I love this community. I love the open tolerance of the broader Pagan umbrella as well as the well-grounded strength and practicality of Heathenry. There’s a reason I’m a still Heathen. It’s far from perfect, but it never claims to be. Part of that strength comes from acknowledging our own shortcomings and working to improve them, both as individuals and as a community. Which is why I chose to write today about something our community doesn’t like to talk about.
The Heathen community doesn’t deal well with mental illness or depression. There. I said it.
I’ve written before about how our community puts such a powerful emphasis on the value of self-reliance (not to mention a certain amount of machismo) that asking for help can be a real struggle. As a Heathen I’ve often felt like talking about depression was more likely to get me judged than to help me. For a group that’s normally all about Frith and supporting ones fellows, Heathens can be remarkably unhelpful when it comes to mental or emotional struggles. You’re more likely to get a brusque ‘Man Up’ than a friendly ear or constructive advice.
One’s faith-based community should be a balm, not a burden. If we can’t turn to Kindred or Clergy for support, then what’s the point of either? If we shun those among us who are most in need of our help, how can we hope to build real and lasting organizations? Perhaps even more frustrating is the fact that our Lore DOES address these issues, but that’s often overlooked. If you want to see how even the strongest and most devoted Heathen can still struggle with depression, you need look no further than The Allfather himself.
Yes Odin, king of Asgard, glorious lord of battle, and master of poets, wrestles with those same inner demons. Throughout the Lore, Odin regularly struggles with issues that those of us who’ve had to cope with depression can all recognize. The Allfather is not a happy person by nature. Time and again we see him weighed down by regret, and burdened by the weight of fates he cannot control. As his story progresses, this constant struggle changes him as a person. He becomes more and more cynical, eyeing the world with less hope and more skepticism. The Grímnismál offers us some of the clearest signs of this, in Odin’s own words no less.
Huginn ok Muninn Huginn and Muninn
fljúga hverjan dag Fly each day
Jörmungrund yfir; over the wide world
óumk ek of Huginn I fear for Huginn
at hann aftr né komit, That he may not return to me
þó sjámk meir um Munin. Yet I fear more for Muninn
What does Odin Allfather fear most? Not death. Not Ragnarök, but the loss of his Munr. The Munr is part of the ancient Norse concept of self, and is the word from which the name Muninn is derived. It is the part of the mind which encompasses ones emotions. While it has no real English corollary, the best translation for this word would probably be ‘desire’, or ‘will’. What the Allfather is expressing here is a fear of losing his passion for life; or more precisely, losing his will to live. The one eyed god is bears the weight of extraordinary knowledge, and not all knowledge brings joy. We see his words in the Hávamál express this same idea when he says “There is no worse sickness for the wise than to have nothing left to feel passionate about.”
That is what Depression looks like. Or at the very least what it CAN look like. Imagine that your mind is an internal combustion engine, and you only have so much fuel to get you through the day. Each task, or interaction, costs you so much fuel until at the end of the day you run out of gas and go to bed. Your average person can choose to devote their resources as they see fit and ration them out to make sure they last until they can ‘refuel’. Now imagine that you can’t turn off the engine. Now you have to spend resources to get things done, but in-between tasks your engine is still idling, burning fuel. Even more distressing is the fact that you can’t even properly ‘refuel’. You can never top off the tank, because your engine never stops.
Everything you want to try and complete must be done through the constant background noise of doubt, regret, worry, and fear. Every molehill might as well be a mountain because you have to carry all of that with you. During the hardest points of depression just mustering the energy required to express emotion can be daunting. How can you possibly spare that kind of energy, when you start the day on half a tank and it takes you twice as much energy to accomplish even essential tasks? It doesn’t matter if you are aware of it, if you can rationally tell yourself what’s happening. There is no magical ‘off switch’ that you can hit to fix the problem. No amount of willpower will make it disappear.
So what does the Allfather teach us about coping with these issues? It’s sure as Hel not that we need to just ‘Man up and get over it’. Odin never lacked for strength of will. Depression isn’t a symptom of weakness. When just convincing yourself to get out of bed in the morning is a feat, and every interaction with your peers feels like a trial by fire, but you still have to get up and do it anyway, there is no part of that that is WEAK. No, Odin shows us how to find a different kind of strength.
I’ve said many times before that Heathenry is, above all else, practical. Odin doesn’t find some kind of miraculous magical cure, because there isn’t one. Instead he fights a war on two fronts every day, battling both the enemies without and within. So where does he get the strength to confront this?
Kith and Kin
Odin said it himself. Cling to that which you are passionate about. It is always easier to fight for those we love than it is to fight for ourselves. We’ve all seen it. How often have we all let an insult roll off our back only to find that ‘last straw’ when we hear our loved ones attacked? Even when it would be such a simple thing to just give up because we don’t have the energy spare on giving a crap, when family calls (blood or otherwise) we find a way. We all have people who rely on us. Spouses who deserve a functional partner. Children who depend on us for life. Parents who gave everything they had so that we could flourish. Friends who need to know they can call on us when times are hard, because they would do the same for us.
That’s why it is so especially heinous to see these people being berated and belittled by those who should be their source of strength and inspiration. These people mustered up the strength of will to face the world, and then the courage to ask for help from their fellows, only to be called weak by the very thing that should be helping them to carry on. When we see those among our community asking for help, the last thing they need to hear is ‘Get over it’.
The proper answer is right there in our own tradition.
“You are wanted, you are needed, and you are accepted as you are.”