“I am without words. Maurice, you always seem to be able to find a light at the end of a tunnel. Can you see one?”
My good friend was responding to my email sharing a disturbing story from The Atlantic warning “new technologies and techniques pioneered by dictators will shape the 2020 election.”
I understood her question. My fellow left-leaning friends and I are especially distressed these days. But, when it comes to disinformation, distrust, and division, I find universal unease among all political persuasions.
“Always,” I wrote in reply. “Like most distant lights, it’s impossible to know how far away it is, how quickly I will get to it (or it me), or even if it will reach me in this lifetime. But there is always light.”
I shared encouraging signs I’d seen in my recent interactions. But I also had to comfort more than just my friend. I had to reassure myself.
“I don’t delude myself into thinking these are not dark times,” I continued. “Nor do I believe things won’t get worse before they get better. That’s the dilemma… Too little reality leads to complacency and failure to muster the urgency to deal with serious threats. Too much reality causes despair and resignation. The fine line between the two is one we can only strive to find occasionally. For me, Stoicism helps.”
To myself I was thinking “there has to be something more than just moral clarity and dogged self-determination.” My stoic self finds too many stark similarities between the worst of our times and the dismal world of Winston Smith’s Oceania so brutally depicted by George Orwell.
Winston’s defeated acceptance is such a perfect description for where we might easily find ourselves now.
But, while “1984” is a telling tale of how we got here, it’s useless as a prescription for where we go next. Suffering severe tuberculosis and witnessing totalitarianism all around him during World War II, Orwell’s final years were devoid of hope.
For my friend (and myself) I needed deeper reserves. And Frodo Baggins sprang to mind.
In the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, J.R.R Tolkien presents a compelling, fantastical, but ultimately relatable tale of a diminutive protagonist who saves Middle Earth from the evil dark cloud of Sauron. Frodo and fellow hobbits Sam, Merry, and Pippin are such unlikely heroes. And yet, with the fate of their world in the balance, Frodo must bear the “One Ring” which would give Sauron unstoppable power and carry it to Mount Doom in Mordor to destroy it.
None of us has wizards, elves, or dwarves at our disposal. But hobbits were likewise simple, peaceful, unassuming folk. Frodo – and even more so, Sam – possessed what men, elves, and dwarves lacked – an undying devotion to cause and to each other and the character to grasp and still reject supreme power. Along the way, even Frodo is tested to his breaking point. But faithful, innocent Sam is there to carry the burden himself.
In the crucial moment, when Frodo falters and Sam is out of reach, it’s the wretch Gollum who battles Frodo to possess the “Precious” ring, and thus causes it to plummet into the infernal depths of Mount Doom. Tolkien is reminding us evil will do its own self in eventually, but only if we persevere doing that which we are called to do.
Tasked by destiny to do the unthinkable, it’s small wonder Frodo confides his reluctance to the Wizard Gandalf.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” Frodo said.
“So do I,” replied Gandalf. “And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to do is to decide what to do with the time that is given to us.”
It’s too easy to dismiss Tolkien’s mythical world as an exercise in escapism. But the author was well-versed in the worst horrors of mankind through his service in the British Army during World War I. Like Orwell, Tolkien also witnessed the devastation of WW II while writing his work. The battle between Good and Evil was ever-present in his life.
We easily see our current moment in Winston Smith’s world, but I find inescapable parallels between Frodo’s quest and our own darkening times. For all the storytelling wrapped around it, Frodo and Sam accomplished the ONE THING we need most desperately now… Someone obtaining absolute power and choosing deliberately not to use it. Someone with the courage and character to render such dominion forever again unusable.
We see the corrupting influence of power in the actions of President Donald Trump who tells us “I could shoot somebody on 5th Avenue and not lose any support.” But, it’s even starker in the ways of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. When McConnell blocked Barrack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in an election year, and subsequently pushed through Trump’s nominee Neil Gorsuch in another election year, the message was clear: “I’m doing it because I can.” Just as he shut down a contentious impeachment trial without even the pretense of a real hearing.
But, power for power’s sake is not the exclusive realm of Republicans. The stakes and the lines we’re willing to cross have escalated, but Democrat Harry Reid was every bit as masterful as his successor at bending mechanisms of government to his party’s interests.
The Atlantic story I shared gives a chilling view of the dirty tricks and malicious misinformation candidates are willing to employ to win. “If the other side does it, we have to do it too.”
Where does it end? How do we break from this political arms race where sides take turns escalating conflict to avenge past wrongs and achieve what they believe are just ends?
It ends only when those who hold the sword choose willfully to put it down. When winning at all costs is recognized as no longer worth it. With a candidate who says no to employing targeted misinformation. A President who eschews the expediency of executive orders. A Senate Majority Leader who puts his energy into facilitating dialog, not stifling it.
But, how can faint hope grounded in such wishful thinking ever take root in the real world? Tolkien’s genius was giving us heroes in Frodo and Sam who are the antithesis of superhuman. They’re creatures of such simple aspirations. Reluctant heroes who somehow find strength to accept an impossible task and carry it out against all odds in obscurity. We may not believe in wizards, elves, or dwarves. But we can all believe in Frodo and Sam. We see that spirit in our friends. We can find it in ourselves.
I don’t know who our Frodo of destiny is in our world, where he/she lives, or on what quest he/she may already be. But I know such exists in the hearts of people I know. And, whether we are meant to be a Frodo or a Sam, we have a role play.
“But in the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow; even darkness must pass.” – Sam Gamgee
Image Credit: the image of Donald Trump as Precious from Lord of the Rings is a composite image by LikeTheDew.com - the base image is a promotional image/screen shot from the movie series, The Lord of the Rings – directed by Peter Jackson, produced by Barrie M. Osborne, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Tim Sanders – (promotional, fair use, parody).