‘All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us’
I wrote this quote out on a Post-it note a few years ago, and stuck it up in my kitchen.
I wanted Tolkien’s words from The Fellowship of the Ring to inspire me to live well while I was digging around at the back of the fridge or de-lousing the dog.
I hoped they would remind me to make my days count.
It was only recently that I realised I’d taken the quote out of context – and shorn it of its significance.
These words are part of something much bigger.
They’re spoken by Gandalf to the hobbit Frodo, after he has expressed regret at living in times of growing threat and turbulence:
‘“I wish it need not have happened in my time”, said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide.
All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”’
It turns out the wizard’s words aren’t a motivational sound bite.
They are a generational call to rise to the challenge of the times we’ve been given – however tumultuous they may be.
Realising this was like flicking a switch. With it came the jolting recognition that I too shared Frodo’s wish to live in less stormy times.
The waves around us are whipping up. Division and distrust are deepening as the crises we face loom ever larger – climate emergency, chronic inequality, international tension, domestic strain. Meanwhile, volatile leaders loose the nations they govern from the moorings of trust, cohesion – even the rule of law.
Tolkien’s words, written during the build-up to the Second World War, seem so much more sharply, soberingly relevant than they did when I copied them out five years ago.
They raise a pressing question – what should we decide to do with the time that has been given us?
I have a suggestion.
It came out of nowhere, as I was reading a book in the sunshine this summer – and it hasn’t gone away.
The book was The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane.
In it, he writes about Ynys Enlli, a wild Welsh island that Celtic pilgrims made their unlikely home 15 centuries ago.
Macfarlane retraced the journey they would have taken, through dangerous tides, high winds and seething waters.
Despite travelling in a twenty-first century yacht with an experienced crew, he admits to finding the journey frightening.
He contrasts his experience with the courage of the Celts in their coracles. These small, simple boats were made from oxhide, wood, wicker and tallow, and were, in Macfarlane’s words, ‘designed, in their lightness and their shallow draft, to slide over the currents and the tide-rips, to slip up and over waves.’
I read a lot of words and forget far too many. But these rang out from the page.
We can’t navigate the world’s waves when we’re weighed down.
To make it through days of storms we need to be light and lean.
Celtic Christians fanned out to the edges of the isles, to the places lashed by the highest winds and waves. They left behind comfort, status and wealth – or at least the prospect and pursuit of it.
And the inhospitable locations they sought out became places of simple and inclusive hospitality.
I’ve been increasingly drawn to stories of their lives and lifestyle.
Light, agile, quick, kind, free – their approach stands in contrast to many of us struggling under the weight of twenty-first century attitudes and practices.
It’s all too easy to start the day heavy, already knocked off course by a glance at the morning headlines or whatever new outrage is trending.
We can end up laden and leaden – with physical clutter, mental strain, offence, fear, unrealistic expectations – and disappointment with others and ourselves.
Given the days we have to live in, it seems time to start seriously letting go of the things that don’t matter, that distract or divide us – and getting to work with the resources we have to hand.
The Celts had wood and wicker – and courage, vision and direction.
Today, there seems little point in staying on the shore and shouting into the wind.
Far better, surely, to seek to live light, lean, quick and free. To steer a course like the Celtic peregrini – and rise to the waves and refuse to be overcome.