Do you ever feel like you’re just “hanging out”? I don’t mean in the good sense of those words; I mean in the sense of that desperate kitty cat on the poster, just clawing his way to hold on so that he doesn’t fall off the rope! Saint John of the Cross (Catholic/Christian) described such periods in our lives as The Dark Night of the Soul. The Christian Bible tells us of Christ crucified, just “hanging out” on the cross, between murderers and thieves, to save the whole world from its sins. And in the Norse Tradition, we have the tale of Odin hanging himself upon Yggdrasil: the ultimate shaman’s death experience.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Odin (or Norse Mythology at all, for that matter), the All-Father (roughly cognate to Yahweh/Jehovah in Judeo-Christian tradition) went to Yggdrasil, the World Tree, to seek the power of Knowledge and Wisdom. He climbed that great tree, cut himself with his own spear to feed its hungry bark with his blood, and hung himself upon the tree for nine days and nine nights. Much like Christ on the cross, Odin’s self-sacrifice is believed to have torn open the fabric of Creation (remember that part in the New Testament where it says that the curtain in the Temple was torn in two? Same thing.) and allowed the Rune Spirits to appear to him, and teach him the runes (written language, as well as a divination and magickal tool). The end result of Odin “hanging out” was the beginning of True Wisdom for All.
“Hanging out” wasn’t pleasant for either Odin or Christ, yet for some reason, we humans have the gall to think that it should be pleasant for us. That it should be easy somehow; that instead of desperately clawing our way up the proverbial rope, like the little kitten in that popular poster, we should be joyfully swinging from said rope while we “hang out”. What gives us the audacity to think such a thing? If “hanging out” was that difficult for gods, why in the hell should it be a joyride for us?
In The Dark Night of the Soul, Saint John of the Cross writes:
“Spiritual persons suffer considerable affliction in this night, owing not so much to the aridities they undergo, as to their fear of having gone astray.”
From an early age in our society, we are unfortunately taught that if something is difficult or unpleasant, it means that “whatever it is” is likely punishment for something that we’ve done. Some of that, I think, can be pinned on how pervasive the assumed Christian worldview has become in our society, but not all of it. Let me be clear on what I mean by “assumed Christian worldview” before I move on to what other factors make us think this way: that whole “eye for an eye” thing in Christianity? The whole “if you go astray you will be punished in equal portion” thing? Yeah, that went out with the Old Testament! Too many Christians seem to be missing the entire point of Christ “hanging out” on the cross in the first place! Okay, so what do I mean when I say that not all of our “if something is unpleasant, clearly I did something wrong, and it’s punishment” worldview comes from that assumed Christian perspective? The concept of karma and karmic repayment in Hinduism, Buddhism, and even modern Neo-Paganism is also responsible; we can’t pin this one solely on the Christians. Now, please don’t take that as me saying “there’s no such thing as karma”; karma is, as they say “a right bitch”, and definitely exists, but it’s a slippery slope at best, when it comes to the idea that if something is difficult or unpleasant, then obviously we’re being punished for something else we’ve done previously.
No, Saint John of the Cross got it right: the difficulty and unpleasantness we experience when going through the Dark Night of the Soul are patently not punishment, they’re tempering to make us stronger and wiser, in exactly the same way as one tempers steel in fire, but it is our fear that they are somehow punishment for our having gone astray that makes us believe that “hanging out” should be easy for us, when it wasn’t even easy for gods. Being tempered isn’t pleasant, anymore than harsh instruction from a parent–designed to help a child grow and learn–is pleasant. Priscilla, an early female leader in the Christian faith, puts it this way in the Epistle to the Hebrews (yes, that was written by a woman!):
Others have suffered far worse than you, to say nothing of what Jesus went through–all that bloodshed! So don’t feel sorry for yourselves. Or have you forgotten how good parents treat children, and that God regards you as His children?
My dear child, don’t shrug off God’s discipline,
but don’t be crushed by it either.
It’s the child he loves that he disciplines;
the child he embraces, he also corrects.
God is educating you; that’s why you must never drop out. He’s treating you as dear children. This trouble you’re in isn’t punishment; it’s training, the normal experience of children. Only irresponsible parents leave children to fend for themselves. Would you prefer an irresponsible God? We respect our own parents for training and not spoiling us, so why not embrace God’s training so we can truly live? …At the time, discipline isn’t much fun. It always feels like it’s going against the grain. Later, of course, it pays off handsomely, for it’s the well-trained who find themselves mature in their relationship with God. –Hebrews 12:4-11, The Message
Sometimes when things are difficult and unpleasant–when we’re forced to “hang out”–it’s because we did something right enough to deserve deeper wisdom and greater maturity, instead of because we’ve done something wrong. “Hanging out” makes us grow–that’s what Priscilla means when she speaks of a mature relationship with God. It deepens us as humans; brings us closer to the gods (whichever ones we favor). While it may be hard to see such dark times as an actual reward, exercising such discernment can make all the difference between whether we put our head in our hands, cry buckets, and shout to the Universe “I freaking give up!”, or not.
I am, admittedly, “having a day” today. Today, I feel like I’m “hanging out”: like my whole life just ground to a halt in some sort of unasked for pregnant pause.
My usual response to a day like this one would be to honestly either sit around and cry about it (yes, I’m that guy!), or sit and stare at the walls and feel sorry for myself, or stomp around the house like an angry spoiled child, but not today. Why is today different from all the other days in the past just like this one? Because today I realize that “hanging out” isn’t punishment for something I’ve done wrong, but instead a reward for everything I’m doing right. Now, I’ll grant you, in and of itself, it’s a pretty sucky reward, but I have faith that what I’ll gain on the other side of it is worth this feeling. “Hanging out” has forced me to “take a break”, and review what I’m doing, as well as what I’m not doing, and look around from this height at which I presently find myself hanging at all of the other possible directions I could be doing in. This “pregnant pause” has reminded me that ultimately, all that I do, am doing, and will do is not solely my own, nor is it solely up to me: ultimately, I am just the messenger, and I need to “get out of the way” of Those who would speak through me. At risk of potentially offending any of my more “hardcore” Heathen or Pagan readers, there is definitely great Truth in this passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, so please humor my “Paganizing” of it:
Now the Gods have us right where They want us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us. This instruction is all Their idea, and all Their work. All we do is trust Them enough to let Them do it. It’s Gods’ gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor instruct ourselves. The Gods do both the making and the instructing. They create each of us to join Them in the work They do, the good work They have gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing. –“Paganized” from Ephesians 2:7-10, The Message
I am ready to join Them in the work They have gotten ready for me to do. In the meantime, I’ll just be here, “hanging out”…..