Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Choices of Master Samwise, and Calling, and Going Against the Grain

Some time ago I read a post at knitting the wind about comfort zones.    I can't find the specific post, but ever since then I have been thinking about it.   Sarah talked about how she heard for years the advice that as a writer, one should step out of one's comfort zone.  She tried it with a piece of her writing, and it was a failure.  It turned out not to be her writing, not what she wanted to say.  By stepping out of her comfort zone she moved outside a kind of boundary that defined who she was, and she regretted it.   Or at least, that is how I remember the post.

I kept thinking about this idea because it seems true to me, and yet is not often said.  Our modern world doesn't tend to think in terms of real intrinsic identity which should be preserved not pushed against.   The tendency in movies and politics is to think of the individual as in radical control of his or her own identity.   In the sense that this might help develop an understanding of personal responsibility and potential in a passive, irresponsible society, this probably has its good side.  But on the other hand, it tends to flatten out a sense of the real boundaries of personality -- not boundaries in the sense of false limits, but boundaries in the sense of what makes someone what they truly are, on the deepest level.

Shortly after I read Sarah's post, Paddy and I were reading the last chapters of the Two Towers.   I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't read it (Life of Fred inspired question:  is the common set of "People who read my blog" and "People who haven't read Lord of the Rings" an empty set?).   So I will just say vaguely that Samwise Gamgee comes to a point of great trial, where he has to make a crucial decision.   He decides to do one thing, at great personal anguish, but then a short time later realizes that his decision was a mistaken one.  And in a way, but in a very specific way, it was wrong because he forced himself out of his comfort zone.

The way the book puts it is 
“what he was doing was altogether against the grain of his nature.” 
 It goes on to say:  
He flung the Quest and all his decisions away, and fear and doubt with them. He knew now where his place was and had been: at his master’s side, though what he could do there was not clear. 
It is odd and counter-intuitive in a way.  Though in the bigger scheme of things, Sam's mistake in understanding his role, if it was a mistake, turns out well for all concerned, and this is important, I think, in considering how finite creatures can participate in designs much larger than they are.

This notion of staying with the grain of one's nature, of recognizing and staying within one's place, is a strong thread throughout the whole of the Lord of the Rings.  You see it in permutations again and again.  Galadriel turns away from the Ring, and will "diminish and go into the West, and remain Galadriel."   Theoden regains his true place as ruler, which he had suborned to the influence of another.   Aragorn resumes his place when the time is right.

On the other hand, the idea of one's place, the grain of one's nature, is not a mechanical or merely hierarchical one in the least.   It's not a mandate for stratification or comparative evaluation of people on the basis of personal worth.   There are many paradoxes.  Gandalf the powerful wizard will not take the ring, but instead, Frodo does, unqualified as he may seem to be Ring Bearer.  In fact, many of his struggles seem to be attributable to constantly working against the grain of his own nature.   He is literally crushed down by the burden.  But there is no doubt in his mind or anyone else's that it is his burden to bear; their job is to help but not to take over. 

Even Gollum has a part to play, and is never dismissed as worthless, no matter how despicable he may appear to be. 

And then the paradox by which Samwise's (in his view) wrong choice actually enables the right things to happen, though by a route that involves his recognition that he had made the wrong choice.  There are more paradoxes in this situation, including that he, the servant, ends up in a way being the leader, the one upon whom the whole Quest depends.  

In turn, I am reminded of a striking image of God's grace from Fr Barron's series Catholicism.   Father Barron brings up the story found in Luke 5.     Jesus steps into Simon's boat, and tells him to put out into the deep and let his nets out for a catch.  Simon is doubtful, but responds:
“Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
Of course, they catch so many fish the nets are in danger of breaking.    Simon's reaction is fear "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man."
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.
Father Barron makes the point that by believing in Jesus, we "let Him into our boat" and from then on, everything will be very different.   Your life will take on a radically different aspect.  How different, you will not even know.   Jesus tells Peter later (in another context of casting out in the deep and catching fish)

"Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

Yes, in one significant way, we will no longer be in our comfort zones.   We won't be in charge of our own boats anymore. 

