I’m pretty sure I’ve stood in the kitchen with Grendel’s mother. I didn’t place her right away, but she looked just like I imagined her back in freshman medieval lit.
She was large and meaty, with bloodshot hair she could have combed with a rake. She threw her head back, showing teeth like I fancied a dragon might, and I wondered if her bulky pink sweatshirt hid green scales and a horned spine.
The floor buckled under heavy footsteps as she stomped across the room to jab a fleshy finger in my face and shout through hot breath and spittle that it was the insurance company’s fault her house was falling apart at the joists. I remembered, with some relief, why I was even in her lair in the first place.
“You going down there, Honey?” she asked, pointing that same index finger at the sagging hardwood floor. And she cackled. I know I heard her cackle.
“We don’t have much choice, now, do we?” I picked up my gear and backed out the door, never taking my eyes off her menacing form.
I met the carpenter outside and crawled with him under her house, where the unknown — endless possibilities of things creepy and crawly in the dark, damp underworld — seemed suddenly less frightening than her well-lit modern kitchen above ground.
Admit it, can we? Sometimes just going about our daily business is a fearsome thing.
In The Heart Aroused, David Whyte illustrates through a 1500-year-old Old English poem how facing the fears that keep us awake at night is essential to awakening a soul we’d rather leave sleeping throughout the workday.
Beowulf, characterized as a sixth century consultant — a hired sword of sorts — is retained by Hrothgar, King of Denmark, to slay Grendel, a swamp creature given to brutal late night attacks. Whyte likens Grendel to our deep fears, the creative risks we will not take:
. . . it is a frighteningly accurate description of what happens to men and women who refuse to confront their more powerful creative urges. It is all very well in the broad light of day at work, or during the feasting and celebrations, when bonuses and employee-of-the-month wall plaques are being handed to the worthy; but at three in the morning, when we are alone, our defenses are down and we cannot sleep, the huge green hand rises from below and drags us into something hitherto ignored, deeper and more urgent. (pp. 36-37)
He succeeds, but in the wake of his own celebration, Beowulf discovers destroying one fear gives birth to another — in some freakish way, its own mother:
The message in this portion of the poem is unsparing. It is not the thing you fear that you must deal with, it is the mother of the thing you fear. (p. 38)
For some, certain death on the shore is preferred to diving into that dark unknown of the lake to confront her where she hides.
Hunted through the woods by packs of Hounds
A stag with great horns, though driven through the forest
From faraway places, prefers to die
On those shores, refuses to save its life
In that water.
As if to say “We don’t have much choice, do we?” Beowulf dives in. But the sword he used to slay the son is like a toy against the mother. In short, he finds the mother’s own sword and brings her to a gruesome end. He surfaces to present the victorious sword to Hrothgar only to watch it dissolve to the hilt, never to be used again. To Whyte, it is telling that our tried and true strategies must sometimes be abandoned as we dive into the dark lake to pursue “the living incarnation of our disowned side.”
In these first two chapters, Whyte issues a call to awaken the soul, for he sees no other way to tap into the creativity necessary to take on these new challenges. And while that may sound right and good, quoting Dante, he observes that often we awake in the dark:
In the middle of the road of my life
I awoke in a dark wood
where the true way was wholly lost (p. 26)
When I wake disoriented, I’d rather fall back asleep. I don’t want to keep my eyes open, not knowing what they’ll see when they adjust.
Engaging the soul certainly has its upside. But don’t expect it will turn up all roses and dark chocolate. If we are to let the soul out of the briefcase, we’d best be prepared to spend time in the dark places at the bottom of the lake, and perhaps even under a client’s house.
What do you think? How has fear kept you from tapping into your creative soul, in business or in life? We’re discussing The Heart Aroused: Poetry and Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. Whether you’re reading along or just dropping in for the discussion, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment box. And, if you’ve posted about the book, we invite you to share your link.
Join us next Wednesday for chapters 3 and 4: Fire in the Earth and Fire in the Voice.
Photo by Louise. Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Will Willingham.