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Vikings didn’t need therapy
Icelandic sagas and existentialism
I think one of the unsung innovations of our time is therapy, by which I mean psychotherapy. According to the ancient philosophers, viewing the world in the right perspective could bring peace of mind. Today, we have the scientific apparatus to rigorously show what kind of perspective can bring what kind of peace of mind.
It’s not clear whether Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is overall “better” than Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or the more traditional psychoanalysis. But we do have clear evidence that these methods, which mostly involve two humans talking to each other, can be an effective alternative or complement to pharmaceuticals that seep into our brains and change the way they work.
One source of stress I see among my peers –not necessarily one that drives people to therapy, but a source of stress nonetheless– is the paradox of infinite choice. The paradox says: if you have infinite choices, you should become infinitely happy. The logic goes like this: more choices means more happiness. More choices for consumer goods, jobs, friends, or romantic partners means you can find something that better suits you. Combine this with the concept of power law distributions, the business-friendly idea that a tiny fraction of choices are immensely better than all the other, and you end up with the paradox of infinite choice.
This argument is flawed, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t cause stress, the kind of stress that therapy can help someone handle.
The Vikings, it seemed, didn’t need therapy. In the Norse worldview, the hour of your death was fated at birth, and so people –or, at least, respectable, upper class people– didn’t spend much time worrying about death. Instead, they worried about acting and dying well. The Icelandic word for this desirable character trait was drengskapr, which translates to something like “courage” or “high-mindedness.”
Drengskapr led Vikings to choices that today would be considered maladjusted. The most poignant example of this contrast that I know of comes from the most famous Icelandic saga, Njall’s Saga. The saga is the story of certain Icelanders living around 1000 AD, when Iceland was a sparsely populated, independent republic.
In Njall’s Saga, the hero Gunnar makes a bad marriage that eventually embroils him in multiple feuds. After avenging and being avenged many times, Gunnar receives a criminal sentence called lesser outlawry. Gunnar must live outside Iceland for three years. If he serves his time, he can return to his old life with no further consequences. If he defies the sentence and does not leave Iceland, he will be an outlaw, meaning that anyone can kill him at any time, with no repercussions.
Gunnar books passage on a ship and says farewell to his family and friends. His closest supporter Kolskegg will go into exile with him. But something changes Gunnar’s mind at the last moment:
Gunnar threw his arms round each of the household [...] and every one of them went out of doors with him; he leans on the butt of his spear and leaps into the saddle, and he and Kolskegg ride away.
They ride down along [the river leading from Gunnar’s home to the sea], and just then Gunnar's horse tripped and threw him off. He turned with his face up towards [his homestead], and said—
“Fair is [my homestead]; so fair that it has never seemed to me so fair; the corn fields are white to harvest, and the home mead is mown; and now I will ride back home, and not fare abroad at all.”
“Do not this joy to thy foes,” says Kolskegg, “by breaking thy atonement, for no man could think thou wouldst do thus, and thou mayst be sure that all will happen as Njal has said.”
“I will not go away any whither,” says Gunnar, “and so I would thou shouldest do too.”
“That shall not be,” says Kolskegg; “I will never do a base thing in this, nor in anything else which is left to my good faith; and this is that one thing that could tear us asunder; but tell this to my kinsmen and to my mother, that I never mean to see Iceland again, for I shall soon learn that thou art dead, brother, and then there will be nothing left to bring me back.”
So they parted there and then. Gunnar rides home to Lithend, but Kolskegg rides to the ship, and goes abroad.
Gunnar returns home and is later killed by his enemies. His friend Kolskegg, foreseeing this outcome, is broken-hearted. He leaves Iceland, makes his way to modern-day Russia, which ruled by Vikings at that time, and then continues down to Constantinople, where he joined the Byzantine emperor’s bodyguard.
Gunnar shows utter contempt for death. He looks over the river at his home, and it’s so beautiful to him that he decides, at the drop of a hat, to stay in Iceland and ensure he will be killed by his enemies.
