We Started With Two Empty Hands

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Quotes, skmurphy

“We started with two empty hands.” Icelandic expression

It’s hard to believe the frugal and hardworking Icelanders have gone bankrupt. I re-read Njal’s Saga every few years and find new nuggets each time. In Letter from Iceland, Robert Jackson reported November 14, 2008 in the Financial Times on the complete meltdown of Iceland’s financial system.

There is no daytime TV in Iceland. Parents are at work and children at school, so the test card, that feature of a bygone age, is the only thing aired. For the transmitters to be switched on in mid-afternoon and a sombre-looking Geir Haarde, the prime minister, to appear behind a desk, a national flag at his side, it had to be serious – and it was. The country was on the verge of bankruptcy; the government was taking control of the banks and was going to assume far-reaching powers to secure the safety of the nation and its savers.

“Fellow countrymen … If there was ever a time when the Icelandic nation needed to stand together and show fortitude in the face of adversity, then this is the moment. I urge you all to guard that which is most important in the life of every one of us, to protect those values which will survive the storm now beginning. I urge families to talk together and not to allow anxiety to get the upper hand, even though the outlook is grim for many. We need to explain to our children that the world is not on the edge of a precipice, and we all need to find an inner courage to look to the future … Thus with Icelandic optimism, fortitude and solidarity as weapons, we will ride out the storm.

“God bless Iceland.”

Icelanders have seen their economy swell and shrink from time to time over the centuries, and always handled it calmly. Perhaps their heritage in fishing and agriculture enabled them to meet good years and bad with equanimity. Now they must cope equally well with an attack of economic bulimia. To understand what makes this crisis – kreppa, as it is known here – so unlike any other, a little history is needed.

For Icelanders, the golden years were the early years, shortly after the land was settled in the ninth century. The Viking tradition, the Althing – the legislative assembly dating to 930 – and the literary canon of Sagas and Eddas are the nation’s cultural bedrock. But after that, Iceland almost disappears from the history books. While the agricultural revolution, the Renaissance, the industrial revolution came and went, while the fine cities of Europe were being built, while artists from Michelangelo to Mozart were pouring forth their creations, while the great inventions and discoveries were being invented and discovered, Icelanders were hunkering down in their turf houses, meeting the hardest challenge of all – survival.

They survived plague, famine, earthquakes and volcanoes. There were times when some even considered abandoning the island. But they stayed on. They stayed and survived. Icelanders will tell you that only the fittest survived, but that is only half the story, because survival requires another key attribute: stubbornness. And Icelanders have it in spades. It is a national trait, and they view it not as a weakness but as a virtue. It comes from experiencing hardship and enduring it. It means finding satisfaction in a simple task done well and sticking to it; finding comfort and solace in family and kinship and being bound by those familial bonds and duties. And perhaps most important of all, it means believing in the independence of the individual as part of the fabric of nationhood, and fighting for that independence. Put simply, the country has values.

And this is what sets this catastrophe apart from the earthquakes and plagues of former years. This is a man-made disaster and worse still, one made by a small group of Icelanders who set off to conquer the financial world, only to return defeated and humiliated. The country is on the verge of bankruptcy and, even more important for those of Viking stock, its international reputation is in tatters. It hurts.

At a key point in Njal’s Saga has Njal observes “With law, the land shall be built; without law, the land shall be laid waste.” I am afraid that the next decade will sorely test Iceland.

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