Saying Goodbye to the Shire

On the weekend we took Nathan to a small guest farm, and on the way back, passing through Modimolle, we passed a memorial for the elderly, women and children who died in the British concentration camp there during the Boer War. The majority of the headstones on the 500 odd graves carry the names of children under the age of 5. It is a tragic part of history, forgotten in the wake of South Africa’s more recent atrocities.

I have been reflecting much recently on Solomon’s plea in Proverbs 4:23: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life”. Modimolle’s forgotten cemetery was a touching and grim reminder to me of just how broken our world is. How do we even begin to ‘take heart’ in the midst of the brutality that surrounds us daily?

The Lord of the Rings has taught me much. I think Tolkien had a very astute insight into fighting for our hearts, which is, I believe, at the core of what the story is about. One of the truths that I have come to accept is this: avoiding heartache is not the same as guarding your heart. Pain is an unavoidable part of our existence. The shadow of Mordor lies on us all, and there is nothing we can do to prevent an assault on our hearts. Too often, I think we make things worse by adopting the wrong strategies for guarding our hearts.

We cannot stay in the Shire: suffering will eventually find us. In the book, even the Shire burns. Despite the temptation to remain wilfully ignorant and secluded in the Shire, Frodo heeds Gandalf’s warning that “the Ring will not be able to stay hidden in the Shire much longer; and for your own sake, as well as for others, you will have to go, and leave the name of Baggins behind you”. Anyway, despite all appearances, even the Shire is far from idyllic. The seeds of destruction are already blooming at the beginning of the book, evident in the petty squabbling and jealousy that threatens the harmony of Bilbo’s birthday celebrations. The hobbits have to accept that they need to leave the ease of the Shire. And it is not only the hobbits who seem reluctant to acknowledge that what happens in the rest of Middle-Earth will affect them. It seems everybody would rather not risk confronting Mordor. Gandalf  and Aragorn seem to spend much of their time trying to convince various authority figures that “open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not”. The point is this: our Helm’s Deeps, our Minas Tiriths, our Shires will not protect us. It is open war and the prize is our hearts.

We cannot run from heartache or hide behind the walls of our choosing. There is no place where the hand of Mordor cannot reach. The walls of your philosophies, which you have convinced yourself provide a form of understanding of the world and life, will be undermined. Knowledge will not protect you from suffering. You cannot shield yourself with cynicism, deluding yourself into believing that if you risk nothing you can lose nothing. Positive thinking is an illusion: the reality that life is hard will eventually dispel it. The rituals you perform to protect you from life, your abstinence from whatever it is you believe keeps you from perfect holiness, and thus from God’s protection from pain, are meaningless. None of these will help you guard your heart.

Protecting your heart is an act of war. You need to take up your sword and fight. Much as you wish it otherwise, protecting your heart will cost you, but it is a necessary cost.

“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.”

Guarding your heart is a decision. But what should you be choosing to do? To start with, leave the Shire, little hobbit. Ask yourself this: what comfortable beliefs have I been clinging to because I thought they would shield me from the harsh reality of life? In what way do those beliefs actually threaten the safety of my heart? How do I begin to let them go? What are the walls I have constructed to keep the world out? Can I see where they are beginning to crumble? What is the first step in mounting a charge out of that doomed fortress? Have I, like Denethor, given in to despair? In so doing, how am I a threat to those I love? Am I humble enough to take counsel from somebody wiser?

There are many paths out of the Shire, but we must choose one of them. Make no mistake, open war is upon you, whether or not you would risk it. The cost of ignoring this truth will be your heart. You will need to abandon your comfortable delusions and false security, but you have no real choice. And the journey you are about to take will change you:

“Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,’ said Gandalf. ‘I fear it may be so with mine,’ said Frodo. ‘There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?’ Gandalf did not answer.”

You will be changed irrevocably by the quest, but it cannot be avoided any longer. It is time to find a fellowship.

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