My kit of spiritual tools is as eclectic as they come. Though I don’t belong to a particular religion, I find inspiration in the writings of many. Since words in general can be so mystical for me, I also have a spiritual relationship to poetry and prose of various kinds. Music is another huge resource. At a time of crisis, I don’t always know which spiritual tool will help me. I may try and discard many until one brings me some strength or calmness.
That’s fine, if I am enough in my right mind to apply logic to this process of trial and error. If I’m not, I have to pull something together from whatever material I have on hand, like a spiritual version of MacGyver. I’ve become pretty good at it, too. I can use just about anything as fodder for a spiritual or psychological metaphor. Give me a roll of duct tape, two crackers and a flowerpot and I’ll craft us an escape device before the next commercial break. Granted, these metaphorical stories might seem odd or contrived to some. It doesn’t matter, as long as they work for me in the moment. I’d like to tell you about one example of me taking some words and using them to fuel a story that inspires me.
Have you ever read the “A Song of Ice and Fire” books by George R.R. Martin? Well, go do so at once, because they’re way too complicated to explain. One kingdom in these books is bordered on the north side by a gigantic wall of ice, and there is a group of men sworn to defend this wall against some very fearsome things that want to get south. This group is called the Night’s Watch. Some men volunteer out of idealism or because they are escaping some trouble. Others are exiled there for committing a crime or displeasing someone powerful.
Whether they came or were sent, they swear an oath of loyalty and renunciation. The penalty for desertion is death. They live in a run-down old castle at the foot of the ice wall, walking guard patrols on top of the wall in darkness and icy winds. They have only one another for company. It’s lonely, dangerous, boring, depressing and freaking cold.
One day I was in that place of needing to improvise, and I had read some Martin recently. The words of the oath echoed through my head, and I imagined that there was a fellowship made up of people like me. I imagined that we–the addicts, the mentally ill, the broken of all kinds–were joined in a tangible way and that we shared a devotion to our purpose. That we, like the brothers of the Night’s Watch, didn’t choose to join this group but do have a choice about how well we keep our vows. Here are the actual words, from George R.R. Martin’s work, of the oath and my thoughts about how they would apply to our motley crew:
“Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death.” Our darker states can feel like the gathering of night. But we don’t run from the night any more, because we know we have a role to play. If there ever was a carefree “day” for us, we acknowledge that things have changed. There is a new reality we accept, one that incorporates the truth of the night. Our watch begins when we decide to be conscious.
“I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children.” Some of us are married, or parents, or even well-off. We don’t have to be celibate or renounce our right to these things. These phrases of the oath mean that we accept our separation from the standard measures of normalcy and success in our culture. We renounce the competition to stand out, and we renounce the quest to blend in.
“I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.” At least, not the kind we may have wanted. Or not the kind our friends get. Or not the kind our parents expected of us. Crowns and glory may come to us in unexpected forms, but we cannot seek them for their own sake. We commit ourselves to a different set of standards and a different way of viewing victory and defeat.
“I shall live and die at my post.” Our commitment to consciousness will always be a necessary part of life. We will not “abandon our post” because we get bored, or discouraged, or think it isn’t fair that we have to be there. How we got here, or how little we deserved it, makes no difference. We will not run away; we will not drug or drink or eat ourselves into unconsciousness. We will not craft an escape with a sharp edge, or neglect ourselves and hope the cold night will do it for us.
“I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls.” Our weapons are unseen, as our foes often are. We look out into the darkness, where most justifiably fear to turn their gaze. It’s not what we might have chosen, but it means we are the first to see certain enemies coming. The enemies we fight are spiritual, not physical, and those in their warm homes may not even be aware of them as we fight. But the entire human realm is threatened by the enemies of consciousness, and our fight matters.
“I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men.” Our passionate defiance of our own darkness shall become the fire. The love and faith we create shall become the light. Our voices, clearer and purer for the pain we went through to find them, shall do their part to awaken those whose souls are mired in sleep. We will patrol and guard the borders of consciousness against lies, shame, apathy and despair.
“I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.” In pledging our lives, we find purpose to our lives. In pledging our honor, we realize that we have honor. We know that there are many nights to come; that even during the day we will enjoy the sun without forgetting that night will fall and our presence will be needed. Our choices matter, the fight will continue, and we will be together until the end.