Your Barbarian Compass
Updated: Aug 23, 2022
Despite material improvements, many burly barbarians followed their heart and met Roman “progress” with dented shields, crimson swords, and cries for war. Like them, we can follow our own barbarian compass to a more purposeful life of Vigor, Wonder, and Fellowship.
When I left the Marine Corps, I was 29 years old and didn’t have a clue what I’d do with my life.
When considering my future, one thing was certain: I’d listen to my heart more than my ego. In doing so, I asked myself, “What do I truly love to do?” My answer: Above all, I loved to (1) Lift Weights, (2) Read History, and (3) Gather with Friends.
Since lifting weights or hosting dinner parties were not (yet) career options, I decided to pursue my love for history.
Attending Cal State for two years in LA’s San Fernando Valley was a dream. On most days, I’d be buried behind a stack of books in the library, pulled into the fog of ancient and medieval history. As I read book after book, one group of people fascinated me most: the barbarians. Whether blue-painted Celts in Britannia or wolf-skinned warriors in Germania – these renegades captivated me with wonder.
A big reason I felt drawn to barbarians was their defiance; they rejected the yoke of Roman civilization. Instead of taking a paved highway to Roman ease (and dominion), many barbarians chose the harder dirt road to freedom. As Roman legions conquered new territories and populations, they brought math, science, and literature; they built aqueducts, theaters, and roads; and they established laws, currency, and commerce. Despite these material and cultural “improvements,” many burly barbarians met Roman “progress” with dented shields, crimson swords, and cries for war.
Though a good number of Celts and Germans acquiesced to Roman imperialism, with some even becoming Roman citizens, the defiant tribes refused to comply. But why? Why in the world would someone resist the inherent comforts of an advanced civilization? The most famous Roman historian of them all, Edward Gibbon, offers one answer for barbarian defiance. According to Gibbon, Germanic barbarians chose their “manly spirit of freedom” over the softening comforts of civilization. For the men who fought Roman encroachment, he insists, the feelings of virility, freedom, and brotherhood were a harder currency than gold, silver, and leisure.
Ultimately, I believe, these barbarians asked themselves this fundamental question: “How do we wish to live?” Feral and free became their defiant response.
As barbarian books captivated my attention, I also noticed others (on and off campus) captivated by something else entirely: social media and smart phones. Instead of students sitting on the college green in conversation, they all seemed glued to their phones. The digital “cyborging” of human beings had begun. A few years later, I began reading about skyrocketing rates of obesity, depression, and suicide, and how social media and flat-screen devices were to blame.
After reading these articles and watching phone-droned humans multiply, it felt like a digital army was attacking the human spirit. Despite all our material comforts and cool technologies, modern life felt lonelier and more desperate than ever before. Humanity was under attack. It was time, I thought, for us humans to fight back -- to resist the encroaching digitization of our species.
Before I continue, I think it’s important to note that I’m no Henry David Thoreau running to my cabin in the woods. I live in Los Angeles, own a smart phone, listen to podcasts, stream music, and watch stupid videos my friends text me. I also enjoy the fruits of civilization like modern medicine, electricity, and Amazon Prime. All I’m doing here is waving the flag of awareness. We’ve reached a stage in our history where we really need to pause and ask ourselves exactly what the barbarians asked themselves, when under attack from a different sort of empire, so long ago: “How do we wish to live?”
When I answered how I wished to live, besides my obvious connection to my wife and family, I returned to those three things I loved to do most: (1) Lift Weights, (2) Read History, and (3) Gather with Friends. I felt drawn to these activities and pursued them for no other reason than I loved doing them – and certainly not because I wanted to impress anyone.
After answering, “How I wish to live,” I dug a bit deeper and asked myself, “what feeling do these activities give me?” Ultimately, the feeling we get from a favorite activity is why we do it in the first place. So I gave it some thought: When I lifted weights, I felt vigor. When I read history, I felt wonder. When I gathered with friends, I felt fellowship. Wait a minute, I thought. Vigor – Wonder – Fellowship; these are ancient feelings from living feral and free. Through these feelings, I had discovered the barbarian in me. Then I began to listen to his whispers.
To this day, I hear the barbarian in me whisper, “go to the gym,” “read that book,” or “call that friend in need.” The barbarian in me (my ancient intuition) whispers to me what I lacked for so long in my life: direction. The barbarian in me is my internal compass for life – always pointing north towards a life of vigor, wonder, and fellowship.
To be happy, feral, and free, however, we needed all three of these barbarian feelings. When I realized this, began to make some changes in my life.
Vigor. I bolted a pullup and dip bar to the side of my garage.
Wonder. I transformed a tiny guest bedroom into a private library stacked high with books, bourbon-scented candles, hanging pocket watches, and a black ceramic skull.
Fellowship. I didn’t just want friends, I wanted interesting friends -- men who loved what I loved: to read books and discuss them! Inspired by the Parisian salons of the French Enlightenment, a radical idea took root inside me. I could start my own salon right here in LA! I could offer a place for men to gather and talk.
For Fellowship, I soon formed “The Point View Crew: A Bookish Brotherhood.” One problem, though; I had no friends – at least not in LA. But my wife did! So I called the boyfriends and husbands of her friends (the ones I liked anyway). Starting with just six men, in a year we grew to twenty. Writers, actors, lawyers, coaches, realtors, musicians, and one bodyguard – we all still gather every few months like tribal elders sitting around the fire, except inside my living room.
The barbarian changes I made – the pullup bar, the tiny library, and the Point View Crew – dramatically improved my life. Following my barbarian compass and listening to my barbarian whispers gave me direction and purpose in my life -- to live with vigor, wonder, and fellowship. As a result, vigor, wonder, and fellowship became my barbarian triad defying the toxins of modern life like obesity, depression, loneliness, and the general malaise of day-to-day life. Through the barbarian triad, I had discovered a way to enjoy the fruits of modern life while defeating its perils. Moreover, I had devised a way to encourage others to pursue a life of vigor, wonder, and fellowship.
All that said, I still veer off my barbarian dirt road and succumb to digital distraction, laziness, and overindulgence. When this occurs, it’s okay and I enjoy myself. But after a while, overindulgence turns to regret. Once I feel the pain of regret, I say to the barbarian in me, “okay brother, message received.” And once again, I reorient my barbarian compass towards vigor, wonder, and fellowship and hear him whisper, “go.”