Hammering the Skull

Look around, somebody’s always trying to prove a point. Maybe you’re one of them.

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Sometimes it difficult to know if someone’s boasting or just disgusted. On the surface it might be taken either way. Recently I received this weather report from friends in St. Paul, Minnesota. Here it is. You decide which.

Now if were a boast, perhaps it would be best characterized by what might be called ‘the appeal of ordeal.’ Which is a viable concept within our culture. We’re drawn to the ‘ordeals’ of life, most of us, whether large or small. Like running with a rock in your shoe. You know you’re alive. But the captioned text cleared the fact that it was a complaint: “I’m freezing my ass off.”

Somewhere along the way I recall a writing from William Butler Yates, the Irish poet. He wrote of some Icelandic peasants who had discovered a skull thought to be the skull of the revered Viking poet, warrior and farmer named Egill Skallagrimsson (910-990).

So convinced were they of this incredible discovery that they took hammers and beat upon the skull to see if it cracked. It didn’t, so the logical conclusion due to its toughness was that it must truly be the skull of their hero.

But we’re more subtle now in the dues that must be paid for some high achievement. DNA has replaced skull-bashing, as crude as it might have been, as a means of discovering genetics. But there’s some validity to measuring resilience by how it stands up to abuse. This photo is a simple example.

The perennial question of ‘Why’ someone endures hardship begs an answer. I asked my friends, Lisa and Keith to explain their rationale for living in such frozen misery. Lisa did her best Nietzsche answer: “What does not kill you makes you stupid.” I think she meant ‘stronger,’ but frozen minds can be confused. Keith proffered this existential theory: “Extremes provide definition, scale and context.” Figure that out.

Think of the myriad ways people are tested. Anybody wishing to make a significant point will be tested, mentally and physically. Accolades, prizes, merit badges all come with a cost. Doctors, lawyers and Navy Seals can attest to their trial by fire.

We test Fates by scaling mountains, sledding across the Artic wasteland, trekking across desert plains in a wagon or parachuting from an airplane. Survival is not guaranteed.

Take marathon running and other examples of ‘extreme’ sports…snowboarding off mountain tops, swimming across 1,500 miles of the Atlantic, spending 11 months in a space capsule. To compete in marathons, or even complete the course, takes building a running base of 8 or 10 miles every day. Much more if 50 or 100 miles are to be covered on foot. I know these things. I ran several.

What is to be achieved from these feats of daring, this hammering the skull into submission in order to discover our range of tolerance or resilience? You tell me. Memories, a few photos and embellished stories are what’s left. The song had it right: “The older I get, the better I was.” Past achievement bragging rights don’t carry the same weight as fresh exploits.

Other genre of the more humane strivers committed to the rigors of the struggle are serial golfers and bridge players. Carrying around old score cards, seeing their names posted in locker rooms or bridge magazines is proof positive they have competed. Verily they have their reward.

In time past a sure-fire way of determining the guilt or innocence of witches and demonic possession was by poisoning. If one survived, they were innocent. Even today on Sand Mountain, Alabama, evangelists still thrust congregant’s hands into a box of rattlesnakes to prove genuine faith, oblivious of the outcome. It would be a good test of veracity and genuineness for serial politicians.

Today we’re witnessing the hammering of character in the political world. Candidates badger and berate one another, air dirty linen and muckrake character flaws of all sorts. Nothing’s off limits. Tests of stamina flood the airwaves daily. It’s a terrible price to pay for success.

All this opens a wider aperture for insight into today’s culture. The holy grail has never been found and OCD is alive and well. About all that can be gleaned from these quixotic quests is that life, however defined, is constantly seeking life.

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Maybe hammering the skull of the body politic is a good way to see what cracks or not. Heroes are still hard to find.

 

Bud Hearn

February 17, 2020

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