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Sympathy for the Devil

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Sure, I love bad boys. They’re sexy, rebellious, often funny, deliciously scary.  But why I really love them? Because they’re honest. Because they know how to suffer. On those days when Facebook is filled with “humble brags” and Pollyanna affirmations, I find myself on the side of those who aren’t afraid to complain. 


“Life is suffering.” Buddhism’s first noble truth used to make my eyes glaze over. However, it’s not only manifestly true, it’s liberating. Death and illness and emotional pain--from the petty to the tragic--are all inevitable, no matter how we deny it. If you’re in pain, you’re not doing life wrong. Rather, that’s just how life is, inherently imperfect. And the bad boys of myth know it.


Take Loki, the Norse trickster. He has his appealing points—a gift for making mischief and puncturing pomposity. Every scrape he gets into, he is able, through more mischief, to get out of as well. He even defuses a war by agreeing to be dragged around with his balls tied to a goat. 


But he also has a big chip on his shoulder (though travelling with the gods, he himself is a Jotun, their traditional enemy). Some of his darker tricks reflect his sense of resentment, his feeling of being on the outside, excluded and underestimated. I grew up in a teasing family where the line between mockery and outright humiliation was a fine one. I know how Loki feels—the injured pride, the holding of a grudge in the face of not being able to act openly. In fact he pretty much incarnates my own resentful little shadow—right down to his tendency to act out at family dinners.


However, when his anger builds to the point where he kills the perfect Balder, favourite of the gods, his fate is sealed. Bound by the entrails of his own children to three rocks, with a serpent dripping poison onto his face, he writhes in pain…and the earth shakes. Strangely, it’s an image reminiscent of Prometheus, a good guy to humans, but a disobedient Titan to the Greek gods' authority. Against orders, he gives humans the gift of fire—and ends up chained to a rock for his trouble, an eagle eternally pecking at his liver. There, he too struggles and shakes the earth.


The earth shakes for Christ as well, the ultimate good boy. For even he knows a moment of dark and unredeemed bitterness. In his last moments he cries: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The stories of redemption and recovery we favour tell us this is all for a purpose, but there is a dark truth at the heart of every suffering: while we’re in it, we are completely alone.


You can say bad boys bring it on themselves, or should have known better. But the gift they give us is that they suffer loud and clear. As the philosopher Unamuno wrote: “Whenever I have felt a pain I have shouted and I have done it publicly” in order to “start the grieving chords of others’ hearts playing.” Despite our culture’s relentless emphasis on staying positive, negativity is necessary for compassion and understanding. We should be wary of prematurely transcending it in the vain hope of avoiding it entirely. If we “live in hope,” in an imagined better future, then we are missing the lessons, and the healing, offered by the present.

Buddha (who had his own ordeals) would counsel acceptance to Loki, to Prometheus, to Christ. But no acceptance is worth it’s salt unless the suffering is lived with awareness. And that in itself can be a lifetime’s work. The bad boys remind us that our happy endings are hollow if we don’t first admit how much and how long and how hard we—all of us—suffer.

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Archer has been trying to make sense of religion since her parents first abandoned her at Sunday School in the 60s. She’s a mom, yoga teacher and repository of useless bits of information on ancient religion, spiritual practices and English grammar. Check out her column “Connections” in Witches and Pagans.
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