I had a long talk last night with some of my own. Soldiers. Canadian and American. Francophone, bilingual and English speaker, yet what bound us was the language we spoke. It is a language that forever divides us from everyone else, and unites us at the same time in a terrible brotherhood. Those whose eyes have seen what we have seen lose the world they knew, and are reborn into a new one.
Initiation is an old word, a magical world that describes the practice of undergoing an ordeal of transformation. Those who are initiates into the mysteries cannot truly speak to those who have not known them, for although they may hear the words, their eyes have not seen what the initiates have seen, and what is summoned when they speak those words cannot be seen by those who have not been through the same. The words are the same, but the dictionary was changed.
It is by the eyes you will know us. Eyes that have seen too much the poets will say. A pragmatist would point out the real issue is that these eyes can never stop looking for what they have learned to seek. Seeking and assessing threats, angles, and constantly updating action plans in every situation. Those who are quick to say paranoid are themselves frequently ambushed by things they lacked the situational awareness to track as a threat, and were therefore taken by it. Innocence of the threats around you is not a virtue, it is a handicap. Hyper vigilance is a coping mechanism for those who have not been able to separate operational and home environment. Sometimes it is because returning home they are no longer innocent, and are no longer blind to the threats that were always there.
When we left, we were ignorant of the lesser dangers that surrounded us even then. Now we return, what we saw in innocence as safe, we see as surrounded by threats today. Lesser threats, by in large. Learning to adjust your threat response means adjusting your world view to accept that what you once thought of as safe is different from where you learned to live with danger only by a matter of degree. On good days a very large degree, but subject to change without notice. Awareness of that threat will either become intergrated into your new understanding of home, or you will literally never make it home; you will simply live your conflict on familiar earth.
Odin is the god who instructs me, who owns my loyalty and whose tools preserved me when my own strength and skills did not suffice. Odin is the one who taught me to see what ails his folk, his soldiers, the ones who have been there and done that, but not made it all the way home.
The lore is a dangerous thing to study, for who it is who reads it will change what lessons you see inside it. Returning to the lore with eyes that had seen too much already I saw for the first time the god of the price we pay, the god of the sights that cannot be unseen. He is not just the Victory Father, he is the hanged god, for those of us who bear the guilt of those things we have seen, and those things we have done that we cannot forget hang like gallows fruit on his tree. Bound by what we cannot unsee.
When first I read of the halls of Valhalla, I saw only the feasting warriors, the Valkyrie, the ever flowing horns and revels of the night, the endless battle of the day. To look again, you see everyone feasting, everyone laughing, all save one.
Odin sits at the head of the table brooding. His eye was given for knowledge, and he knows too much. He has ridden the iron road to Hel too often to learn the secrets of the dead, cast his eye too far into the well of wyrd to see what will be, and what he will pay in the end. He cannot unsee what he has seen, and he cannot rest until his duty is done, even though his watch will end only in his death in an attempt he will never know the success of, to save a remnant of a remnant of mankind.
All around him laugh, love, feast and live. His meat he feeds to his wolves as he broods over his wine, his watch unending. He has seen too much to ever know true rest, to ever know his watch is done. He is the god of those who have seen what must be done, and who will never be free of the cost of doing what must be done.
Who is it but Odin who gives us poetry to capture the sights no words can convey, can tell the truths that none dare speak, and capture both the beauty and horror, the futility and nobility, the waste and the necessity, the tangled ugly purity we once called home, and in truth never fully left.
Who but Odin can teach us that we can be as we are, far from clean, far from safe, far from any pretentious of glorious knighthood, but very much the shield of our families, the sword of our state, the flame against the dark.
Soldiers eyes have seen things that other eyes have not. If our world is darker, if we will forever be trained to seek things that in your mind are unnecessary or paranoid, you cannot reach us with your words, for we come from a place where what you describe as paranoid, or unreasonable and unsubstantiated fear, was in fact a reality that was written in blood and bone, and whose reality once bore names, before they were reduced to flag draped coffins and memories. Your innocence of reality does not trump our awareness of it. There is no reason you should bear the cost of our knowledge, we don’t want anyone to have to bear it, but for those of us who do, we do, and your opinions are as uninformed as they are unwelcome.
Odin teaches us of our role. We are the ones who watch the shadows, who stand guard against the things that shouldn’t exist, but do. We are the ones who bear the cost of doing what must be done to create a place in this world where millions of people can actually believe that terrible things shouldn’t have to happen at all. Perhaps one day enough of the world will have sorted out the predators among us to make this true, but for now, it is enough to know we who bear the cost for this island of peace can at least witness our families enjoying that which we find no home in anymore.
We will come to your feast, even host it. We may follow enough of his lessons to learn to laugh and love again, but just as Odin gave one eye that will always and forever be lost in the vision of what will be, so are we forever unable to stop watching with a soldiers eyes. Our watch can never end, for innocence is ignorance, not grace, and we have learned too much to pretend otherwise.
Many hate us and fear us because we refuse to pretend that violence is not sometimes the best and only answer. If this was not true, we would not have police or soldiers, would have no word for guard, have no word for murder or rape. We do. We won’t pretend that evil does not exist, for we know both the cost we bear from stopping it, and the more terrible cost of standing aside and letting it work its will.
Many pity us because we are scarred by what we have seen, troubled by our knowledge, and by what we have learned about ourselves. I find it hard to understand that. Innocence is ignorance, not truth. Wisdom is knowing what lurks in the darkness, and choosing to love, to laugh, to build and to dream anyway. Odin teaches wisdom, it isn’t a pleasant school, nor are we ever able to lie to ourselves about ourselves again once we have learned from him, but it is far better to learn how to live honourably as the man you are, than see those you love suffer when you fail to match the man you thought you were.
Odin gave up an eye for knowledge, and on some level, a part of him died with that innocence. What remained was grimmer, colder, more dangerous, but at the same time now focused very clearly on becoming what he needed to be to respond to what he had seen. Odin was not the leader he needed to be when he got his glimpse into what would be. He set out then, and for the rest of time to become what he needed to be, accepting the cost, however terrible, that he could be the leader who could save what could be saved.
No illusions about glorious victories, parades or eternal peace. Just pay the price you have to, and keep the world from burning for one more day. It is ok if we see and relive nightmares behind our eyes when it comes time to sleep because in the morning we can hear children playing on the streets, unconcerned and innocent in the space we have defended for them.
It is enough.