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Havamal Verse 1
“At all doors, before you go forth,
Take your time to look about,
To nose your way in.
For you never know when a foe
Might sit in the seats before you.”
This, the gateway into the Havamal, warns us to be wary before we pass through a gateway. Wise counsel. The world is full of danger and enemies who would work their malice upon you if given a chance. Collectively speaking, we’ve probably never been as safe as we are now in the modern age of police, forensics, street cameras, gun control laws, general political stability, the relative infrequency of wars, and the general trend towards peace which seems to pervade modern Western societies. Sure, violence still happens, but I’d be willing to bet that it happens a lot less than it did during, for example, the feudal societies of the Middle Ages or the brutal migratory upheaval of the Bronze Age.
We live now in a time of relative peace, relative safety, relative goodwill to our fellow man. But relative safety is not absolute safety. It’s only more or less safe than something comparable. So although it’s generally not fatal for us to let our guard down when we go on a journey or meet new people, that doesn’t mean we should be complacent. The world’s still a turbulent and dangerous place, and it’s occupied by unstable and dangerous people. Some of those people will take advantage of us if it’s necessary and the opportunity arises. Some of them will actively seek to bring us down for no apparent reason at all. So watch out and pay attention to the people you meet. They’re dangerous, even the ones who don’t look like it. Perhaps especially the ones who don’t look like it.
Unfortunately, walking down any street or stepping onto any form of public transport will yield countless examples of people who do not heed the advice given in this verse. How many people do we see every day who go about their business in densely populated areas, surrounded by other people, other predators, with their headphones in their ears and their smartphones in their hands, heads hung low to stare at their feet or entranced by the dull blue light of their screens? They might as well be walking through life with their eyes shut and their fingers in their ears. Any physically capable man would only need the advantage of surprise over these people to harm them grievously and take whatever they carry, no matter how competent that person might be when in an alert state. Even a person with a gun and the ability to use it can be caught off guard and defeated by surprise.
This complacency and ignorance of our surroundings is a modern tendency that arises from the comforts of contemporary life. We are relatively safe, in general, and probably a little naive, so we feel safe enough to ignore people most of the time. Most of the time that isn’t a problem. Until it is. It only takes one time, one moment of distraction, for some predator to destroy us. So take the time, a long time if possible, to scan your surroundings and the people in your path. You never know when one of those people might take advantage of you.
This is good advice in all areas of life. But it’s especially good advice when you undertake a journey, embark on an adventure, do something or go somewhere you’ve never been before, especially if you’re with someone you’ve never met before. In other words, it’s good advice at a gateway.
A gateway is a portal that allows one to pass through a boundary or a barrier. The purpose of a barrier is to separate the inside from the outside, the familiar from the strange, Us from Them. We must build walls, metaphorically and literally, to separate the things we want to keep in from the things we want to keep out. This is how we order our environment. We divide the desirable from the undesirable by building walls. Even paradise had a wall. Those who dwell beyond the wall may or may not be our enemies, but they cannot be wholly trusted until they have proven their alliance to those inside the wall. They may be amicable and friendly to us, but this does not mean that they have our best interests at heart. As such, situations where those inside the wall meet with those from outside are fraught with tension and the potential for betrayal. Do not enter such situations naively, but rather keep your wits about you. You may be ridiculed for being paranoid or mistrustful, but better that than to be the victim of treachery because of your own folly.
Never offer your enemies the advantage of catching you off guard, whether you are walking down a street, sitting in a meeting, or entering a building. The feeling of security you might feel is entirely illusory, and the world is full of those who would seek to take advantage of your distraction. As the saying goes, “There are no victims, only volunteers.” Do not volunteer to be caught off guard. But do not give in to fear and paranoia either. This verse doesn’t tell us to be ever doubtful, fearful, isolationist, on our guard. Instead, it tells us to watch, be aware, and take the time to look and think, to analyze, to use your head.
At the intersection between you and The Other, make your preparations beforehand, plan your course, anticipate any dangers, then walk boldly through the gateway. Expect to be surprised, for it is practically assured, but prepare yourself in such a manner that you are capable of operating effectively even when caught off your guard.
Watch out and be ready.