In ancient depictions (and at least one contemporary one), Odin has one eye. One of his many epithets include “One-Eyed”—which is barely in even the top 20 most interesting of his names, incidentally. Some stories say Odin went to Mimir, an ancient being whose whole schtick was “knows everything,” in order to drink from a well that would grant you vast knowledge. The price of that drink was Odin’s eye—he gouged it out and took a drink.
I took a year of Old Norse in college, and you can’t learn about the language without learning a whole lot about the culture it reflected. Viking culture (more or less the culture of tribal folks in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland from 700-1100 AD) was colorful and beautiful and grimly fascinating. Odin is always old, strangely ambitious, and a sad sort of figure. At the same time, he has a nickname translated as “Glad of War” that might also mean “the life of the party (among soldiers).”
In a book of proverbs attributed to Odin called the Havamal (“words of the High One”), between advice on how to be a good table guest and how well-armed you should be while traveling, the author briefly and sadly ruminates on Odin’s ravens Huginn and Muninn (thought and memory). Odin says that if he sent his ravens out and only one returned to him, he would prefer to have his memory rather than his thought. Anyone who’s watched an elderly loved one slowly lose their faculties might find some truth in Odin’s strange, sad wisdom.
All that to say, I think about Odin’s story when I consider why some stories about growing up are more compelling than others.
Loss Before Power
I was giving a friend some feedback on something he wrote, and one of the things I wrote was “in order for us to feel like your wisdom means something, we have to feel like it cost you something.” I called it the Rule of Odin’s Eye. Now, not all good advice requires someone to gouge out their eye in order to learn it; that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that profound growth, true maturation, and the wielding of new power (of perception, of clarity, of responsibility) often comes with a commensurate sacrifice.
Let’s talk about some movies that illustrate what I mean.
The easiest example is the latest Thor movie (which makes sense, given the source material). In Thor Ragnarok, the hero is facing off against the main antagonist, and he is not doing well against her. He’s on the ropes, and at one point, something pretty shocking for a superhero movie happens—the villain ends up putting his eye out. It’s very PG-13, hardly gruesome, but still—it’s rare that a hero loses a body part in any capes-and-tights movie. Scars? Sure. Bloody noses? Probably in the first set piece. But a permanent loss of a body part? That’s a big deal.
To me, it’s not a coincidence that in this very scene, the one-eyed hero has a revelation that grants him access to inner reserves of strength. He loses the eye (on top of the loss of his signature weapon), but/and/so he gains the growth. Did he do anything to earn that power? Barely. Character-wise, this moment is akin to that moment in every Rocky movie where the writer just puts “Now Rocky starts winning” in the script.
But it feels real, it feels earned, because Thor had to lose something first.
Loss Is Destiny
My other favorite example is in How to Train Your Dragon. Until the third act, this was a fairly by-the-book hero story where the hero (Hiccup) wins through pluck and courage and believing in his friends. Good movie, solid arc, great world-building. In the third act, though, is where the movie became one of my favorite movies about growing up. In this movie aimed at, marketed to, and designed for children, the child-aged hero loses a limb in the final battle.
The climax of the movie, the heroic peak of his journey, was transformative in both good and grievous ways. He lost something that he won’t get back. Now, it was a beautiful moment because a.) what he lost paralleled what his dragon was already missing, and b.) it’s good for kids to see protagonists with disabilities who are heroic and brave and powerful.
But the experience took something away from him, and in return we buy the character as a leader, as a person inwardly transformed by his experiences.
What It All Means
There are plenty of stories that feature altruistic sacrifice, which looks similar but isn’t the same as what I’m describing. Other stories put their characters through tragic events to move them forward, but this isn’t really the same as that either. What I’m getting at is stories sometimes require a character to make a sacrifice or suffer a loss for the sake of their own education, their own knowledge, wisdom, and clarity.
Growing up means leaving things behind. Things we thought would matter to us forever, dreams and ideas that have been with us from childhood onward, aren’t always meant to be fulfilled. Sometimes, they’re meant to travel with us to a certain point, then no further. A little less than a year ago, I gave up drawing comics. I’ve spent the better part of my life developing my craft as a comics artist, and it was even a part of the way I saw myself, but to do what I want to do next, I’m giving it up. I need to grow in new and challenging ways, and in this case that means giving up an ambition I’ve had with me for nearly my entire life. That’s part of the story.
I use the word ‘stories’ deliberately. It’s easy to turn something like Odin’s story into a self-punishing belief that suffering and loss is good. It’s not always good. Suffering is just suffering sometimes, and we shouldn’t treat tragedy like a screwed up semester at the School of Life.
However, if you’re a storyteller in any capacity, it’s important to know what makes people believe in a person’s transformation, why some stories of growth ring true and why others sound like corporate press releases. It’s why savvy marketers aren’t afraid of stories of missteps and failures—because uninterrupted growth isn’t as compelling as a struggle with the mountain, with gravity, with our own limits.
It’s also important to take a page out of the books of the ancients. Sometimes life is a tradeoff between something we value—maybe something we’d never consider giving up—and something else that’s more important to us now. Part of growth is realizing when our old priorities don’t match who we are today. Maybe the lesson is better put this way:
You can’t have it all, but sometimes, you trade up.