Despair and Hope

Published 2017-01-25

…even at that moment all the hosts of Mordor trembled, doubt clutched their hearts, their laughter failed, their hands shook and their limbs were loosed. The Power that drove them on and filled them with hate and fury was wavering, its will was removed from them; and now looking in the eyes of their enemies they saw a deadly light and were afraid.

Then all the Captains of the West cried aloud, for their hearts were filled with a new hope in the midst of darkness.

What exactly does a Ring of Power do, other than make Hobbits invisible? It doesn’t shoot fireballs or anything. A close reading of Lord of the Rings reveals that the main power of the Rings is inspiration. It makes its wearer mighty.

Despair is a major theme in Lord of the Rings. When the One Ring is destroyed in the Cracks of Doom, the host of Mordor isn’t actually swallowed up by the ground (as in the movie). They just…give up and wander away.

To Tolkien, the secret power unlocked by enchanted stones or magic rings or whatnot was the simple sense that we will win this.

On Saturday night, after marching with 70,000 or more of my Portland neighbors, and millions of fellow Americans, I felt like a soldier of Rohan. We can do this. We are stronger than this. We will win this. It was the opposite of despair. But I wouldn’t call it hope.

For the past few months I’ve contended with the twin emotions of despair and hope. We often put these things on opposite sides — remember how HOPE was all over those awesome Shepar Fairey posters eight years ago? But despair and hope aren’t opposites: they are both passive emotions. In succumbing to them, we hand our will and agency to someone else. Giving into despair is pre-emptive surrender; placing hope in people or institutions makes them responsible for our own success.

The liberating (if painful) experience of the past year was seeing all the lifelines which I had naively assumed would always hold, fail. Surely the Republican party isn’t insane enough to nominate this guy. Surely the Democrats will have some unbeatable oppo & voter turnout. Surely the free press will see this threat for what it is. Surely the Deep State will torpedo this crooked election. Surely some principled Republican will stand up to this. And one by one all of those hopes have been betrayed. It’s obvious by now everything will betray us: our foreign allies, our press, our legal system, our representatives. We cannot cling to those lifelines.

Which leaves only us. And there are a LOT of us. 65 million at my last count. And we get angrier and more purposeful every day.

Yesterday I attended a rally at Senator Merkley’s office, organized on Indivisible principles. The rally’s purpose is to hold Senator Merkley accountable; pull him leftward; make him fear being abandoned by his allies more than a beatdown by his Republican colleagues. And you know, right now Merkley is a Good Guy. He is doing mostly the right things, voting against everything, issuing statements of solidarity. But I have no hope that he’ll stick by us. He’ll eventually betray us too. And that’s OK, in my head he already has.

Three million of us marched on Saturday. This week I can’t turn around without seeing another friend declare their intent to run for office or share their plans for calling congresscritters. If even a tiny percentage of those three million pick up the phone a few times a week, attend a few rallies, give a few dollars…that’s the avalanche we need. In the end, we only have each other.

The analogy I’ve been using lately is the Scouring of the Shire. We Hobbits must rise up — ourselves — to chase Saruman out of our beautiful land. The eagles won’t swoop in YET AGAIN to save our asses. We lowly Hobbits, slow to rouse, are getting our butts in gear. We’re gonna needle our institutions and their keepers into serving us once again.