and Compassion


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This article has been gradually growing in my mind for quite some time,as a result of talks with various individuals. The final catalyst was a good Heathen friend telling me a month or so ago that she had pretty well decided to leave Asatru for Buddhism because "Asatru has no compassion." She has since decided that the Aesir and Vanir are important to her and will remain so, but that she does not want to strictly define herself as Asatru and only Asatru. Still, I feel that the need for this article remains.

Here's how the Oxford Universal Dictionary (a very big and very useful book to have) defines compassion: "1. Suffering together with another; fellow-feeling, sympathy. 2. Pity that inclines one to spare or to succour." Here's my take on this definition, from a Heathen perspective. While I think I'm hitting pretty close to the mark on this, I don't pretend this is the only possible Heathen perspective, and would love to hear your insights on the subject. First of all, sharing or feeling the deep sorrow of someone with whom you have a real bond is a very normal, very human thing to do. I think most Heathens would agree, and we saw a tremendous upwelling of this in the Heathen community after the deaths of the Garrison children in a tragic fire a couple of years back.

One sort of "compassion" that goes counter to the spirit of Heathenism is a self-destructive internalization of another's pain. This harms you without helping anyone else. We Heathens are practical folks, and tend to see this as a foolish and self-destructive waste of time. All of us have probably at some time or another run into someone who is tragically and uselessly unhappy from habitually dwelling on their own, their loved ones' , or even the world's problems.

The concepts of "pity" and "sympathy" don't play very well to Heathens, at least as society as a whole tends to define them. Even in our most difficult moments, few of us really want pity or sympathy. We try to focus on our strengths while dealing with and hopefully eventually eliminating our weaknesses. A hug from a friend when you are feeling down is a good thing. Maudlin sympathy is not. Especially harmful is the "professional victim" mentality, which offers sympathy over one's past sufferings while not encouraging the victim to heal, grow beyond the situation, and in blunt, and perhaps painful English, to (as far as is possible) to strive to get over it. The sort of pity and sympathy which continually excuses an individual's present errors and bad behavior since they were at least partially caused by past trauma is ultimately counterproductive. While no one is perfect and we should be aware as to why folks in our lives sometimes behave as they do, the focus must still be on growth, healing and getting on with life. "Sparing" people from the just, logical and natural consequences of their actions and thus encouraging them to make the same mistakes over and over is not compassion in any sense of the word. In fact, it is ultimately an act of horrific cruelty since it enables troubled men and women to never have to grow up and take responsiblity, and to continue to injure themselves and others while doing severe damage to their Wyrd, damage they will sooner or later have to repair, if not in this life, then in another birth.

Heathen compassion is an active thing. Look back at the definition's reference to "succour." That's a fancy French-derived word for plain Anglo-Saxon "help." An inseparable part of it is doing something about the problem. It may mean a donation of money or goods. I saw this after the Garrison family tragedy. I saw it again earlier in the year when a member of our Kindred lost her family's rented dwelling to a fire. I saw it once more when the same thing happened to yet another family in our Kindred. Heathen compassion can also entail being a listening ear when someone needs advice or just someone to talk to. It may mean doing a Rune reading for someone, or using one's Seidhr skills to help others to begin to be healed and to heal themselves. Heathen compassion is a hand up, not a hand out. It is more about teaching people to fish and thus enabling them to eat for a lifetime, than it is about just giving them some fish to eat today.

Sometimes Heathen compassion is a hard-nosed thing, something that can even seem cruel at first glance. It can mean giving someone you love a much-needed (usually figurative) kick in the rear end when it is needed, instead of smoothing ruffled feathers and pretending that what that person is doing is OK, when is not. For the serious Heathen, an unpleasant truth is of more use than a pleasant, sugar-coated and ultimately destructive fantasy. Pointing out such an unpleasant truth at such a time and in such a way that it will help the person who needs to hear it is ultimately an act of great compassion. Whether it is perceived as such or not is not the most important thing. Still, use your tact and try to think before you speak or act. Tact and social skills are something we Heathens need to keep working on! If and when we master them, all we do will yield better and greater results.

In the realm of Heathen theology, an important source of information on compassion is the Mysteries of Frigga, especially in her being the mother of Balder. She showed her compassion by mourning him, but more importantly she tried to save him, both before and after his death. Finally, when she had done all that she could, she went on with her life and her work. Those in need of compassion will find Mother Frigga a readily accessible source of help. All of Asatru's Nine Noble Virtues (courage, truth, honor, loyalty, hospitality, industriousness, perseverence, self-discipline and self-reliance) are relevant to the exercise of true Heathen compassion, although loyalty and hospitality are, in my opinion, the most significant ones.

In closing, I will mention the following as something the larger society sees as highly compassionate, but that may not be so praiseworthy from the Heathen point of view. While many Heathens rightly see the late Mother Teresa as an example of a strong woman who lived by her beliefs and tirelessly strove to put them into action, and she and her religious Order continue to be widely praised both within and without her church as highly compassionate people, ultimately there are some very serious flaws in their approach. In countries where irresponsible and excessive reproduction account for much if not most of the misery there, she worked, and her Order continues to work, against contraception (with the exception of course of the "rhythm method" or "Vatican roulette"). They also did and continue to do everything in their power to make abortion illegal, irregardless of circumstances. While Mother Teresa and others like her are operating from the best of intentions and are seen as "compassionate," they have really changed very little for the better in the long run. In fact, they arguably do more harm than good.

To renounce free and hearty living in our very real and ultimately good world and live in poverty, chastity and obedience may look good on the surface, but in the long run it is not. "Charity begins at home," it is often said. I think most Heathens would in some sense agree with that. One cannot give compassion to others without first having compassion upon one's own self. To choose to live a live of poverty and celibacy and to become a willing thrall to the will and beliefs of a religious leader is ultimately to be cruel to one's own true self in the vast majority of cases. I was around a lot of priests and members of religious orders in my younger days and I can assure you that all in all it was not a very pretty sight once you got past the surface facade. To drain and impoverish onesself in a well-meaning but misguided attempt to help is ultimately counterproductive. After all, you are turning yourself into yet another impoverished individual in need of the charity of others just to survive, and that is no good! To live in such a way and to encourage others to do likewise is ultimately a denial of the Divine gifts and nature that Odin and his brothers placed in Ask and Embla and which have been passed down to each of us. For Heathens, it is better to stand on one's own feet, live as a free person, and work to generate a surplus which can be used to help others do the same!


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Created by Chandonn and Jordsvin

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last modified 07/21/2003