does involve some repercussion on the part of the actor. A victim of abuse who tells his family what happened (so as to keep it from happening to another child) faces the real possibility of losing his family ties, for example.

Doing the right thing in spite of the consequences is, to me, a simple definition of courage. It’s an undisputed virtue in my book, since it privileges the good of the larger universe over the convenience or gain of the individual. it’s not limited to warriors, or people in their prime.

Ultimately, following the truth in one’s heart makes a king from a slave, Mr. Lion.