Courage, Cowardice, and Living versus Hiding
These following verses are extremely insightful. I had the good fortune to learn from someone who, though he never read the stanza, certainly knew the lesson it told. Many times, the Havamal verses only give their full wisdom when we have had a real-world lesson that matches them.
Silence becomes the Son of a prince,
To be silent but brave in battle:
It befits a man to be merry and glad
Until the day of his death,
(15. Taciturn and prudent,
and in war daring
should a king’s children be;
joyous and liberal
every one should be
until the hour of his death.)
The coward believes he will live forever
If he holds back in the battle,
But in old age he shall have no peace
Though spears have spared his limbs
These verses are connected in a cunning way. Merry and glad ( or joyous and liberal as Thorpe saw it ) is the way one should live his days. The very next stanza cautions that the coward will have no peace. Obviously, joy and gladness are denied him. Is this a divine punishment? No. True to the Havamal, it is a very pragmatic observation of human nature. Hidden in these verses is the message that joy and happiness are given to the brave while cowards are denied them.
Back in the late 70s, I was learning a unique hand-to-hand combat system from a Guadalcanal veteran. He had been teaching it in New York since the late 1940s. One of his stories involved being shelled by the Japanese. The shelling was ferocious and Marines hunkered in their holes, each wondering when a shell would get a direct hit and he would “get his.” The shelling ended at daybreak and all was well again.
He thought of his story in contrast to people who hide in their apartments. These people were afraid of running into trouble on the streets. They were so afraid they might “get theirs” that they imprisoned themselves in their homes. Indeed, their very fear kept them from living. I have known people like that.
We are all going to “get ours” some day. The how and why and when of it are not ours to know until that time comes. So what do we do until then? The brave will be merry and have fun, living fully to the day of demise. The cowardly will be prisoners of their own minds and be miserable as they await the inevitable.
Better to have a life than to be a prisoner of your own fears. I found this to be true. There is a world out there to enjoy.
One of the things I used to enjoy was seeing the different public spaces in large buildings in midtown New York City. The law stated that these structures had to provide public space. Usually it included places to sit and a garden and maybe some food vendors. This odyssey of mine lasted a couple of years when I worked in the City. Some friends used to join me occasionally. It was fun and always ended up with a nice container of specialty coffee and some kind of fancy pastry. Maybe it was not an act of courage, but the willingness to go somewhere unknown certainly paid off. This is but a small example of living as opposed to hiding from life.
Exploring, visiting new places, doing new things and meeting new people are welcome experiences to those who are confident. They are dreadful experiences to those for whom fear is a way of life. Is confidence a manifestation of bravery, or is bravery a manifestation of confidence? Actually, they are both facets of the same thing. Those who avoid anything new or different may mask it through a facade of complacency. I have noticed that all too often, complacency is a symptom of laziness or fear. In the latter case, it is a mind that would rather take refuge in what is known than risk something unknown.
There was a fellow who had been helping a friend. She had been sick and needed a place to stay. The woman liked staying with him. She had grown up and lived much of her life in difficult circumstances. He lived better than that. In the course of things, my friend received an offer of a new position in a new town. It was much more profitable and the circumstances were much better. He offered to take the woman with him and get her situated in better circumstances, as well. Though she said she liked the idea, she began to sabotage her relationship with him. There were a few provocations. It ended with her leaving. She went back to the poor circumstances and the street people she had known. It baffled my friend that someone would throw it all back in his face and, worse, leave him for that slatternly lifestyle.
Naturally, my friend wondered if maybe there was something wrong with him. There was not. The woman was very afraid of anything unknown. Though the future with him was sure to be better, she was afraid and so retreated to what she knew best. Fear drove her back to poverty. Another friend ran into the woman some years later and talked with her. She said she felt bad she had thrown away that opportunity. She stated that trying to work into better circumstances took her a lot of effort, and she still felt foolish that she could have had it all just by saying yes.
How can a person choose misery over something that is unknown but promises to be so much better? Baffling as it sounds, it is more common than you might think. There are many whose fear speaks to them loudest.
I like the poetic turn of Thorpe’s translation. Daring has a slightly different ring than brave. I am reminded of the old German (Prussian) system of military training. Officers were trained to follow orders. They were also given leeway to take the initiative if a situation presented itself. Of course, giving them this freedom and the encouragement to be daring entailed training them to recognize opportunity and to apply daring properly. One did not want a bunch of glory-seeking junior officers going off on their own and thereby upsetting the overall battle plan.
As in all things, daring requires discretion. Daring without direction is rashness. Focused properly, daring is the aggressive initiative that succeeds. The motto of the British SAS is “Who Dares, Wins.”
Daring is not so much taking a random chance as it is a calculated risk. Bravery is not stupid. The brave look before they leap. They assess the situation. The old saw tells us that discretion is the better part of valor. However, discretion has its limits because there are situations where the only possibility of success comes from a bold, daring approach. Over-caution can be as harmful to a strategy as a rash, headlong rush into disaster. The smash and speed of Patton tends to get more done than the surgical caution of Montgomery.
What is the business about the sons of kings being silent and “taciturn”? Aha! In a hot situation is it natural to be anxious and even a bit agitated. The adrenaline rush and “butterflies in the stomach” are among the many things that arise. You do not stifle them by chatter! Silence and a taciturn manner are symptoms of self-restraint.
Granted that fear and anxiety are best handled by acknowledging them, but in a situation where others are within earshot, it is best to acknowledge them silently to oneself. You can admit to yourself that you feel afraid but it is not a sentiment to share with others, This goes double if you are in charge. Remember too that acknowledging that you feel something negative is done so you do NOT act on those feelings. Instead, you are making sure to keep those feelings from affecting your decisions and actions.
I learned that in a hot situation, benign or otherwise, to keep all speech brief and to the point. Chatter has no place when the proverbial haufen mist is hitting the fan. Your words have to be clear, crisp, succinct and decisive. One sentence of direction is preferred to a diatribe covering the whole plan.
Back in ancient times, the family provided the hierarchy. A ruler, be he a king or jarl, would count his sons amongst his trusted warriors. These men were trained from birth to serve as leaders, and so provided a natural officer corps for their father. If the father is the General, his sons are his Colonels and Majors. We modern folks often miss things that were the accepted norm long ago. A ruler’s son was not some pampered little wimp. He was toughened and taught and expected to grow to be as strong as his father. Forget Prince Charming. Think of Prince Knock-you-into-next-week-with-a-left-jab.