Another example of this bravery was the contempt that the Icelanders showed to their enemies before dying. For example, in one saga, one Viking kills another with an axe. With his dying breath, the defeated man quips, “It seems like long-handled axes are in fashion these days.” I’m not sure if the dying warrior wanted to be funny and make it seem like death is a laughing matter, or if he wanted to show contempt by implying that his killer cared about the fashionability of his weaponry. Either way, very badass. Very drengskapr.
Gunnar’s behavior is rational insofar as he expects his bravery to earn him renown in the afterlife. When he sits down in Valhalla, he’d like to be able to tell a story about how he decided to face death for almost no good reason at all.
Nevertheless, it seems like many of the feuds in the sagas could have been avoided by therapy. For example, the wise man Njall, who the saga with Gunnar and Kolskegg is named after, tries to smooth over a certain feud by giving a precious cloak. This gift unintentionally insults the recipient, a man named Flosi, who objects that a cloak is a woman’s garment, and so Njall is calling him a coward. The peace talks break down, and Flosi eventually murders Njall. Njall’s sons’ friend Kari retaliates and later kills Flosi. It’s a bloody back-and-forth that seems like it could have been averted if Flosi weren’t so sensitive about a potential double-meaning in an honest gift.
The Viking’s embrace of fatalism doesn’t make sense in our age of innovation, but it makes me wonder if our innovation mindset has a dark side. I’ll call this dark side “reverse fatalism,” and it goes like this: everything bad that happens is a result of human error, and insofar as you are capable of affecting that human behavior, you are at fault. A pandemic is a sign that global and local leaders didn’t do their job; a pandemic isn’t an act of god any more than a government default is. Miscarriages are either a personal failure –a pregnant woman ate unpasteurized cheese– or a failure of medical science. We either didn’t act correctly as individuals, or we didn’t produce the needed scientific knowledge as a society to avert an undesired medical outcome. Another example: hurricanes are because of climate change because of fossil fuel companies because of our chosen economic system, which does not sufficiently account for the negative externalities of carbon-based energy.
On the one hand, yes, we as a species could prevent pandemics. Yes, better medical care and more research could prevent many miscarriages. Yes, a carbon tax would reduce natural disasters.
On the other hand, these aren’t problems you can solve in a day. Therapy can help for problems like these. Say there’s something you don’t like about yourself, and you find yourself agonizing over it. An ACT therapist might say, “Imagine that the thing you don’t like about yourself is like a broken-down car in your driveway. You don’t have to like the broken-down car, and you can take steps to get rid of it. But looking at it and troubling yourself over it won’t help make it go away. You need to take action and be patient at the same time.”
How do we translate this combination of action and patience from our personal lives and into our societal action? How do we hold onto our collective ability to change the world, and our individual inability to change the world? I think existentialist philosophers give one clue.
Jean-Paul Sartre, a famous existentialist philosopher, argued that “existentialism is a humanism.” If you’re like me, your first impression of existentialism was not really distinguishable from nihilism, the philosophical position that life has no meaning. On the contrary, existentialism is deeply concerned with the meaning of life.
Sartre specifically recognized the difficulty of making decisions for your life and also for the world at large. He called this condition anguish:
Existentialists like to say that man is in anguish. This is what they mean: a man who commits himself, and who realizes that he is not only the individual that he chooses to be, but also a legislator choosing at the same time what humanity as a whole should be, cannot help but be aware of his own full and profound responsibility. True, many people do not appear especially anguished, but we maintain that they are merely hiding their anguish or trying not to face it. Certainly, many believe that their actions involve no one but themselves, and were we to ask them, “But what if everyone acted that way?” they would shrug their shoulders and reply, “But everyone does not act that way.” In truth, however, one should always ask oneself, “What would happen if everyone did what I am doing?” The only way to evade that disturbing thought is through some kind of bad faith. Someone who lies to himself and excuses himself by saying “Everyone does not act that way” is struggling with a bad conscience, for the act of lying implies attributing a universal value to lies.
I have no tidy conclusion, because I haven’t come to any tidy conclusion. The Vikings’ religion seems to have kept them from over-thinking things, but it also led them to burning each other alive for not very good reasons. Our contemporary devotion to innovation has made our lives better in many ways, but it also leaves us with the existential anguish of being responsible for ourselves and for our societies.