Those who know me know that my favorite book in the world is The Lord of the Rings. The odd thing, though, is that every time I read it, I notice something different. Yesterday I was reading the chapter “Mount Doom”, and half a paragraph struck me like never before. Those who’ve seen the movies or read the books know the part where Frodo and Sam are trekking through Mordor, getting close to Mount Doom. It’s a very dark part. They’re nearly to the end of their strength. Sam is sacrificing everything for Frodo, starving himself and refusing water because he knows Frodo needs it. He himself is wrestling with doubts and fears. Despair is creeping in on him as he hallucinates from weariness and dehydration and watches Frodo go slowly mad from the Ring. The movies don’t deal with what’s going on in Sam’s head, not really, but in the book, there’s a part that goes like this:
With a gasp, Frodo cast himself on the ground. Sam sat by him. To his surprise he felt tired but lighter, and his head seemed clear again. No more debates disturbed his mind. He knew all the arguments of despair and would not listen to them. His will was set, and only death would break it.
Through the last three chapters, Sam’s been worrying about whether he’s making the right choices, whether he should take one path or another, and as they went further, whether they will reach Mount Doom and what the point is if they can’t. After two whole books where Sam’s innate cheerfulness shrugs off any argument against success, he’s breaking down. He realizes that he and Frodo might not accomplish what they’d set out to do, and that even if they do, they’re not going to survive. They’re running out of food. Frodo is weaker by the day. They’re surrounded by the enemy. And he knows he’s been making mistakes. Then, one night, he gets tired of the whole thing and tells his doubts to shut up.
And I’m in awe. I mean, I want to be intellectually honest, and the thing about being intellectually honest is that you question everything. Which is good. But there’s a trap there. Good questions, honest questions: these have to be asked and answered. But we can get sucked into questions that have no purpose in being asked except to make us afraid, to make us cower and apologize and step aside. These aren’t new questions, either. They’re questions that we already know the answers to, which oftentimes can’t stand on their own, but refuse to go away. They nag, and sap us of strength. They lead us around in circles, saying that we’re wrong, we’re always wrong, we’re unintelligent, we’re neglectful, we’re useless, we’re weak. The arguments of despair tried telling Sam that there was no use in trying to make it to Mount Doom if chances were they’d die in the attempt. But Sam answered them correctly: still gotta try. And then, when they kept on him, he did the most sensible thing ever: he shut them up.
Every time I try a new endeavour, those questions haunt me. They pursue me, doubting my intentions, my abilities, my honesty, my perseverance. And very rarely do they do me any good. I analyze and over-analyze, hesitate and wonder, when I know – I know – that the next step is the one I should be taking. That even if things don’t work out, it is right to have tried. The logical evidence is on my side. Those around me encourage me, because it’s obvious to them that I should go on. Perhaps I haven’t found myself in such dire straits as Sam did, but that makes it sillier. This isn’t Mount Doom we’re talking about. This isn’t the fate of the universe. It’s the course of my life. Yet even a clear path doesn’t get a free pass. If things are frightening, I get the whole it doesn’t matter that much, you should go back to what you were doing. If things are obvious, it’s it shouldn’t be this easy. If they’re hard, maybe this door is closing. And if it’s clear that I should step back or step down, it’s you’re being lazy and only doing this for your own benefit. And after I know my arguments, after I’ve weighed the options, after I’m convinced of one way or another, all that’s left to say is, “Shut up!”
Because sometimes it does matter that much. And sometimes it is that easy – or that hard. And sometimes stepping back is the right thing to do. Arguments are not the same as logic, doubts are not the same as reason. These are more temptation than deliberation, luring us to fear in the name of safety. Learning the difference should be the first thing we do, because we’ll get lost or distracted if we don’t. And we can’t pretend those fears aren’t there, because they are. But we don’t have to listen to them. Caution borne of wisdom should be heeded, caution borne of fear should be challenged. And the irrational whirlpool that drags us down should be defied. When the arguments have run their course and the doubts still nag, all that’s left is to tell them to shut up.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13, ESV)