End of Days or Finest Hour?
“I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”
The Wizard of Oz
Precipice moments: the great stories are full of them. The hero crosses an invisible threshold separating the old, familiar world from a new and decidedly hostile one. It’s the belly of the whale, a place where the old rules, doctrines and dogmas no longer apply. The hero is besieged by threats and forces too scary or lofty to comprehend given his limited life experience. Mythologist Joseph Campbell called this new world a “dreamland of curiously fluid and ambiguous forms, a place where the hero must endure a succession of trials”. World War I soldier Wilfred Owen poignantly captured the precipice moment in one of his poems. Moments before the 1918 Spring Offensive begins a group of soldiers awaits an uncertain fate beyond the parapet.
Halted against the shade of a last hill,
They fed, and, lying easy, were at ease
And, finding comfortable chests and knees
But many there stood still
To face the stark, blank sky beyond the ridge,
Knowing their feet had come to the end of the world (my italics)
In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam’s quest to destroy the Ring of Power has scarcely begun when they halt in a cornfield next to a scarecrow. They realize they have never wandered so far from the safety of the Shire. “I wonder what kind of story we have fallen into?” Sam will later say.
All precipice moments present a choice. We can either retrace our steps to safety, check out of the moment and even the story itself. Or we can set our faces like flint and, in Owen’s words “face the stark, blank sky beyond the ridge”. The choice matters: the first is a guarantee of an insipid, forgettable anecdote. The second, the grist for an epic. What would have become of Frodo and Sam, to say nothing of Middle Earth, had they refused the call to venture beyond the scarecrow?
The stark, blank sky of a national lockdown is our precipice moment. Few, if any of us, are feeling very heroic right now. Take heart: Joseph Campbell defined a hero as “an ordinary person who has embarked on a quest that is far bigger than himself”. Importantly, the hero is seldom in full control: throughout he is fragile and vulnerable, often found wanting in the face of adversity. What will ultimately define him, however, is how he deals with the new hand of cards.
In April 1970, NASA was dealt a bad hand. An explosion aboard the Apollo 13 lunar landing craft seriously affected the module’s power supply, oxygen reserves and propulsion system. That was just the start of the crew’s problems. Back in Houston, mission control agonised over the angle of re-entry, the state of the heat shield and whether the parachute would deploy for a safe splash-down. “This could be the worst disaster NASA has ever experienced” comments a mission controller in the Ron Howard movie Apollo 13. “With all due respect Sir”, responds mission chief Eugene Kranz, “I believe this is going to be our finest hour”. And it was
It could be ours too. Yet, the mountain we face as a nation – even as humankind – is terrifying, to say the least. My parents recall those nerve-jangling days of the Cuban Missile Crisis and their parents reminisced about the great polio outbreaks of the 1940s and 1950s. What stories do you want to tell your grandchildren about this troubled season? The crucible of pandemic could transform us in ways we never dreamed possible. Who know’s what we will look like once this shadow passes? We might be stronger, braver, more temperate and compassionate than we ever imagined.
But something has to give. After the President’s address last Sunday, a friend sent me a simple text message. “End of days?” he asked. I thought about it for a while before responding “End of something”. Something has to give. As Lincoln told Congress in 1862
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” (region, world)
You must make your choice. No one evokes this better than Tolkien in “The Return of the King”. As the forces of evil besiege Sam and Frodo their great quest seems doomed. Says Sam:
“I know. It’s all wrong. By rights, we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.”
There’s no going back. This, for better or for worse, is our new path. Yet our destiny is concealed in the crisis. Embrace it. Embrace the weeks, months and years ahead. Contend for your loved ones. Contend for their futures. Contend for our Nation. We will be remembered, in spite of ourselves.