‘the time that is given to us’

Eight years and (almost) three months ago, a friend posted on Facebook that he thought Sauron had acquired the ring. That was November 4th, 2008. I made light of it, as I recall, and we had a brief exchange in which he reminded me how important politics is, and I reminded him that no person is evil through and through in the way Sauron is.

I have thought a lot about that exchange since November 2016. My utter failure to understand how anyone so like me could think so differently about Barack Obama has come back to me. Here we were, two people with quite similar backgrounds and formed in Christian faith during our college years by some of the same people. And yet, I was celebrating and he was thinking the world was ending. The shoe is on the other foot now.

Not only that, but I have spent the last eight years abroad, for the most part, living in England. Brexit was as much of a shock as the election in November. My only observation regarding the similarity of the two events is that the remain campaign and HRC’s campaign each had an element of “don’t be ridiculous” about them. I’m no pundit, though, and I haven’t much further comment to make on that. In both cases, I was persuaded by what would end up being the losing side, and I quite honestly failed (once again) to see what good anyone really believed would come from leaving the EU or electing Trump. I’ve never been one for politics, so maybe it’s just me. But the unthinkable happened on both occasions, so maybe my ignorance is not unusual.

All that to say, I am certainly not a person to offer some astute comment on the situation. Still less can I predict what will happen, or give reasons for hope (or despair). What I can do is return to Tolkien, to a moment very near the beginning of the story of the destruction of the ring.

“But last night I told you of Sauron the Great, the Dark Lord [says Gandalf]. The rumours that you have heard are true: he has indeed arisen again and left his hold in Mirkwood and returned to his ancient fastness in the Dark Tower of Mordor. That name even you hobbits have heard of, like a shadow on the borders of old stories. Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.”

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us…”

This is perhaps the hardest thing of all: not having any say about what time is given to us. We cannot decide what we live through, nor how long the times will last, nor what good our little work may do. Later in the story (in a passage I’ve not yet come to in my  re-reading), Gandalf says that the small acts of courage and faithfulness are the ones that save the world. Of course it’s more eloquent and nuanced in Tolkien’s rendering. I’ve no gift at all, can barely string together a sentence, compared to Tolkien. But it is true nonetheless, that the small acts of kindness and love that shape mere moments do not disappear into some vast ocean of darkness and cruelty–much as it often seems to me in my despairing moods. No, Tolkien is right: the small acts of goodness, those that seem insignificant and powerless, do something.

These are the times that are given to us, whether we believe that Sauron is closing his fist on the one ring, or whether we think that the Shadow has been (for now) defeated. If there is to be any “growing good” of the world (as George Eliot puts it in Middlemarch), it will depend on the most hidden acts of love, hope and courage.

March. Protest. File writs. Or take the other side, if you must. But in all that you do, in all for which you strive in these times, do not forget the kindness to a neighbour, or to a stranger, that makes an imperceptible but no less important difference.

For the truth is, as I have said here before (I’m sure), that the world is constantly changing, in every moment, with every action. Hidden self-sacrifice and quiet integrity resist the forces of darkness and cruelty just as surely as public acts that look good on social media. And kindness costs nothing. We don’t have to pass the bar, we don’t even have to be having a particularly good day. We can still be kind. This is the time that has been given us. Right now.

All we have to decide is what to do with it.

No safe paths

‘There are no safe paths in this part of the world.’

So says Gandalf, as he prepares to leave Bilbo and the dwarves, who are about to enter Mirkwood. Bilbo wished for another way, a way around the dark and sinister-looking forest. But even the very long way around the forest–hundreds of miles out of the way–isn’t safe. And so it seems for us,  in a time of political uncertainty, social unrest and moral conflict–not to mention the constant threat of terrorism: there are no safe paths.

So little of our world is like the Shire and so much of it is like Mirkwood. But few are the Gandalfs in our world, warning us not to leave the path. It seems to me that we have forgotten what the real dangers are. Suffering and death are not the real dangers: they will come anyway; they are a part of life. The real danger is that of spending all our time and effort in avoiding suffering and keeping death at a distance. In so doing, I think we miss so much of what life is about. Too much concern with safety and comfort is perilous.

Gandalf understood this, perhaps. Tolkien seems to have grasped it, anyway. I am afraid, however, that we who live without hunger and fear are too easily persuaded to prize safety and comfort unduly. It is hard, when we are concerned for our children and our way of life, not to believe that safety and comfort are of the utmost importance. Two things ought to be said, though. The first is that I believe in safety: I make my children sit in car seats and wear seat belts, I don’t let them wander, and I probably protect and comfort them to a fault. Even so,  I cannot protect them from skinned knees and broken bones, or from disappointments or failures. And even the comfort a mother can offer does not take the pain away. But they are remarkably resilient. They recover. And they’re not afraid of trying again when the first time was painful or even disastrous. I think of my 5-year-old daughter’s constant cartwheeling. She improves gradually. Sometimes she bangs a foot or ankle, or her arms give way and she crumples to the mat. But she gets up, always, and tries again.

So–and this is the second thing–there’s nothing wrong with valuing safety and comfort. The danger is that the concern for our own safety and comfort, so natural and understandable, begins to shape our attention to the world in ways we are no longer able to see. Then, we fail to move beyond the confines of our safe, comfortable world. We become blinded to the way in which our safety and comfort come at the expense of others’ basic needs. It doesn’t have to be so, obviously. But it’s pretty hard to know how far my comfortable life, and the products and privileges that make it so, would not be possible without the unevenness of the distribution of wealth and power that keeps millions of people in poverty. My having more than enough cannot be completely unrelated to others’ lack.

Let me be clear, though: I am not inviting you to join me on a guilt trip. I eat meat. I drive a car, even sometimes for pretty short trips. I buy snacks for the children that are packaged in too much plastic film. I don’t always recycle everything I should. I drink coffee from Starbucks and even occasionally let the kids eat McDonald’s. I live in the middle-class world and I won’t pretend I don’t like my safety and comfort as much as the next person.

What frightens me, though, is the idolization of safety and comfort. Comfort is no longer a privilege, but a right, and safety as basic a need as hunger. None of us are wholly safe, and we don’t even realize the dangers that threaten us. What we will pay for safety or false security–that worries me. And the expectation of comfort so common in the children of the middle class (like mine)–that worries me.

It’s the lights of the fire and the smell of elvish food that ultimately lure Bilbo and the dwarves from the path through Mirkwood. Were they enticed by safety and comfort? Perhaps. And they almost get eaten by spiders, and they’re captured by the elven king, and they nearly lose their way entirely. Staying on the path is hard, and you don’t even have to believe that it’s the “narrow path” of being a disciple of Jesus to know that that’s true.

Our lives are a journey. There is a path. It leads through dark forests. We will not always be safe. We will not always be comfortable. But what we need is not more cushion and more protection. We need courage. We need hope. Because, really, there are no safe paths in this part of the world.