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Free Will and the Demands of Conscience

Frodo had a choice. He took the trial of the Ring freely, or under obligation to his own conscience, which amounts to the same thing. His friends aided him as much as they could on the journey, and, when he struck out on his own, allowed him to go, knowing that they did so for a greater good. With only his faithful Sam he journeyed into the dark lands to rid himself of his darker burden.

What kept him upon the Road?

I know that I–and I’m hoping I’m not alone in this–have had many times when my will was not sufficient to the demands of my conscience. They are primarily little things that tend to add up alarmingly afterward, such as sleeping through class when I know I should be getting out of bed, procrastinating homework that I know I should be doing now, not preparing lesson plans for the morrow so that I don’t wind up looking like a doltish adult in front of my class; that sort of thing is common, all simply because "what I feel like doing" at the moment consists of sleeping, watching TV, or web-surfing. But I learned earlier in life, as an undergraduate, the truth of Dean Smith’s saying "If you treat everything as a life-or-death matter, you'll die a lot of times." Those things I describe above are truly, for the most part, little things, in that I taught myself that it would not matter in five years, one year, or, in most cases, even two weeks, that I didn’t do those things exactly when my conscience was telling me to. That saying "Don’t sweat the small stuff . . . and it’s all small stuff," that is so popular now is right up my alley. It relieves me from the pressures of my own conscience and keeps me from living in a state of continuous anxiety and depression resulting from the feeling of not having measured up to my own yardstick.

But what if there comes a time when it is no longer small stuff? When it is literally a matter of life or death?

Have you ever been in a life-or-death situation? More specifically, have you ever been in a life-or-death situation that required not quick-thinking, decisive action, but rather, a slow grind, an endless monotony of wearying tasks that instead of becoming easier, seem only to grow heavier and harder with each step down the Road? A series of days melding into a mind- and soul-numbing existence, where each day is the same as the day before it, and if anything, slightly worse?

I have not. Therefore I cannot speak with authority. In trying to determine an Earthly comparison to Frodo’s Middle-earth journey, the only analogous experience that comes to mind is the care of an aging loved one, whether their ailment is age alone or age added to other, more serious, debilitating medical conditions. Thank God I have never been in this position, but I have family members who have and are going through similar situations. To my mind, the similarities are strong. Frodo, on the hopeless journey that gets harder with every step and who, with every day, longs for nothing more ardently than to be able to lay down his burden and rest without fear of the future. A son or daughter, caring for his or her aging, perhaps ill, parent, a task that gets harder with each day for both of them, never knowing when some worse news might be brought by doctors with excellent intentions, does this on top of the business of their daily life which consumes much of their energy and will before they ever make it to their parent’s bedside. All the while, I would imagine, they, too, both hope for and dread the day when they can lay down their worries and rest without fear of the future.

Without fear of the future.

What kept Frodo upon the Road?

What keeps us going in times of near-despair?

A simple question: What will happen either to myself or to ones that I love if I do not continue this task?

A small side trip. Have you ever lay in bed the night before you know you had to do something that scared the socks off you and that would impact your future? Give a large presentation? Take a huge examination? Teach your first day of school? Your big interview for your dream job? You might think of every possibility of getting out of it that you can possibly fathom, but in the end, you’re still going to go through with it.

C. S. Lewis’ character Elwin Ransom, in his insightful book Perelandra, is set a task: to fight a very devil, dwelling within a human body. He argues with it upon all the philosophical grounds that exist, with all the debating tools he can devise–and these are formidable. The demon, however, is wily, and it has other tricks at his disposal every time Ransom must sleep, which is something the demon does not necessarily do. At stake are the soul of a woman and the innocence of an entire race. Then comes the night when Ransom knows he can no longer continue his course of argument and debate. It is not working; moreover, the woman’s defenses are crumbling a little more with each passing day. Ransom’s brain tumbles through a myriad of arguments with himself, trying to excuse himself from any further duty in the matter, saying that he has done his best and that is all that can be expected of him, until a new thought occurs to him that takes his breath away. A physical struggle and a fight to the death might be what is called for; the death of the body that the creature inhabits would effectively put an end to its temptation of the woman. Once Ransom has decided upon this course of action, knowing that his own conscience will not allow it to be left alone otherwise, he can rest, but it is only the rest of a man who knows that tomorrow comes the day he has dreaded for weeks, the day of the major examination, or the court trial, or the interview, or whatever other incidents there are that try the soul. What gets us through these times?

The knowledge that, as Lewis puts it, "At this time tomorrow I will have done the impossible," is what pulls us on. Whatever you think impossible or unlikely that you can pull off, yet it is something that simply must be done, there comes a time when you say to yourself, "By this time tomorrow, it will be over, for better or for worse." And for some of us, that is the only way we can make it through.

Frodo knew that to give up his journey was to doom himself and the whole of the world of his existence to a horrifying domination at the hands of an evil spirit. He had set himself upon the Road, and what kept him there was this knowledge that to give up meant death, not only for him, but for people and places whom he loved. He had not the comfort of a person who has only one day’s unsettling or even terrifying business to conduct; he had only the cold comfort of knowing that when his burden was past, then one way or another he would rest, whether it was in his hobbit-hole or in an unmarked ash heap at the foot of the Mountain of Fire.

I think it can get even a little more personal than that. Frodo’s own death and the death of his loved ones, of his homeland, perhaps of that entire world are heavy concerns, it is true. But in the end, it was Frodo’s own conscience that would not allow him to write this journey off as "small stuff." I said earlier that when my will does not support my conscience as far as finishing necessary tasks, they are little things. When it comes to big things, I groan and grumble, but I get the job done. I have to. The consequences are too great otherwise. Frodo, like Lewis’ Ransom, groaned and grumbled, but he got the job done. His conscience would not allow his will to slide out of this one. Frodo held fast his faith that what he was doing was necessary, good, and indeed the last recourse.

Frodo did not know the outcome of his journey as he was making it. I would imagine that the first time most of us read Lord of the Rings, we were shocked and dismayed at the end of Frodo’s Road.

"I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!"

We almost want to weep. All that work wasted. All the weary trudging days, the sheer force of conscience and will that dragged him to the feet of Mount Doom and the patient efforts of Sam that dragged him up it. Ransom, too, knew that his efforts might be in vain, and might very well end in his own death, with the creature still on the loose to violate an innocent race. But neither God nor Iluvatar, in either story, allows the faithful work of an honest heart to go to waste. "Even Gollum may have something to do . . . But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring." Iluvatar did not allow the evil power of the Ring or its maker to undo the months of toil by Our Hero and his Faithful Servant. God did not allow the sacrifice of Ransom to be in vain.

We do not know what the outcome of our own personal journeys of toil will be. We only know that we must make the trip. Our consciences will not allow us to do otherwise, at whatever cost to ourselves. Movie-makers love to write tag lines about "the triumph of the human spirit." But movies can only show two or three hours of many different aspects of the human spirit. Only the human spirit who has walked that long Road, building his or her will to live up to the demands of his or her conscience, can truly understand what that trite saying means. Only when we have learned to say, "Whatever the outcome, this I must do," and then to do it, will we truly have the freedom of choice in our lives, and not merely be living at the whims of "whatever we feel like doing."

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