I was late to the Game of Thrones party. When everyone was posting their reactions to each episode and season, I was ignoring it all, not investing in the excitement. So when I decided to binge all eight seasons in one summer, it was a somewhat lonely experience. I finally understood the hype and wanted to talk to people about each episode, but they had all moved on. I was alone.
What I found so compelling about Game of Thrones wasn’t just the plot twists and the character arcs. It was the real-life comparisons I saw everywhere. I saw it played out in politics, in relationships, in every day experiences. Game of Thrones was a larger metaphor constantly unfolding around me. It became a subtle teacher, giving me a guide for how to behave and interact and play the figurative game of thrones we all face daily.
I was recently reminded of this on a particularly grueling medical trip with my youngest son. As a parent, once you’ve crossed the threshold from childhood illnesses to tumor treatments it’s easy to catastrophize any symptoms and weird behaviors that your child exhibits. On this trip, we had a lot of that. One that almost caused an emergency landing on our flight. It was a trip fraught with unexplained crisis after crisis and everything was pointing in a bad direction. I thought I would lose my mind. Knowing that I was probably a poor judge of my own sanity, and worried that maybe I was imagining things, I reached out to my friend and asked him if he thought I was going crazy.
His answer went back to Game of Thrones. Specifically to one line.
“Remember Arya Stark,” he said, reminding me of the character who watched her family get murdered one by one and exacted revenge through six seasons of the show. “You’re living in a world beyond imagining. Like Arya, the threats are existential. She responded to them by becoming a badass assassin and learning to fight in the dark. That’s what you have to do.” And then he reminded me of the line Arya learned from the first person who taught her how to fight:
“What do we say to the God of Death? Not Today.”
Way back when I was finding out I had breast cancer, people would tell me to “be strong” as if I actually had anything to do with the fight. Things were happening to me – I was getting surgery. I was given drugs. I was having tests. The only battle I probably really had was with post-cancer depression and the well-meaning toxic positivity that tended to blow up my phone on bad days. More often than not, I felt like a victim, not a fighter, regardless of what all the movie lines said. I gave into that passiveness with the mantra of “Day by Day.” I just had to get through the four hours for another Percocet. Get through the six hours for more dilaudid. Get through the day. Get through the next day. And that was how it went.
Arya’s “Not Today,” on the other hand, is active. It implies fighting and strength. It is a call not only in direct defiance to the god of death, but to the gods of chaos and crisis. There is nothing passive about it. It reminds you to dig deep, to raise your sword and threaten the darkness that seeks to overwhelm you. It reminds you to get back into the ring instead of lying down or losing yourself within it.
The difference between “Day by Day” and “Not Today” is the difference between passivity and action. “Day by Day” forces you to watch and wait until the danger passes. Let it wash over you. Accept it. There certainly is a time and a place for that advice. It’s the same advice I received about labor: breathe into the pain, wait for the contraction to end, get your breath, do it again.
When I was watching my kid going through crisis, my knee-jerk mom reaction was to give him the same mantra. Day by day. Test by test. Pill by pill. But this time around, he wasn’t buying it. This time, like me, he needed a sword. He needed to face-off with the god of Death. He needed to look the pain in the eye and resolutely say, no matter how large the fear and the unknown, “Not today.”
It may have taken me longer to get to Game of Thrones than most people but because the experience is still so fresh my friend’s reminder of Arya battling in darkness resonated so well. But you don’t need to be familiar with the storyline to recognize the difference between the approaches. When faced with pain, with the unknown, with visions of worst-case-scenarios – when you’re fighting in darkness – there is really only one way to respond.
Only one thing we say to that.