"I wish it need not have happened in my time."
"So do I 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 to us."
J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Lord of the Rings"
I have seen a lot of suffering lately. It seems to be springing up all around me, including in people very dear to me. There are diverse causes, and to some extent it doesn't really matter what they are. Yes, some of the suffering has been preventable — either by the people themselves, or by others. But much of it, like the times in which we live, has not been a matter for them or us to decide.
To some extent this is the case in human life. There is always high drama and high stakes. Yet there are certain times that deserve the denomination 'such times' — the kind you generally would not choose, where circumstances especially threaten the real human good and so demand more of each of us.
Lack of vision and integrity in leaders, predatory behavior, social habits that ensnare and maim, revered institutions gone bad, friendships imploding, technologies that suffocate, isolation turning into alienation, political upheaval and economic woes. Sicknesses that seem to come out of nowhere. And so for many, happiness overwhelmed, innocence lost, hope undermined. Even and especially among the young.
It is fitting to recognize that we live in 'such times.' But then what? We will face various temptations: hand-wringing; why-me-ing; finger-pointing; fear mongering; moping; complaining; despairing.
What is really given to us, however — at risk of sounding trite — is the gift of a lifetime. Right now. The chance to rise to the occasion, and to decide, 'what to do with the time that is given to us.'
Later in Tolkien's book, another character Sam returns to the same key theme, reflecting on the heroes of the stories of old who found themselves in very bad circumstances. "Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually — their paths were laid that way... But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't."
The chance to rise to the occasion, and to decide, 'what to do with the time that is given to us.'
Perhaps one good answer to the question 'what to do' is simply not to turn back. Turning back can take different forms — there are many faces of 'giving up.'
Sam notes that the heroes in the stories "just went on — and not all to a good end, mind you: at least not what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end."
Ah! What does it take to see that the best of endings might not look, from here, like a good ending! Our simple perseverance in fidelity, with the best cheer we can muster, can be part and parcel of an ending that is good beyond our imagining.
And indeed, as Sam concludes, "Don't the great tales never end?"
John Cuddeback: Recently we have been rereading "Lord of the Rings" as a family. It has been a signal blessing, providing us with powerful images of good and evil, and so also lending occasion to reflect upon both.
John A. Cuddeback. "Living in Times You Did Not Choose." LifeCraft (January 26, 2022).
Reprinted with permission from the author, John A. Cuddeback.
John Cuddeback is professor of Philosophy at Christendom College and the author of True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness and Aristotle's Ethics: A Guide to Living the Good Life. He and his wife Sofia consider themselves blessed to be raising their six children—and a few pigs and sundry—in the shadow of the Blue Ridge on the banks of the Shenandoah.Copyright © 2022 John A. Cuddeback
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