I walked with my four-year-old son to the bookshelf to choose a book for our afternoon read. I eyed the collection of Beatrix Potter books and the Bible retellings. “What about —”
“The moose! The moosey one!” he said, already pulling the flimsy book from the shelf.
I grimaced. “But we just read that one three times yesterday. Maybe we can read the Velveteen Rabbit?”
“The moose one. It’s my best” (i.e., his favorite).
Having little kids makes it hard to stay too serious. I read what I think is a deep and moving poem to them, meanwhile they are laughing at milk spilling out of one of their mouths. I want to read the serious stories to them, but they bring the silly book about a family trying to get rid of an oversized moose from their yard. Then I prefer the documentary over the sitcom. I roll my eyes at my husband’s jokes and always try to bring the subject back to something more serious.
I think G.K. Chesterton had it right. “It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking oneself gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do,” he writes in Orthodoxy. “For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.”
Chesterton lived between 1874 to 1936, and he knew first hand how easy it is to slip into despair. In his annotated guide through Orthodoxy, Trevin Wax notes that in the 1890s, Chesterton tumbled deeper and deeper into despair and pessimism, only hanging onto “the remains of religion by one thin thread of thanks.” It was after pulling himself out of this darkness that he began to write, and Orthodoxy was one of those many works he crafted, and you can see much of his wrestling in this book.
Like Chesterton, solemnity comes a lot more easily to me than levity. Perhaps I’m not alone in this. Rather than a personal preference, solemnity seems to be the nature of us all. But there are those, like my children, who have the uncanny ability to lighten the moment.
The curious, light-yet-hardy kind
I’ve often said that my children are like hobbits — they have large feet and they are often asking about the next snack or meal. But I’ve recently found another similarity: their levity and their joy. Hobbits are described by Tolkien’s characters as light of heart yet hardy. In The Hobbit, Thorin the dwarf describes the hobbits as having “courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
This lightness doesn’t come from innocence, or an ignorance of the evils of the world, but comes in spite of it, and this levity of spirit becomes truly life-saving for one hobbit in particular as it shapes his outlook on his suffering.
In The Return of the King, Merry the hobbit and the princess of men Lady Éowyn kill the Witch-king of Angmar, the enemy’s, Sauron’s, second in command., though it come at a cost to themselves — they are left in a dark slumber of horrid nightmares that would have slowly killed them, had it not been for help. In barely enough time, Aragorn calls them back to life.
Lady Éowyn, Aragorn says, even with the healing of her body, in grave danger of despair:
I have, maybe, the power to heal her body, and to recall her from the dark valley. But to what she will awake: hope, or forgetfulness, or despair, I do not know. And if to despair, then she will die, unless other healing comes which I cannot give.
Though the enemy had been defeated, though her body may be healed, Éowyn mourned. She had watched as her kingly father decayed under the influence of the enemy, and she stood helplessly alongside Aragorn and friends as they walked a path she believed they would never return from. She took on a dark somberness, no longer willing to stand by and watch everyone around her die to save the world. She, too, wanted to die in battle.
Aragorn, however, observes something different in Merry, the hobbit:
Do not be afraid … I came in time, and I have called him back. He is weary now, and grieved, and he has taken a hurt like the Lady Éowyn, daring to smite that deadly thing. But these evils can be amended, so strong and gay a spirit is in him. His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.
Merry had experienced his share of grief as well — he had been displaced, stricken with the loss of his friends, pursued by the enemy, then captured by orcs who treated him with violence.
And yet, a joyful spirit remained in him. Such a strong spirit, as Aragorn says, would not allow his heart to be darkened.
A glass neither full nor empty
Suffering will come whether we want it or not. There is an important time of mourning and lament, a process that is good and necessary to properly move through our grief and trials. Yet we cannot remain there. To remain is still to be destroyed.
We have a choice to make: To face suffering with graveness and cynicism as Lady Éowyn seems ready to do, to the point that the grief itself begins to bring its own sort of death, or to face suffering like a hobbit — with a joyful spirit that does not cause us to forget our grief, but keeps a light alive that can illuminate the wisdom to be learned through the heartache. We find this joy by trusting in Christ (Phil 4:11–13), and at times we need a friend to come alongside us to remind us of such hope we have.
I often wrongly believe that wisdom comes from taking my hardships and projecting them on the future, believing that life will only be bleak, that I shouldn’t expect anything more. But that’s not where wisdom is found. In the final chapter of Proverbs, wisdom embodied is a woman, and she’s described as one who can, “can laugh at the days to come” (Prov 31:35). Wisdom is found in that as we pass from lament and grieving, we can once again embody levity, and thus look out on our sorrows with it so we aren’t so darkened by them.
What saves Éowyn in the end? Seeing one who loved her — and letting that love draw her into the light again.
The pessimist, Chesterton writes, says that he has lost his love for the world because of its brokenness. Where the optimist tries to cover up this world’s flaws, the pessimist is too discouraged by the flaws to press onward. Chesterton says both outlooks are faulty. Rather, “We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening. … Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing?” That is precisely where Éowyn stood, and where I so often stand too. We need not to ignore the shadows or twist them into goodness, but to acknowledge their presence yet love the world because we want to see it reformed and better, while likewise looking forward to our eternal hope promised us in the gospel where all will be made new.
We can too — if we are willing — to see light and levity anew, rather than remain in solemn darkness. It is always in front of us. As the Psalmist proclaims after praying for God’s protection, “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance” (Ps 16:6).