In another way, we are not operating against the grain of our nature when we are called, even when our call seems outside of what comes naturally to us.    We are called to our true nature.  Sam's service to his master leads him to the veriest outreaches of the world, very far from the natural element of his garden.   But it doesn't make him less of a gardener, cook, and personal servant.   He remains Samwise Gamgee throughout all the battles and choices.   He is often uncomfortable, but hardly ever outside of his comfort zone, defined as operating based on who he is and what his role is. 

Simon Peter was a simple fisherman, but more truly, he was a "fisher of men".   It seems paradoxical that an illiterate plain man became a great teacher and leader, but he didn't go outside of his role -- he fulfilled it. 

I think that stepping outside your comfort zone in a deliberate, empty way, as Sarah said, is a problem.   Suppose Sam decided he needed to be more assertive and started trying to boss Frodo around, or suppose he really started believing what the Orcs were saying about him as the "great Elvish warrior".  Sam keeps grounded throughout, making decisions only when he has no choice, and amused by the Orcish misunderstanding. 

Tolkien seems to show people transcending their comfort zones not by transgressing against them but by fulfilling them radically.   Gimli doesn't try to become an elf, but he is filled with a courtly love of Galadriel and promise to travel with his elf friend to see the distant forests.   These are things within his dwarfish nature but not an obvious permutation.

In the same way, those that Jesus called do not go outside the grain of their nature, though their nature is transformed by their calling.   Simon Peter doesn't become poetic and perceptive like John, the beloved disciple, or even graceful.    But he becomes something that would at first glance seem outside of his "zone" -- a rock, a leader, when he would naturally seem more watery, a follower.    But it was within the parameters of his true identity.

The reason I am trying to work this out is because it seems very important.    I think the best practical way for me of knowing whether or not I'm stepping outside of "the grain of my nature" or merely accepting a legitimate challenge is somewhat like the difference between "bad pain" and "good pain" when I am exercising.

But there seems to be more to it than that, because in God's economy, fallible people often make mistakes in judging this for themselves, and God redeems the mistakes, too many times to count.   Peter jumps out to walk across the waters to Jesus, and immediately has second thoughts and starts sinking.  Jesus does not leave him to sink.     Samwise misunderstands his true place (arguably -- one of the virtues of Lord of the Rings is its texture of reality -- you don't get easy advice forcefed) but it turns to good, because, as with Simon Peter, his motivations are loving and he is searching for the good, even if in a flawed way.   Even Boromir, who drastically missteps, immediately repents and atones.

If there are any traits that "redeem" the mistakes we make figuring out the nature of our calling, they are things like love, loyalty, and generosity.  By generosity I mean a sort of willingness to leap out and dare in faith and hope.   Whenever Jesus shows admiration of someone it is this sort of generosity -- "the violent bear it away"-- that He points to.   Since we don't have merit on our own I can only suppose that He is seeing something like a little flame of grace already lighted in that person that allows them to reach out  like the centurion and the woman with the issue of blood, or proclaim or live a divine insight, (like Mary listening at His feet  and Martha saying, in a crucial moment of trial: 
“I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
This kind of thing is rather a transcending or more properly, transformation of our natural comfort zone than a transgressing of it, and probably every mother has some intuitive understanding of the difference just like Samwise does, by knowing how cheerfully she would go through the flames for a child in need.

No conclusions here -- just some thoughts on a Sunday.   


  1. Beautiful and thought provoking post, Willa.

  2. Wow, lots to think about here. What you said about not transgressing against our intrinsic natures but fulfilling them radically has a lot of implications for motherhood, I think. Will be back to see what others have to say about this. Great post.

  3. Great thoughts, Willa. It reminds me of the CiRCE conference theme a few years ago on Nature, where they meant this type of nature, the nature of things.

    So, how do we figure out what our nature and our duties are? Clearly there are the responsibilities right in front of us (home & family), but how do we discern if there are others and what they are? And the boundaries of our personality -- do personality tests help in this or do they set up false perimeters?

    Lots to think about....


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