The following verse from Hávamál was presented to me for contemplation and reflection by a good friend and someone I have the utmost respect for. It came about in light of a concept I put to them about entering into challenges ‘like a dead man’ when it came to combat and competition and challenging oneself. Immediately it became obvious that, like many warriors (old and young), that perception of oneself and the manner in which we perceive the philosophy and psychology of our beliefs is very often the thing that will drive up to succeed or fail in many of our endeavours.
Coming from a philosophy of relatively eastern views within a western environment, forged and cast by 40 years of study of Japanese martial arts, and the pursuit of Buddhism, Zen, and other native eastern religions I was at first surprised by what I felt on reading verse 71 of Hávamál. Surprised, and more than a little chastised by it.
However, after some time and reflection on both my previous understanding, and the advice on life given by Hávamál I have come to the conclusion that both approach the same meaning, albeit from very different perspectives and attitudes and each one contains within it the seeds of the other.
The ultimate goal between both is to life life fully and in the moment, but the journey and route taken are vastly different.
Hávamál Verse 71
The lame can ride
The one-armed can steer
The deaf can fight
Better to be blind than dead
You can’t do anything When you’re dead
The initial observation here is that, taken at face value, only the living can actually live a life. That no matter what your situation in life, there is always something that you can do.
While an accurate assessment, there is a lot more to this statement than just the obvious and the deeper you look into the words and their meaning, the more you can uncover.
‘Cogito Ergo Sum‘
In life, it is too easy to focus on the things that we can and cannot do and allow ourselves to be dictated by them. To let our impairments and inability to define us, rather than to take ownership of what we as human beings are truly capable of. In verse 71 we are faced with a series of impairment coupled with the offering of things that can be achieved, culminating in the finalising that a body, devoid of life, can do nothing.
This verse immediately makes me think of the philosopher Decartes and his famous statement ‘Cogito Ergo Sum – I Think, therefore I am’.
Our ability and perception of ourselves is limited immediately by what we believe we are capable of and what we consider ourselves to be worth. In verse 71 the greatest limitation that is placed upon either the lame, or one-armed, or deaf individual is the limits of their own perception. If they accept without question that they are limited, they will be limited without question.
If we perceive ourselves to be impaired, then we will be so and will only see the very few things we cannot achieve, rather than acknowledge the many more things we can. Then by focusing on what we cannot do, we become the slave to that thought until it gains ownership of our very essence until everything becomes about that. In effect, we truly become dead to possibilities and opportunities, even though we are still 99% functional. In this case, we act as though dead when still so full of potential life.
Verse 71, therefore is not about physical ability, but thought – about belief in oneself.
The Self vs the self
A further factor in Verse 71 arises from the many roles presented, here we have a lame man riding, a one-armed man steering, and a deaf man fighting. These are not necessarily roles or duties in which only that individual is either involved or connected to. The lame man may be delivering a message to many, the one-armed may steer a ship of hundreds to better shores, and the deaf man may fight side by side and strengthen the wall of his comrades to prevent a weak link. The blind man possesses knowledge and strategies that may change the tide of fates or fortunes. Each one of these can be part of a grand force or army, seeking to better itself and the world around it.
All of this applies not only to combat but also to social and even emotional or psychological situations. Every day we wage a constant battle between our sense of ‘Self’ (our greater sense of purpose and will to do better) and our ‘self’ (the little voice that wants us to fail just to prove it was right for us to doubt ourselves). It is vital that we do not let our own little ‘self’ win out and show us only the negative aspects of our characteristics and perceived impairment.
Impairment can often narrow our perceptions down to just being ourselves, to only seeing the world from the viewpoint of a camera pointed inward to us, rather than from ourselves to the world around us and how we may influence it. It is easy to lose our sense of purpose and place, but only when we allow that to happen. Our power cannot be taken away, it must be relinquished and it is here in Verse 71 that this finally reaches its meaning in stating that ‘You cant do anything when you are dead’.
The dead relinquish life either intentionally, unintentionally, or due to the tests and rigours of time. The stripping away of life is what results in death and it is so very easy to be living a life that is actually devoid of life itself. Each day becomes a step closer to an actual end but those steps are taken in a self-inflicted purgatory for the inward-facing camera can only see the things that cannot be done.
Yet in this state, living as though already dead, we deprive ourselves of the one thing that the dead do have, and so we continue to live and even greater lie than we thought.
The Dead cannot fear Death
In eastern philosophy, ‘to fight as though already dead’ implies a lack of fear of failure and a desire to deny that final step into actual death with every fibre of ones being. It is designed to introduce a state where we can undertake actions without considering failure and, when such an event occurs, acknowledge it as a chance to do the very utmost you can in that moment before the final blow is struck.
To live, and to truly fight for life, we cannot be concerned with the prospect of death and failure, yet only the dead can truly be without fear of death and so to enter into any endeavour without such fear requires we resolve ourself to that outcome in advance.
Overcoming that fear of failure is where life exists at both its greatest and most rewarding , but also at its most demanding place. Where we choose to embrace the challenges before us as fearlessly as possible and to enter with full commitment, even when the chance of success is slim.
In embracing the concept of our own failure, we can inevitably challenge any death, be it literal or symbolic, and meet life with passion and a desire to succeed.
Verse 71 therefore is not merely about knowing what can be done, but about understanding a greater picture. Any and all of us will and can affect the world around us in a myriad of ways – may of which we may not even be aware of.
Some inspire, others lead, many strive, and many more seek a place and a truth in the world. Just because you do not see the impact you have on others does not mean it never occurs.
To stand among those who refuse to be limited by the things they cannot do is one of the greatest lessons we can learn in life. To support and encourage them to continue striving, reaching, and breaking through the boundaries of what others may perceive as their limitations is one of the greatest gifts we can give.
Do not be so quick to judge the old man, or the blind man, the deaf man, or the infirm. Each one by their very presence of being is a warrior on their own path, fighting their own fight and they should be an inspiration to us all.