The Power of No Expectations

Once he becomes the king of Kattegat, Vikings-protagonist Ragnar Lothbrok quickly learns that everyone close to a ruler tends to have their own agenda.

His brother Rollo is jealous and would like to rule himself. The beautiful Aslaug wants to lure Ragnar away from his wife, hoping his power will protect her. For the next four seasons, Ragnar will suffer betrayal after betrayal, fighting one uphill battle after the next.

In the entire show, there is only one character who seems to go along with whatever Ragnar suggests: Athelstan, an English monk whom Ragnar hauled back to Norway as a slave. Of all people, Athelstan has the most reason to plot against Ragnar, yet he never does. As a Christian, he is a believer in kindness, love, and patience.

The more time he spends in Kattegat, however, the more Athelstan realizes that the ways of the Northmen are also fascinating. So are their many gods, from Odin to Thor, Freyja, and Loki. Wherever he goes, Athelstan listens. He asks questions. He meets people with understanding instead of prejudice.

Ragnar, too, notices that Athelstan seems to be the only one capable of looking beyond his own ambition. As a result, he frees him. Over time, Athelstan becomes a great warrior, well-versed in the Norwegians’ traditions and even their language. He fights with them, raids with them, and one day fathers a son, breaking his vows of celibacy.

Eventually, Athelstan returns home to England, where he once again becomes a monk, once again earning a king’s trust for so willingly upending his life. Athelstan illustrates holy texts and offers counsel to whoever asks for it.

Considered a wanderer between cultures, Athelstan isn’t met with a friendly eye wherever he goes. One day, yet again home in Norway, a jealous viking can no longer restrain himself, and Athelstan meets his maker.

Years later, as Ragnar sits across King Ecbert of Wessex, there’s only one thing the two iconic rulers can agree on: They both loved Athelstan as their closest friend, and they miss him dearly. More than for lost wives, brothers, even children, they long for Athelstan. They see him in their dreams. He guides them on the right path where no one else can.

Why Athelstan? What makes him so compelling? The answer, I believe, is that Athelstan was the only one without expectations. Wherever life carried him, he would allow it. “I am to be a slave? Then let it be so.” “I am to be a viking warrior? Then let it be so.” “I am to love this woman? Then let it be so.”

In a world so corrupt, so full of betrayal and hidden incentives, how could anyone just go with the flow? By letting go of judgment. Just because Ragnar enslaved him does not make Ragnar a bad man, Athelstan believed. Where others applied case-closed-thinking and plotted their revenge, Athelstan kept his mind and heart open. Who knows what’ll happen tomorrow? And indeed, tomorrow always made for a surprise.

Despite having no claim to fame nor being the strongest warrior, ultimately, Athelstan held the most sway over those in power — because he himself wielded the greatest one of all: the power of no expectations.

Today, the world is less deadly but no less complicated. A lack of expectations is still as fresh a breath of air as it was in the ninth century, and perhaps also still the — maybe the only one there ever was — ultimate power.

Drop your assumptions. Let go of judgment. Love the world and live with open arms. It might not fall at your feet, but even if the road comes with many twists and turns, life is better without expectations.