Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Comfort in Words

There is great comfort in words, whether it be the kind words of a friend, the lyrics of a song that stay within you and resonate, or the words of an excellent story. I am a person who loves words. I would rather have a word to carry with me into the dark night, than pretty much anything else. Words are like food, and I hunger for them, and search them out like choice morsels. So often, words form a chain, from the lips of a friend, to a song we heard, to the written page... all the same necessary message.

A few years ago I decided to read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I had started it several times, always stalling in the first hundred pages or so. This time I would persevere, and read the entire story. I remember reading passages, and feeling the story crawl under my skin. It describes a time, early in Frodo's journey, when he begins to realize what he has undertaken, and the horrible danger of it. It goes:

They stood for awhile silent on the hill-top, near its southward edge. In that lonely place Frodo for the first time fully realized his homelessness and danger. He wished bitterly that his fortune had left him in the quiet and beloved Shire. He stared down at the hateful Road, leading back westward--to his home. Suddenly he was aware that two black specks were moving slowly along it, going westward; and looking again he saw that three others were creeping eastward to meet them.

Those black specks were of course the black riders, out to seek his life and to end his mission. There was of course, no safe road home. The words of this passage resonated in me, at a time when I realized that I had chosen a road that was fraught with danger and difficulty. One day, like Frodo, I had found myself looking back on the road I had recently traveled, and I realized that I found the sight of that road hateful to me. I hated the road for bringing me so far from all I held dear, and familiar, and comfortable. As I gazed backward from my imaginary high ground, I saw that the road home was fraught with danger, and that going backward was no longer a safe option. I knew that my only option was to press forward, though it seemed unlikely that this option would prove safe either. In that instant, I truly did hate the road for carrying me anywhere at all, and for making me so weary and worn. Perhaps I am a bit hobbit-like at heart.

Recently I came upon a song, in a rather roundabout way. A friend posted a link to a video, that touched my heart, but also made me search for this album. I actually purchased it, something I have not done in years. When it arrived in the mail, I put it into my CD player, and lay down on the floor, and listened to the songs. I still found that I loved the original song I had first heard, and liked all of the others. But one song spoke to me at a fundamental level. It is a song called "The Long Defeat", and if I could send you to a link of it, I would. I can only find it in its entirety in one place, and it's set as background music to a home made TV show trailer, and the video really detracts from the song.

OK. I promise I'm going somewhere on this rabbit trail. I was reading the info about the song, and I saw that its title had come from a quote by Paul Farmer. In his biography written by Tracy Kidder, he is quoted as saying:

I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I am not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don't dislike victory.... You know, people from our background-- like you, like most PIH-ers (Partners In Health-ers), like me--we're used to being on a victory team, and actually what we're trying to do in PIH is to make common cause with the losers. Those are two very different things. We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it's not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.

It's an amazing quote really, and made me go do a little internet research about Paul Farmer. It also made me want to read the book, which I am going to try and order from the library next time I go there. But I wondered where he had come up with this vaguely familiar concept of the long defeat. There seemed to be a bit of disagreement, but I came to the conclusion that it was likely he was quoting from one of his favorite books, The Lord of the Rings. It seems that Galadriel says to the weary Frodo, "Through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat."

For days, and weeks, the phrase "the long defeat" has echoed in my ears. What in the world is the "long defeat"? And why in the world would anyone in their right mind want to fight it? I am all for choosing the winning side and planning and working toward victory. I see almost everything as a win or a loss, and I am not accustomed to losing. I have been known to carefully weigh odds, and choose not to participate, based on the assumption that I could not win, and was therefore wasting my time.

For the last few years, I have been fighting the uphill battle, desperate to wring wins out of the excruciating effort. As time rolls on, and I am able to see the writing on the wall, I must acknowledge that I am likely fighting the "long defeat" in many areas of my life. Here are the lyrics that grab me, and wring something out of my soul:

I have joined the long defeat that falling set in motion.
All my strength and energy are raindrops in the ocean.

So conditioned for the win, to share in victors' stories,
but in the place of ambition's din, I've heard of other glories.

I pray for an idea, and a way I cannot see.

It's too heavy to carry, and impossible to leave.

I can't just fight when I think I'll win, that's the end of all belief;
and nothing has provoked it more than a possible defeat.

I pray for an idea, and a way I cannot see.

It's too heavy to carry, and impossible to leave.

We walk awhile, we sit and rest, we lay it on the altar.
I won't pretend to know what's next, but what I have I've offered.

I pray for a vision, and a way I cannot see.

It's too heavy to carry, and impossible to leave.

I pray for inspiration, and a way I cannot see.

It's too heavy to carry, and impossible to leave.

(The Long Defeat by Sara Groves)
Up to this point in my life I never really had to pray for an idea, vision, inspiration. I have always been full of ideas. Up until now, I had never found myself in the middle of the road, facing the dilemma that my burden was too heavy to carry, but too precious to abandon. I am not acquainted with "the way I cannot see". I was always too smart to choose the losing side.