Gandalf and Goodness–today
by Omid Safi
I love spiritual mentors, wise old souls that see beyond, see that something in us that we don’t see in ourselves. I love Yoda, love Dumbledore, love Gandalf.
The Gandalf character has grown on me, bit by bit. In the Hobbit movie, there is a line that really spoke to me. He disagrees with his old friend (not yet nemesis) Saruman, about their views on how to confront evil.
Here is what Gandalf says:
Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay: small acts of kindness and love.
There are others who have offered profound meditations on everyday deeds. The brilliant Jewish intellectual Hannah Arendt reflected on the Nazi Holocaust through the concept of the “banality of evil.” Arendt discussed the way in which great atrocities are not just committed by evil criminals, but become normalized, routine, and banal for everyday people.
Gandalf speaks the same truth, but through focusing on the goodness of everyday folk.
For Gandalf, and indeed much of the LOTR trilogy, there are heroes large and epic, there are elves and mighty dwarfs, of course there is Aragorn. But it is ultimately the hobbits that capture our imagination and become heroic: tiny, simple, good, scared, mischievous beings. It is the bravery and courage, and yes, love, of these “ordinary folks” that will ultimately hold evil in check. It is the hobbits and not Aragorn, not Gandalf, who will ultimately destroy the ring. Goodness of everyday folk.
It is the same for us today, in our own world. Yes, there is evil here and there is good; there is ugliness and there is beauty; there is hatred and there is love.
There is real evil in this world, and we saw that in the actions that led to the murder of 20 children and 6 teachers in Newtown, CT. And yes, there is the banality of evil here as well, as in every time that we tell ourselves that this is just how the world is, that is part of our “culture,” that there is no way of stopping the criminals, or that the right to bear assault weapons supersedes the right of our children to live.
There is also good, real goodness, in this world. There is good in the everyday people, these everyday folk who do extraordinary and heroic deeds. There is good in Vicky Soto, who shielded her students at the cost of her life. These ordinary folks were not born heroes, they became heroic. Sometimes the “everyday deed” that literally holds evil in check is the very last act of our life, as it was for Vicky.
Not all of these “everyday deeds” come when we are confronted with a gun. There was another Newtown hero, another person who decided to not go down the well of apathy, and overcome evil through grace, through the good.
This was Robbie Parker, the grieving father of Emilie Parker, one of the six-year olds killed in Newtown.
As Americans—and people around the world—watched in grief and horror, clutching our children close and weeping along with Newtown, Robbie Parker decided to reach out beyond his own grief and the grief of his own community and reach out in compassion to another community that no one was reaching out to: the family of the shooter. In the funeral eulogy for his daughter, this father said:
I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you,and I want you to know that our family and our love and our support goes out to you as well.
Vicky Soto didn’t sign up to be a hero, but she put the welfare of others before concern for her own being. This is the goodness of everyday folk.
Robbie Parker is a loving dad, a grieving father, and a good, good man.
Everyday folk who remind us that to be good we can reach outthrough our own pain, and connect through love.
Yes, there is real evil in this world. In every corner of this world, in every city, and inside every person.
And yes, there is also real goodness. In every corner, and inside every corner.
Some have said that all it takes for evil to succeed is for people of good will to do nothing.
But there is more. We can do more than merely confront evil, and hold it in check. There is also goodness and beauty in this world, found in everyday folk.
Gandalf was right.
Saruman’s misguided faith was in “great power.”
It turns out that the greatest power is the power of ordinary people to reach out in love, in compassion, in kindness, in unselfishness.
I’ll take Gandalf.
I’ll take the goodness of everyday folk.
I’ll take us, becoming good.
Omid Safi has a regular blog on Religion News Service at http://omidsafi.religionnews.com/author/omidsafi/