Recently, I read an article saying that suicides are rising among those in mid-life. The article suggested that harsh realizations at that age (the most rambunctious time of life has ended, but not enough has been achieved) can lead to feelings of hopelessness. Edith Wharton might call it “diminished reality.” For now, let’s call it, “I’ve been fighting this long, and I didn’t win.”
In one myth in “The Prose Edda,” the mighty Thor, the troublesome Loki, and Thor’s bondservant, Thjalfi, took a journey together. One night, they came upon a huge hall. They went to sleep, but were awakened by horrible growls. Thor stood guard all night, hammer in hand, but when dawn came, he discovered the growls were merely the sounds of a giant sleeping, and the huge hall was only his glove that he’d cast aside.
Not being one to let a person that big live, Thor decided to kill him immediately. Using all his strength, Thor struck the giant in the head three times. But the giant could barely feel the blows, wondering if some leaf litter had fallen from the trees.
The giant invited the companions to his hall full of guests. While there, the giant asked Loki whether he had any skill he could show them.
Loki, being gluttonous, offered to compete in eating. A huge trough was filled with meat and put in the middle of the hall, with Loki at one end, and, on the giants’ side, a man named Logi. At the signal, they both ate as fast as they could. They met in the middle, but it wasn’t a tie– Loki ate all the meat, yes, but Logi ate all the meat, all the bones, and even consumed the wooden trough, so he won.
Then the giant asked Thjalfi what he could do. Thjalfi offered to race against anyone. The giant called a little fellow named Hugi to run against him. In three races, Hugi beat Thjalfi every time, the last time by half a lap.
Finally, the giant asked Thor what feat he’d like to demonstrate. Thor called for a drinking contest. The giant brought out his drinking horn, saying that a good drinker could drain it in one gulp. Thor put it to his lips, but when he finished his gulp, it was only slightly lower than when he started. After another gulp, the liquor was only low enough to carry the horn without spilling. After a third attempt, Thor looked inside, and saw small difference from when he started. The giant said it was obvious Thor’s strength wasn’t as great as the stories said.
Thor failed two more tests: lifting a cat off the ground (he only could get one paw up), and wrestling an old woman (she brought him to one knee, then the giant ended the contest).
The giant patronizingly congratulated the companions on their failed efforts, gave them hospitality that evening, and, in the morning, kindly set them on their journey.
Once outside his gates, the giant revealed that he’d tricked them with magic, in order to safely test their abilities. The three times Thor hit him with his hammer, Thor was really striking a mountain, and he made three huge valleys in it. Loki’s competitor was wildfire, which was why it consumed the trough. Thjalfi was racing against the speed of thought, and was miraculously quick against it. Thor’s drinking horn was filled with the ocean, and he drank so much of it, he started the tides. The cat was really the Midgard Serpent that surrounded the known world, and the entire hall was terrified when they saw it slipping under Thor’s power. The woman that Thor wrestled was old age, which no one can conquer, even though Thor withstood her so long.
Thor, angry at the trick, struck out at the giant, but he and his entire hall had disappeared, leaving only a lovely meadow.
Now, back to us.
We have challenges. A whole lot of them could be classified as minor. Say, for example, that irritating person you encounter day after day after day. They shouldn’t be any more difficult to deal with than lifting a kitten.
Some challenges are serious. We measure how tough they’ll be, then do our very best against them. But, sometimes, at the end of all our efforts, we’ve come in half a lap behind, or only drained the cup a barely noticeable amount. These kinds of challenges are enough to bring us to our knees.
When we give our best efforts, and when there’s been real change, real improvement, we shouldn’t be quick to count it a failure. The tests in our lives are real, and they prove what we’ve chosen to be. Sometimes, when we’re struggling to lift the kitten, it might just be the Midgard Serpent we’re tangling with.
Taking a religious view, God is able to reveal what we really are by using tests of the loud neighbor, or the chance to give someone else the best parking space. These “little” tests, like lifting the kitten, might conceal great matters. They might even be designed to be particularly tough for us, even though, based on outward appearances, they should be easy. And, if we only succeed at them a little bit, we shouldn’t despair.
There are a whole lot of us who are doing a whole lot better than we think we are. Keep lifting that kitten!