It can almost be as hard to receive and believe unexpected good news as it is to receive and believe the opposite. Disappointment can become a habit of life and preparing for it so that we can bear it when it comes can become the main discipline of our inner lives. The expectation of disappointment and our preparation for its “inevitable” arrival has a way of creeping into every fibre of our being. We will see this negative expectation at work in two major characters of The Lord of the Rings in later postings on this blog. One is Théoden of Rohan and the other is Denethor of Gondor.
The return of Gandalf is one of the glorious moments of the whole story. We saw him fall with the Balrog into the abyss in Moria, crying, “Fly, you fools!” as he did so. We shared in the grief of his companions at his loss and in the sense that their task had become so much harder if not impossible. We have reflected more than once on how for Aragorn the unexpected burden of the leadership of the company threw him into doubt regarding his personal ambitions. And we could say that although it was the attack of the orcs that finally sundered the Fellowship of the Ring that it was from the fall of Gandalf that such a sundering became inevitable.
And now in the Forest of Fangorn as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli bravely pursue what seems a hopeless cause, Gandalf returns to them.
“They all gazed at him. His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand. Between wonder, joy and fear they stood and found no words to say.”
They are able to receive this good news with joy and then to continue their journey with renewed hope. Soon they will know that there is no point in continuing to search for Merry and Pippin. They will waste no time on comments like, “so why did we bother, then?” Only one thing will matter to them and that will be to do the next task, and then the next one and the next one. In this they differ from Théoden (at first at least) and from Denethor. Denethor, most of all, has become so set in his belief that good days are only pauses on the inevitable road to destruction that he considers all who continue to have hope as fools and so Gandalf is dismissively called the “grey fool”. In Théoden despair is mixed with guilt. He regards himself as a failed king. Aragorn is different from both. He has passed through his time of despair, not even regarding his own failure as something that disqualifies him from doing the next task with all the strength that he can bring to it.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi resister, wrote powerfully about this not long before he was arrested and held in the Tegel prison in Berlin.
He reflected on ten years of resistance to the Third Reich within Germany, much of which had been ineffective, and upon all that he and his fellow resisters had learnt through those years. He wrote that he had learnt that it was of no importance whether anyone emerged as a hero from this experience. All that mattered was to keep on asking the question, day after day after day, “How is the next generation to live?” Aragorn has stopped worrying about whether he is a hero or whether others see him as one. All that matters is the task. Once that is clear to him he has no barrier within himself to weeping tears of sorrow or of joy and no barrier to living a faithful life.
One thought on “On Learning to Receive Good News”
You are absolutely right about the way disappointment can become a mindset. I find that I am constantly battling against cynicism – really difficult at this current time! I suppose it too stems from disappointment and things not being what we at first take them to be. I remember my reaction when I first read this passage in the LOTR and how, for quite awhile, I was expecting this returned Gandalf to turn out not really to be him – or worse, a trick.
What I find particularly troubling is that Denethor’s mindset seems to reflect so much in society… but then, this rather dark outlook seems to have always been at the heart of northern (latitude) mentality – Bede’s sparrow flying through the mead-hall from winter and back into winter.
Our minds do seem to play this really cruel trick: When things are going well, it says ‘this won’t last’. When things are going badly, it says ‘this will last forever’.