‘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.

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