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Emotion and Commitment

We have discussed how obedience to a higher good can be the ultimate exercise in free will, and we have discussed how obedience to one’s own conscience in the face of exhaustion or terror can keep one’s actions firmly fixed on the task at hand. But what about what you feel like doing? Does that not have a place anywhere? Isn’t it part of free will to be able to do what you feel like doing? According to my first statements, free will is most highly exercised when one applies it for the greater good despite what one feels like doing. This principal results in extremely difficult, but important and good, deeds being accomplished, for depend upon it, if the doing of the deed depended upon how the doer, especially if that doer is a human being, felt about it, the likelihood is it would not get done.

How often have you started a project that you were really excited about, and then as the excitement waned, put it aside or simply let it run out of gas? If you’re like me, plenty of times. (Remember that four-month gap in my string of Counterpoints??) If you’re more grown-up than I, perhaps you have a better track record of finishing what you start, but do you always feel as enthusiastic about it in the middle as you did at the beginning? I’d lay good money that you don’t. On the other hand, I’m sure that feeling of excitement comes back when you approach the finish line and then are able to look back on what you’ve accomplished. But that feeling doesn’t return unless you’ve paid the price of holding your will to the commitment of finishing the project even without the emotion that attended the beginning.

This is not a new principle we’re discussing. It’s been known since man first began to study his own nature. And believe you me, temptations abound to let these emotions have their full sway. Believe me further when I say that if we constantly gave into them and did just what we felt like doing all the time, not even half so many things would be accomplished. C. S. Lewis, in his wickedly accurate sketches of human nature, The Screwtape Letters, has his senior tempter writing to the junior one: ". . . this disappointment [occurs] on the threshold of every human endeavor. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories From the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. [Here a stunning argument can be made for the value of that "piece of paper" we call a marriage license, but I can hardly justify a discussion of the marriage commitment in this particular column. J] In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing." Lewis follows this with a wonderful piece of advice for us disguised as a warning to the junior tempter. "If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt."

It’s all in that little phrase, "less dependent on emotion." We each, if we are honest and observing, know our own emotions to be as changeable as weather in the Midwest. ("You don’t like the weather in Illinois? Wait five minutes!") Most assuredly if we base the majority of our actions on such weathercocks as human emotions, we will find ourselves not only doing and saying things that are at the least only borderline acceptable among our friends, but accomplishing far less of lasting importance and good in our own worlds. It’s forcing the will over that selfish line of thought, "But I don’t feel like doing [insert arduous task or onerous duty here] just now," and into the mode of either A) "This needs to be done," or B) "I wanted to do this before, and I’ll be happy when I’ve finished," or C) "Something or somebody else will be the better for this when I’ve done it," that will allow us more stable, more productive, and ultimately, happier, lives.

I can hear you now. "But Anwyn, we’ve all known this since we graduated college and had to start living in ‘the real world.’ Just because you’re only now articulating it is no reason for us to suffer through your ramblings. How in the world does this relate to Lord of the Rings or even Tolkien, you silly girl?"

Tolkien knew the traps and pitfalls of human nature just as surely as his friend Lewis did. Though he chose to articulate his views about them in different ways, he knew them and was made melancholy at many periods in his life by them. When you read Humphrey Carpenter’s excellent biography of the Professor, notice how easily distracted he says Tolkien was, how many works were stacked around his office all unfinished, how behind he always was because he would stop to play Solitaire (or "Patience"). If he’d had my computer with its instant-access stack of electronic Solitaire cards, he’d never have gotten anything done! This problem of being distracted, by allowing emotional or attention-span issues to supersede the duty before him, was a large factor in Tolkien’s professional life. I share many of his frustrations in that regard, and I know that neither of us is alone in feeling them.

