Courage: My Interpretation

For awhile now, I’ve been looking for a really good program of study for Asatru. I’ve read the Poetic Edda, the Norse myths, and some of the Sagas. I’ve also tried to read some of the historical texts, but I never really felt like I was doing anything productive. And then I happened to stumble across this study program. I like the way it’s set up, and I like that it’s a program designed to be done at  your own pace.

Still, I never even thought about starting with the Nine Noble Virtues. Probably because they seem so basic. But I am going to start following this program and see where it leads. So here’s my first essay. I doubt that the designer of the program intended for each virtue to have its own in-depth essay, but I personally feel like each virtue deserves its own special recognition.

Courage 

Courage is the willingness to put everything on the line. It is the willingness to stand up and say, “This is who I am, this is what I believe,” and refuse to give in. It takes courage to be honest, and it takes courage to face life head-on. One of the quotes I was inspired by, growing up, was the quote “Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.” I don’t know who first said this, but I’ve found it to be an ample guide throughout my life. And I think it speaks to courage more than it does truth because the quote itself expresses fear. Being honest takes courage. Living up to your own ideals takes courage. Refusing to bend to the will of the masses takes courage. Everything in life takes courage.

Another one of my favorite quotes about courage is: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear,” said by Nelson Mandela. To me, this is exactly what courage is. Everyone is afraid of something. I have fears that I come face to face with every day. Fear is, perhaps, an intrinsic part of the human condition. I feel like I’ve been forced to confront fear on a daily basis since I was very young. I grew up in a house where my mother’s mood swings were unpredictable, and I was always terrified of her when she was in a bad mood. Especially because those moods were exacerbated by her drinking. I always felt like I was walking on glass around her, never knowing when I was going to find a shard stuck in my foot. I read, somewhere, that people who grow up around alcoholics grow up in a war zone, and I think that’s a pretty accurate description.

Growing up in that kind of environment, I had to learn how to survive. And I did. I learned that the best way to avoid being hit was to blend in. To never question my mother’s decisions, even though the lack of understanding I felt tore me up inside. I learned to stay on the “good side” of authority figures because that’s what I learned to do in order to survive. Stepping out of that role, out of that structure, was terrifying for me. But I still did it. And I didn’t do it because I felt a need to stand out or be different. I stepped out of the structure I was in because I realized it didn’t work for me. When my mom died, I no longer needed to survive. Instead, I was free to live my life. For the first time, I could live the way I chose to live without being absolutely terrified all the time.

Stepping out of a situation like that is difficult for anyone, so it was difficult for me. I didn’t grow up with a firm grounding in Christianity, but I was raised Christian. Insomuch as a person who goes to Vacation Bible School every summer can really be raised Christian. Breaking away from Christianity wasn’t difficult for me – I did that when my mom was still alive. She always encouraged me to find my own truths – up until they didn’t mesh with what she believed in, of course. I had a friend who practiced witchcraft when I was 10 years old, and when my mom found out that he’d been teaching me, she told me that I wasn’t allowed to do anything like that because it was “devil’s work.”

My mom was agnostic, but she obviously had a lot of Christian morals. So it’s no surprise she forbade me to practice witchcraft, but she didn’t care if I read fantasy novels. When the Harry Potter books came out and people made a big deal out of them being “of the devil,” my mom scoffed at that and let me read them. Everything about her confused me. On one hand, she was okay with magic, but on the other, it was evil.

Anyway, I decided to attend Sunday school once, and that was all it took. At first, the lesson was a good one – that people are judged on the basis of their deeds – but it quickly turned sour. The lesson quickly turned into a “but only if you’re Christian” one, and I hated it. I hated the idea of exclusivity so much I decided, that very afternoon, that I was going to be an atheist. That lasted for a few weeks until I met a Jehovah’s Witness and started speaking to her. When my mom found out about that, I had to be really secretive about my friendship with the girl, but I quickly learned that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in Hell. I also quickly learned that they really hated pagans.

I wanted to know who these pagans were that had inspired such hatred, so I started doing research. I needed to see for myself if this hatred was justified. I was surprised, of course, that everything I read seemed to point at exactly the opposite. In fact, paganism was life-affirming, and most paths were nature-based. So I immediately stopped discussing theology with Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I poured myself into studying everything I could about paganism. I couldn’t get enough. I don’t think I ever told my mom. I’d finally found a life path that made sense for me, and I didn’t want to share it with anyone. I finally had my own identity.

It wasn’t until a decade passed that I found myself exploring Asatru. I tried Wicca for three months, and discarded it. Instead, I took up the mantle of eclectic pagan, and I pulled from every source imaginable. I did exactly what I’d been told NOT to do my entire life – I made my own “Bible.” I defined my own morality, set my own compass, and let life guide me. I was always questioning my decision, though, to throw off the Christian mantle. I wondered if I hadn’t been too hasty, considering I’d been all of 12 years old when I decided Christianity wasn’t my thing.

So I tried it out again, just to see. I went to some churches, and I read the Bible – all of it. I even did some study groups, and I tried to convince myself that Christianity made sense. But the more I read, the more wrong it felt. And I realized, finally, that I could never be happy being Christian. I wish, sometimes, that I could be happy being docile, because then at least I’d have a large community to belong to. The idea of having my own group is incredibly important to me, but I know I can’t be happy in the Christian faith – I’ve already tried.

I rejected Christianity because I was never happy in that faith. I always felt stifled, constricted – I read somewhere that Christianity promotes weakness, and I have to agree with that. The idea that someone else is responsible for my actions, that there is some “devil” that plagues me with ills – that is the very definition of fear. And rather than live under the yoke of that fear, I broke free of it. To do that, when I live in the middle of a Bible Belt, took more courage than I can recount here. To this day, I get nervous when people ask me what the Valknut around my neck means, but I always, always tell them the truth. When I swore myself to Odin, I knew exactly what it meant, and I have never refused to give him the honor he deserves. I always acknowledge him, even when I am shaking in fear that the person who has asked is going to mock me – or worse.

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