TBI, Tolkien, and Greek Tragedy: A Labor Day Reflection

TBI, Tolkien, and Greek Tragedy: A Labor Day Reflection September 4, 2022

Gandalf the Grey (artwork by Nidoart nidoart.blogspot.fr), 8 January 2013, http://nidoart.blogspot.fr/; Creative Commons.

I was watching The Fellowship of the Ring the other night, unwinding and resting after my day’s labor. I have read the book and watched the movie once or twice. But an exchange between Frodo and Gandalf spoke to me like never before. Here’s the exchange in the book focusing on the conflict over the ring and the forces of evil:

“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.”

These lines grabbed me. I pondered them at length. Why? As many of you know, we have needed to labor countless hours to advocate and care for our adult son Christopher and his family in view of his traumatic brain injury and its aftermath the past nineteen months. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” or anyone’s time, for that matter.

Perhaps you have had to pour your energy and labor into addressing ongoing traumatic ordeals. Maybe the matter concerns your personal physical or mental health, or the well-being of a loved one, a major challenge at work, a social crisis, or a natural disaster. No matter what it is, the situation you call to mind appears daunting, perhaps overwhelming.

Rarely do any of us dare to imagine that our personal circumstances and responsibilities compare remotely with the hobbit Frodo’s task of bearing the ring of power to the evil realm of Mordor and casting it in the fires of Mt. Doom. But still we might say to ourselves and others, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”

I love the wizard Gandalf’s empathic and wise response to 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.”

Gandalf connects with Frodo’s suffering, as he helps Frodo on his fateful journey, as best he can. While only Frodo is equipped, even ‘chosen,’ to bear the ring, the quest is treacherous for the entire fellowship, including Gandalf. Wish all they might that this task of contending against Mordor did not happen in their lifetime, still it has fallen to them. They cannot wish it away. What they must discern is “what to do with the time that is given us.”

One commentary on this passage reflects upon the relation of fate and free will in The Lord of the Rings. Like a Greek tragedy, Tolkien employs fate as a theme in his epic saga. But free will also comes into play. Frodo and his companions are not automatons or pawns. They have a choice in the matter. His companions could try to seize the ring and foolishly try to use it for their own aims, like Boromir attempted, or they can do whatever possible to assist Frodo in making his way to the fires of Mt. Doom.

I am not one to think that my son’s tragic ordeal is the result of blind fate. But I do believe in a God who is sovereign in love. I do not know why this tragedy unfolded, but I do cry out to heaven for wisdom to know “what to do with the time that is given us” here below. I can act the fool and blow up on others or break down and have a pity party for my son, family, and me. But how would that honor Christopher or assist him? How would that honor Christ, whose name my son bears? (Christopher means “bearer of Christ”).

My twenty-six-year-old son lovingly labored countless hours day after day to care for his young wife and daughter prior to his injury. He also worked out rigorously after work each day. It is so hard to see him on his back or in a wheelchair all the time, even as he labors and fights to live.

It is an understatement for those who know him to say that Christopher has not had an easy life. One could even say that it is tragic in some ways. There’s no beating around that bush. But what will Christopher do in his minimally conscious state with the time that is given to him? How will he labor to fight on while lying on his bed or sitting in his Geri chair custom made for him? How about you and me? No matter our circumstances—and we do not know what tragedy might await you and me around the corner—how will we respond?

I have been grateful to all those who have labored with us on our unfathomable journey with Christopher. They cannot bear our ‘ring,’ but they have been an unbelievable fellowship of comfort and support. Perhaps they sense as I do that we are going through the theater of life, a living drama, together.

Speaking of theater and living drama, I mentioned Greek tragedy earlier. Sophocles, a master of Greek tragedy, knew “that drama, live theater, can be a machine for creating empathy and community.” An article in The Smithsonian, from which this quote is taken, reflects on how Greek tragedy may “have the power to heal modern day traumas.” The author claims,

Beyond class war and political resentment, beyond even racism, there is something profoundly lonely in modernity, something isolating and dislocating. Maybe sitting in the same room with other humans who suffer and speak is comfort enough. Maybe enough to save us.

It is not simply theater, but all of life that is a stage, as Shakespeare wrote. But are we even minimally conscious of our being players together on the stage of history? Or does the “isolating” and “dislocating” nature of modern society blind us to the need for active participation and sharing in life’s tragedies? Do we go about our daily labor as pre-programmed automatons who function as solitary hamsters spinning mindlessly on a wheel? How many of us can say that we have a fellowship to help us bear our burdens and labor through life’s deepest challenges and struggles?

I hope you experience what we have experienced. So many people suffer and empathize with Christopher and us. We are not alone, as we bear this ring, even if we do not yet know yet where we are to take it.

Unfortunately, this is not the norm. All too often, we hide from addressing tragedy and lament in our personal conversations, social media, public worship, and elsewhere rather than share it genuinely, constructively, and cathartically. With this point in mind, our movie theaters today are rather passive in nature, where we watch in obscurity and isolation. Greek tragedy and the Jewish and Christian Scriptures give us permission to share grief and to express it out loud in a way that brings healing. The same Smithsonian article notes, “Out of suffering, hope. Maybe that’s what Sophocles knows—that Ajax and Tecmessa and Creon and Antigone suffer and speak for us all, so that we too might suffer and speak.” Jesus invited his disciples into his fellowship of suffering on the eve of his passion, as he washed their feet, broke bread with them, and shared about the trials, tribulations, and glory that would follow his and their labor in bearing the cross (See John 13-17). He comforts them with these words:

Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. (John 16:20-22; NIV)

What will you and I “do with the time that is given us”? Will we bear tragedy and struggles in life nobly, or blow up in a rage and break down in a pity party? Will we bear with one another’s burdens or live in isolation and dislocation? Choose wisely who will journey with you in your trials. But remember, too, that we all need fellowship with trusted other humans, and maybe even a good old wizard, dwarf, elf, and a few hobbits, who together with us will struggle, labor, listen, and share.

Thank you for allowing me to share with you! God bless you in your own journey.

About Paul Louis Metzger
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology & Culture, Multnomah University & Seminary; Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins; and Author and Director of numerous works, including The Gospel of John: When Love Comes to Town (InterVarsity Press, 2010) and Evangelical Zen: A Christian's Spiritual Travels with a Buddhist Friend (Patheos, 2015). You can read more about the author here.
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