But did he feel called to a higher standard? To put his will before the emotional ups and downs of human existence? Of course he did. This is proven by the fact that he was often upset with himself and often melancholy for his seeming inability to finish as much work as he would like, but the more obvious proof lies in his works that we revere so much. His characters, though they have several aspects of our troubled human nature, take it for granted that acts of will are more important than fleeting emotions. Aragorn felt his moments of despondency, but all the time his actions unerringly drove towards the goal he had set. Faithful Sam (We use that word so often of Sam, don’t we? Think briefly about one word by which you would like to be remembered. Faithful is certainly up near the top of my list.) knew there was something out there bigger than himself that he had to accomplish, even if the cost were his life. And poor Boromir, the constantly struggling, was wrestling with just this exact problem. His emotions directed him to try to take the Ring under any circumstances he could. His will was simply not disciplined enough to withstand the pounding to which his emotional state subjected it, unlike that of his steadfast brother Faramir.

Our Hero, if he had any doubts about their Quest or their ability to bring it off, mostly kept them to himself. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t consider what he’d rather be doing with his life, were it up to him. If you’ve ever been pulled to a different geographical location from your lover by a job or some other duty, you’ll sympathize with Aragorn immediately. His heart, the center of his feelings, dwelt in Rivendell with the fair Daughter of Elrond, but his will, the foundation of his actions, drove him onward to his duties in far-away lands, some of which were prescribed to him by his lineage, some of which he took upon himself. Nobody forced him to escort, guide and guard the Ringbearer for as long as he could. Yes, it’s true, the success of the Ring’s journey was wound up in whether or not he would even have a kingdom to rule when he returned in power, but it is certain that he could have taken up the kingship and held off Mordor, perhaps for long years further. He also could have speculated to himself that the Ring would help him a great deal in taking over the power that rightfully should have been his by birth, but his conscience would not allow consideration of such an action, and his will responded.

Aragorn knew only too well the dangers inherent in doing what you please and not what your duty is. Éowyn had not yet learned how this fire can burn. She is petulant and claims that since her duty to Théoden is ended with his riding away, she is bound by duty no longer, despite the fact that her royal uncle has bidden her lead the people in his absence. "… May I not now spend my life as I will?" she cries. Mark well Aragorn’s response: "Few may do that with honour." His belief is evident that if, having abandoned the road that duty marks out for one through sheer emotional whims, one gains neither happiness nor a reputation as an upright person. He makes it plain that he has felt the pangs of human feelings conflicting with duty himself: "Aragorn," she said, ‘why will you go on this deadly road?’ ‘Because I must,’ he said. ‘Only so can I see any hope of doing my part in the war against Sauron. I do not choose paths of peril, Éowyn. Were I to go where my heart dwells, far in the North I would now be wandering in the fair valley of Rivendell." But he refused the road that his heartfelt longings dictated to him, and came to a much greater reward in the end by so doing.

Sam’s burden seems simpler, but is ultimately just as profound. Each of the Company has a role to play, and only through the triumph of their wills over their emotions, whether they be fear, ambition to power, or sheer laziness can those roles be fulfilled. Sam speaks of feeling "torn in two," and in many places he makes choices that are seemingly obvious to us, but which, in the fullness of Sam’s loving heart, are agonizing to him. When poor Bill the pony is chased away by the Watcher and the Wargs, Sam states right out, "I had to choose, Mr. Frodo. I had to come with you." We may think that nonsense, having to choose between his Mr. Frodo and a horse, but to Sam, the poor pony was also deserving of his love and loyalty, and to allow it to wander in the Warg-filled wilderness with no help or protection was heartbreaking to him. But the higher duty held sway and he went on with the Company. Again, when Galadriel’s tricksy mirror shows him the atrocities that might or might not be happening in the Shire and the abandonment of his beloved Gaffer, he is asked to choose, and this time it is much harder. The choice between his aging father and his duty to Frodo and the Quest is a wrenching one, and in a fit of horrified frenzy, he cries that he must return to the Shire regardless of the consequences. "I can’t stay here,’ he said wildly. ‘I must go home. They’ve dug up Bagshot Row, and there’s the poor old gaffer going down the Hill with his bits of things on a barrow. I must go home!" Chastised and calmed by Galadriel, reminded that very possibly the things he has seen have not and perhaps even will not come to pass, unless he should return home to prevent them, he is despairing and confused. "Sam sat on the ground and put his head in his hands. ‘I wish I had never come here, and I don’t want to see no more magic,’ he said and fell silent. After a moment he spoke again thickly, as if struggling with tears. ‘No, I’ll go home by the long road with Mr. Frodo, or not at all,’ he said. ‘But I hope I do get back some day. If what I’ve seen turns out true, somebody’s going to catch it hot!" Ultimately, Sam was successful at keeping his will focused on his duty because he entrenched himself firmly in that mode from the outset. While still in the Shire, Frodo questions him, not wanting to take him if he will be too torn. "Do you feel any need to leave the Shire now–now that your wish to see [Elves] has come true already?’ he asked. ‘Yes, sir. I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness, but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, that I want–I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me." To me, that says it all.

