What would Gandalf do?
In Lord of the Rings there are several wizards, but the ones I want to talk about in this post are Gandalf and Radagast. Let me highlight their main qualities for my purposes here.
Gandalf is the epitome of wizardry. He knows and advises kings and generals. He is a member of the White Council, an organization formed to keep evil at bay. He spends his time strategizing and adventuring to save the world from evil. Radagast was sent to Middle Earth with the same mission – to protect the world from evil. But he stopped doing his job. Tired of the frustration and conflict, he hid away from the world, and when the time comes, he is far less help than he should be.
I’ve always pictured myself as a Gandalf sort of person – that’s what I want to do with my life. I want to work on a world stage. I want to keep darkness from hurting what is good and beautiful. I mean, how awesome a job would that be?! But lately, I’ve started to wonder if I’m not more like Radagast.
I’ve found myself shying away from public issues for months now. I’ve never been a news junkie, but these days, I trust the news less and less. It’s just people overexaggerating and arguing, and the facts depend on the interpretations instead of the other way around. It takes energy to listen to people being self-righteous and angry all the time.
And it never ends. If you solve one problem there will always be another. I feel kind of like our dogs used to when I’d try to teach them to fetch: you want me to get excited about the stick? If I bring it back, you’ll just throw it again. What’s your point?
Everything worsened leading up to the last election. Two things were different this time: 1) I was voting age, and 2) the bickering and name-calling only intensified after the results came in. Not-so-subtle political posturing appeared everywhere from talk shows to music to superhero series to movies to classes on Roman civilization and modal logic. I was just sick of it.
I don’t say anything. I don’t. I listen to people spout opinions like they know what’s going on. I listen to them judge people they’ve never met by categorizing and then condemning them. I listen to them give monologues that would put William Wallace to shame over trivial or even nonexistent slights. Sometimes I’ll throw in an oblique objection. But mostly, I let it pass and walk away. I stop watching TV show after TV show. I’ve stopped watching the news altogether.
It isn’t that I’m scared (I’m off to save the world, after all). It isn’t that my feelings are hurt when people rant to me about “them” without realizing they’re talking about me. I’m amused, and perhaps exasperated, but not hurt. They obviously don’t know what they’re talking about, so why should their opinions on the subject affect me? It’s not that I want to engage and don’t. I just don’t care that much. It’s not worth the argument.
But is it? Is it worth the argument? When I let people spout wrong ideas unchallenged, I’m acting out of apathy and cynicism, because I don’t care enough to correct them, and I don’t think it would help. I’m being Radagast – I’m retreating into the forest and letting the darkness corrupt them, because at the grand old age of 22, I’m tired of caring and being rebuffed.
But I really should care, shouldn’t I? If I’m going to be Gandalf, I should do something. These people are my friends. Even corporate boards and internet commentators aren’t some malevolent force of nature; these are real people, with real ideas, and with real lives that have been so consumed by self-righteousness and bitterness and vanity, they can’t see straight. That’s a miserable way to live. Shouldn’t I care? I wasn’t put on this earth for my comfort any more than Gandalf was.
Now, of course part of the problem is that I often don’t feel that strongly about the subject matter; for me, politics is a gigantic gray area. But there are also cultural, moral, and religious assumptions being made, and those I care very much about, and have spent a good deal of time studying. And of course, at the root of it all there are people and the selfishness and pride that separate them. The human race is the same as it’s always been in that regard; the election made little difference.
What is there to do? From painful experience, I know what not to do. I know not to fall into self-righteousness myself. I know not to assume I am right and close my mind to good arguments from the other side. I know not to assume too much about people, because everyone has his battles to fight. I know not to go around trying to force my beliefs on people instead of having honest discussions about things. And I know that sometimes it does more harm than good to engage.
But what do we do? Let’s go back to Gandalf. King Theoden rebuffed him because he was under the power of evil, and Gandalf had to fight his way through to his friend. Lord Denethor rebuffed Gandalf for his own selfish ends, but Gandalf stayed to help anyway, not for Denethor but for his people.
So I guess my only answer is to shake off the lethargy, use discernment, and do as much good as we can without running people over. The fact that a few people don’t want our help isn’t really a good excuse for not fighting for them and everyone else. After all, whatever else is in continual dispute, everyone seems to be agreed that there are still threats out there and the world still needs saving.
It’s not much of an answer, I’m aware. What do you think Gandalf would do? If you have any thoughts, I’d be grateful to hear them in the comments section or on my Facebook page. Best of luck with whatever dragons you’re fighting this week.
Screenshot from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey