I have a massive wolf-head banner with the words “winter is coming” hanging next to my desk at work.
For people who don’t know its source in book series and television show Game of Thrones, this banner means that I am a bit of a geek. For people who do know Game of Thrones, “Winter is coming” means something very specific.
In the kingdom of Westeros, House Stark (whose sigil bears the wolf) is one of the hardiest of the noble families. They guard the northern marches of the kingdom at Winterfell, facing up against the vast, frozen, wild, dangerous northern lands. As such they are always first to be hit with the winters of Westeros, which – unlike our own – may last for decades.
The onset of winter is a horrifying notion in Westeros. And yet “winter is coming” is the motto the Starks have chosen for their oft-repeated motto.
Living with the winter
These words serve as a reminder of the Starks’ position on the border of Westeros and the delicate civilization they protect from the ravages of Winter and the evil it can bring upon their world.
The Starks live in one of the harsher parts of their world, true. Yet their predicament is the same predicament faced by every living creature. Even in your best moment, disaster and difficulty lurk around the corner. You may hasten it through your own failings or you may hasten it through the complacency or arrogance that comes from success and stability. In every case, your situation now contains the seeds of the coming “winter”.
You can deal with that fact in one of two ways.
You can hide from the “winter”. You can pretend that “summer” will last forever and kick the can down the road as temperatures drop and winds rise. You can be paralyzed into inaction for the day when disaster comes. You can “cross that bridge when you come to it.” You can blame other people for the coming challenge. You can shirk your responsibility and ask (or make) someone else to shoulder your suffering.
All of these are just different expressions of the same fear: suffering and challenge is coming, and there’s no way you or humans in general can prepare for it.
There is another way: you can choose to face the winter, just like the Starks. Recognize that suffering is a part of being a limited human being in a world of scarce time and resources. Embrace change. Prepare for disruption. Hold difficulty your mind as a reality to be dealt with. When you face and name your fears, they lose their power to terrify you into inaction and death.
Becoming the winter
“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, or the great philosoper Kelly Clarkson
There is a second purpose and a dual meaning to “winter is coming.” When you live in proper awareness and expectation of hardship, you gain the strength of hardship. You become the winter.
For the Starks, a constant vigilance against raids from the north and the onset of harsh winters has made them lean, strong, and fierce. When they face tyranny from the lavish kingdoms of the South, they are a force to be reckoned with. When the northern kingdoms must come together to. And, presumably, when the northern kingdoms come together to fight the supernatural evil of the White Walkers, it will be the Starks of Winterfell who lead the charge.
Suffering and challenges can be powerful teachers. Insofar as they do not destroy you, your mind, or your basic sense of self-esteem, even the most disastrous turns of luck can reveal something important about you and give you feedback on how to live more effectively. But you do have to be open to their teaching and their ways of shaping you.
Taking things personally or over-the-top self-judgement are two other expressions of a worldview that holds that winter is not coming and should never come. This worldview-holder is shocked when winter does come, and – unlike the Starks of Winterfell – the worldview of endless summer stasis is unable to learn and grow throughout ther other entire seasons of life.
Summer is also coming
“They lose the day in expectation of the night, and the night in fear of the dawn.”
“Winter is coming” is not without its parallels beyond Westeros. In the well-known symbol of the Tao, darkness and light, order and chaos are both pictured as opposites that give birth to each other.
The death and suffering of winter are the very things that make possible the new growth we see in spring. The corollary of “winter is coming” is that “summer is coming.” Yes, death may be present or imminent, but so is life. You cannot rip that pattern apart easily. You should try to learn how to live with wisdom and responsibility as a part of it.
Prepare yourself for winter
Being aware of the often cyclical and interrelated nature of life and suffering will make you a better human.
The Starks are perhaps the only just and “noble” (in the virtuous sense) leading family in all of Westeros. I think it has something to do with their bent toward reality. They’re aware of suffering and they’re willing to shoulder it, so they don’t fear it. That courage gives them a virtue which far exceeds that of any of the other noble families. Without courage, the Starks would be too insecure to extend generosity toward the weak and their enemies, too insecure to restrain power or violence in their domain, and too insecure to choose to follow the rule of law.
That courage is a direct outgrowth of the Starks’ readiness for the always-coming winter. That courage enables them to be good in a world that can often seem cruel.
That’s a bit of the reason why I keep that banner in my sights. Right now, the Starks and their motto is my symbol for the same courage I need to have to be a good human being in my context – marketing at a tech company. Whatever your context is, I’d suggest “winter is coming,” a “memento mori,” or even the classic Tao symbol may be that good reminder for you. Struggles are coming. You don’t need to be paralyzed in fear, but you’d better be ready.