The funny thing about how I write is that I frequently find new projects in the middle of work I’m still trying to finish. I imagine I’m not alone in this, but it’s always a pleasant surprise when I try to tackle something and find an excess of material hiding there. It gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling when I search for one thing and end up finding a dozen other things hiding in the darker recesses. It makes me feel like an explorer.
Let’s talk about the singularly, nearly uncontested linchpin of Norse Polytheistic ethics; “We Are Our Deeds”
I was researching where the phrase came from (I still don’t conclusively know) when I encountered an extremely acidic (though deservedly so) rundown of the phrase over at Adventures in Vanaheim. The post in question had a lot of fire, and the author of the work definitely has some poignant things to say on the matter. I’ve seen some of the same behaviors, and I regard them no more kindly than she does. The phrase can and does mean a variety of things, but one of the meanings that everyone agrees with is “actions speak louder than words. The problem is that people often use the philosophies involved to allow for a theological backdoor.
You see, this is where I get extremely amused/upset at some of the more conservative sides of Norse Polytheism. There are people who will absolutely malign anything perceived as Christian. They do it with no shortage of conviction or passion, either. Peace, hospitality to people outside your Innangard, any political policy that has the semblance of charity…all of it is cast quickly on to the bonfire as the relic of another faith. Than these same people will use “We Are Our Deeds” the way poorly acting Christians use “What Would Jesus Do”; as a means of using their religion as a weapon and a barrier
They see something they don’t appreciate, look for a way to spin such an action into a parallel of some faux pas, cherry pick a reference within their literature or lore that superficially validates their outrageous condemnation, and than feel theologically justified in acting like judgmental assholes. It’s absolutely flabbergasting.
As much as it would enjoyable to continue to comically compare WWJD to WAOD, That’s the low road. My wife has had a lot to say to me about my writing as of late; she’s been pointing out how angry and contentious Heathenry is within it’s own body, and that’s it sad state of affairs when a religion seems to exist simply because all the people involved get angry at the same things. How much do we talk about those we cannot stand, and how often do we embrace the things about Heathenry/Asatru/Norse Polytheism which we actually like? If reflection upon that doesn’t bother you, you may be part of the problem.
Another reason I’m not going there is, of all things, The Oatmeal. In his strip that focused on
Genocidal Bastard Columbus Day, he pointed out how easy it is to rip something apart…and how much more difficult and rewarding it is to find something worth holding up. As easy as it would be to simply tear into those who misappropriate “We Are Our Deeds” to justify their own petty intolerance, it’s more appropriate to try and turn the same phrase into something that has the meaning it truly deserves. It’s also probably a lot less hypocritical, while I’m thinking about it.
Which brings up to “We Are Our Deeds” itself. What does it say of me if the best thing I can do is just be a more tactful form of critical and brash? Criticism is needed, and it’s a powerful tool. There is, however, a very apt saying about what happens when all you have is a hammer….
First and foremost it’s not about holding others accountable to us, but in holding ourselves accountable to the world. Our actions are going to be our best spokespeople and/or our harshest critics, and that’s exactly how it should be. We should see it as a tool for self reflection first and foremost, as there is no shortage of such a viewpoint within the lore. Let us consider the countless entries in the Havamal* which talk about watching your own conduct carefully, and letting the conduct of strangers speak for themselves. Be certain that you have used it on yourself far more than you ever use it on another. If you come off looking awesome 100% of the time in your own estimation, than you’re doing it wrong; no one is perfect, not even our Gods and Goddesses.
It’s also a great way to compliment other; if someone is busting their butt doing tons of work yet still pushing themselves to do more, you can remind them that their dedication already has provided more than the fruits of their labor ever can. It also reminds us that our criticism shouldn’t be tied to gossip, first impressions, or mere hunches; all criticism should be crafted from the actions of that person, as anything else is just pointing to a shadow or a phantasm.
If we are tired of hearing that phrase misused(and we should be), the solution is not to simply discard it; I believe we should challenge ourselves to use it appropriately. The ethics it represents are solid, and resonate quite strongly with the morality that is found within the lore as well as in the cultures that crafted such tales. More over, there is a wonderfully simple logic to it; I am no more or less than what I have done, so judge me by that and that alone. There is pragmatic brilliance within that sentiment.
I’m not saying that the tool is completely unfit for analyzing others either; it’s just not how you should be using it more often than not. There are times, however, where it is fair to use a person’s behavior to get an understanding of their worth. That makes sense. What doesn’t hold water is when the same philosophical engine is used to pass judgement over a person in connection to a single action or behavior (Loki worship, Syncretism, having no problem with Wiccan praxis, wearing that hat with those shoes, etc) that doesn’t impact anyone but that person. That’s not on them; it’s on you.
There are people who use ethical and philosophical outs when it comes to ethical and religious considerations. There always has been, and there always will be. You can’t prevent it. All you can do is determine how you deal with it and, in this case, I feel the best thing we can do is use this simple but powerful tool to the best of our abilities. Use it to challenge ourselves, and be better people. In short, we can simply be our deeds…and let other, less informed, less enlightened people be theirs.
*Yes, yes…I know…I’m usually the last one to refer to the Havamal or the lore. I don’t have a problem with it, however; just in how some people use such works. For example, when the Havamal is used to inform ethical considerations and thew, rather than create entire ethical codes from scratch, it’s actually a wonderful resource.
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