Uproot evil in the fields you know

medieval plow.jpg

Alan Jacobs, a scholar and writer I particularly admire, has an interesting post on Tolkien and the possibility—nay, inevitability—of healing in his works. In discussing the way that "all victories over evil are contingent and limited and temporary . . . and the forgetfulness of all the races of Middle Earth tends to reinforce those limits," Jacobs quotes Gandalf from near the end of The Lord of the Rings

Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.
— Gandalf in The Return of the King

This is a frank, humble assessment of what people can do about evil. This has been on my mind a lot recently, both for longstanding reasons of my own and as I've been working over a post on the resilience of Marxism as an ideology despite its body count. Even beyond Marxism or leftism generally, people of all political persuasions tend to take concrete political or legal problems and abstract and universalize them immediately—as step one of the debate. All problems therefore become existential problems. All mistakes or disagreements become signs of fatal bad faith. All problems become problems that threaten the very fabric of the universe. You don't have to look far to find examples.

Gandalf's words here also happen to harmonize with a theme I've been mulling over for a work-in-progress: a novel about guilt and original sin, "a story with no good guy" as I've described it to a friend. What do to about evil—not just "systemic" evil, the activist concern du jour, or evil as it exists in the whole world, but evil in my own life? That's uncomfortably close. But a humble recognition that we can't solve all problems is the first step to solving some of them. Rather than aiming high, at unachievable universalist goals, find an evil in your neighborhood, something you can actually do something about, and face it. Or, as Admiral McRaven and Jordan Peterson have put it recently, "Make your bed" and "Clean your room."

Finally, also harmonizing with Gandalf, is this challenge from St. Paul that has goaded and bothered me since I rediscovered it last fall:

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
— I Thessalonians 4:11-12

Jacobs concludes his post by reflecting on how "tricky" Gandalf's vision is: "neither . . . succumb to despair (like Denethor) nor indulge the presumptuous delusion that one’s victories can be everlasting, but rather . . . live, simply, in hope." If there's a more necessary countercultural message today than "lead a quiet life," "mind your own business," "uproot evil in the fields you know," and "live in hope," I don't know what it is.