So did all of Our Heroes just simply take it for granted that their willpower was enough to get them through, despite the yearnings displayed by their emotions? No. One, in particular, made a spectacular fall into the temptation of his emotions. Blinded by lust for victory, convinced that only the power of the Ring would help him return to his native land with the ability to change the balance of power to Gondor’s favor, Boromir gave in to a temptation that had preyed upon him until his strength to resist it was worn away. In the house of Elrond he questions the decision to destroy the Ring, wondering why the Wise do not simply rise up and use it to depose the Dark Lord, but he is silenced by their reasoning. In Lothlórien, Galadriel, in what could be interpreted as an almost malicious use of her power, tests his heart again. What she offers him, he does not say, but it is not too difficult to make a supposition. Finally, in trying to reason with Frodo, trying to persuade somebody else to think as he does so that he will not have to feel so alone in wanting to give into temptation, he flings aside the arguments of the Wise. "Were you not at the Council?’ answered Frodo. ‘Because we cannot use it, and what is done with it turns to evil.’ Boromir got up and walked about impatiently. ‘So you go on,’ he cried. ‘Gandalf, Elrond–all these folks have taught you to say so. For themselves they may be right. These elves and half-elves and wizards, they would come to grief perhaps. Yet often I doubt if they are wise and not merely timid. But each to his own kind. True-hearted Men, they will not be corrupted. We of Minas Tirith have been staunch through long years of trial. We do not desire the power of wizard-lords, only strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause. And behold! In our need chance brings to light the Ring of Power. It is a gift, I say; a gift to the foes of Mordor. It is mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him. The fearless, the ruthless, these alone will achieve victory. What could not a warrior do in this hour, a great leader? What could not Aragorn do? Or if he refuses, why not Boromir? The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner! … And they tell us to throw it away!’ he cried. ‘I do not say destroy it. That might be well, if reason could show any hope of doing so. It does not. The only plan that is proposed to us is that a halfling should walk blindly into Mordor and offer the Enemy every chance of recapturing it for himself. Folly!" Forgive the long quotation, but Boromir’s own words say it better than any of mine possibly could. Was there ever a better example of an attempt to rationalize thoughts and actions and feelings which the speaker knows to be wrong? Yes, the cause of Gondor is just. Yes, they need strength to defend it. Every good lie is the stronger for a grain of truth. But from there his arguments lead down a deadly path. He is so able to convince himself that Gandalf and Elrond are merely afraid, that they don’t want him to have the power, that he attempts to wrest the Ring from our Frodo by force. We have already seen the consequences of his actions. His emotions, and the inability of his will to resist them, proved his ultimate undoing.

I would be sorry indeed if any of my readers supposed that I was preaching to them out of a higher state. I wrestle with what I know I should do vs. what I feel like doing every day of my life. The funny thing is, though, when I’ve done what I felt like doing and neglected what I should have done, I’m almost never the happier for it. When I’ve had my fun, gone out to eat, or played around on my computer, my house is still cluttered, every dish I own still dirty, my two parakeets still living in a mucked-up cage, and my final papers still undone. Far from making me happy, the knowledge that not only have I wasted time when I could have been accomplishing something, but also that I still have the tasks ahead of me to do, makes me despondent and disgusted with myself. But nothing remains but to ask for help and to try again. It’s all a part of growing up. The immature person is ruled by emotion; thus they are unstable and changeable in their affections and actions. When we’ve learned to see the road a little clearer and to know and govern our own responses to it, then we will have a better shot at making our actions subject not to our emotions, but to our wills, which are in turn bound strictly to our consciences. Then let Screwtape have his say! We will fend him off with the best the human spirit has to offer.

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