“A time may come soon,” said he, “when none may return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.”J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings (p. 784). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
I am taking this quote entirely out of context, because the words valour without renown have been floating around my head a lot in recent years without context, and finding their own context within the world I find myself living in. So don’t expect literary analysis here, nor any take on these words other than my own. Which is both larger and smaller in scope than the original context.
Valour without renown seems on the face of it to be talking about courage — possibly especially battle-courage — without outward recognition, without going down in history, possibly even without a history existing to go down in. And that is one piece of it, one way it can happen. In a broader sense you could talk about courage in general, without praise in general.
But there’s one thing that this keeps distilling itself down to for me, with diamond-like precision and clarity.
It’s doing what is the right thing to do without any reason or incentive other than it being the right thing to do. Not just courage, but any right thing. Not just recognition, but any sort of outward motivation, or any expectation of reward of any kind.
This is both simpler and more complicated than it sounds. The hardest thing you can do but from some perspectives, easier than many of the alternatives. Easy to describe in three words, and impossible to describe even if you had infinite words. Not contradictory at all, yet good at producing sentences like these ones when you try to approach it wielding language.1
It’s also one of the most important things any of us can learn right now.
It’s no secret that the world is extremely messed up at the moment.
And my friends and I, we’ve all been noticing patterns in how it is messed up. Patterns that we have trouble putting into words. My friend’s cat has cancer right now, so maybe it’s for that reason that the word malignant comes to mind so strongly. Or malevolent, or just plain evil. As in, things that feel more like there’s a whole pattern of nasty forms of intent behind them than, say, random forces of nature seem to have, no matter how brutal.
And most of us are at a loss as to not only how to describe such a thing, but what to do about it.
One fortunate thing about the world is how many and varied the things within it are. People alone make up billions of variations on those things, and there’s lots of things in the world besides people. For each one of us, at any given time, there are many good things we can do for the world, and many possible ways to go about doing those things. Some may be better things, and better ways, than others. But which one is the best choice varies based on timing, context, person, and every possible way the situation can vary. Sometimes there are more choices than others, sometimes there seem to be few or no choices, sometimes all the choices have terrible consequences.
But there are always many ways to do the right thing. And each one of us can be a part of doing that. Sometimes it’s something seemingly tiny and insignificant. Sometimes it’s something seemingly huge and obvious. Sometimes it’s both, sometimes neither. And almost always, in any situation, there are many choices.
And telling right from wrong is rarely as easy as stories make it out to be. And very few things are all right or all wrong. And in very few cases do we learn the full consequences of our actions, either at the time or even in hindsight.
But we still should be making the effort. In times like these more than any.
I’ve talked about this before from time to time. Mostly in the context of death. Personal death, death of a culture, death of a species. But death. Destruction. Even the “end of the world,” as most people see it. Situations that seem hopeless. Where it’s tempting to say that trying to do the right thing is pointless.
It’s at those times that doing the right thing may matter more than any other time.
If the way you treat someone right now matters, it matters just as much when you are thinking about the fact that one day both you and the other person will be long dead and nobody living remembers either of you. It may matter even more knowing that. So why is it that when people think of ‘hopeless’ scenarios, they think that what they do doesn’t matter in light of their own death or the extinction of their species or some other large or small catastrophe?
To me, it matters more, it always matters more, knowing we won’t always be around. There’s always a responsibility to other people in the now, even if history as we know it ends tomorrow. There’s always a responsibility to the people and things that come after history as we know it ends.
Because the world is made up of so much more than ourselves alone. And the world functions as all of us acting on each other. Not isolated people or cultures or species floating around as individuals with no effect on the world around us. What we do always matters whether other human beings ever seem to notice or care.
And that’s just one tiny piece of why this ‘valour without renown’ thing matters so much. It’s the part I’ve described the most before, the part I have the easiest time putting into words. And that part isn’t easy to put into words.
One of the most important things we can learn is to be motivated enough that if it ever comes down to it, we can choose to do a very difficult right thing to do, utterly regardless of what reaction the world around us appears to have to it.
Sometimes it’s difficult because it’s something huge and scary. But sometimes it’s difficult because it’s something seemingly small and insignificant when we’d rather make a grand gesture of some kind. Sometimes it’s difficult because there are so many right things to do it’s hard to know which one to choose. Sometimes it’s difficult because it’s hard to tell what the right thing is, or even if there’s anything you can do that’s right enough to do it. Sometimes it’s difficult because it feels like doing nothing, even though refraining from action can be just as significant and important as acting, sometimes. Many things can make it difficult. But everything makes it worthwhile to try.
And trying is the most any of us can promise, I think. We can say we’d do the right thing, but until we’re in the situation, we don’t know what obstacles we’ll be up against, from within and without. We don’t even know if we’ll be aware we’re in that kind of situation at the time.
But we can try.
We can make the effort.
That’s all we can do.
And that’s doing a lot.
But hard times, times that people think of as hopeless, those are the times when we all need to be thinking about how to figure out a right thing we can do, and do it to the best of our ability. Regardless of outward consequences. A lot more depends on that than people sometimes realize.
And that’s actually a good thing.
Believe it or not.
1The Tao Te Ching sums this kind of thing up pretty well:
The bright path seems dim;Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English
Going forward seems like retreat;
The easy way seems hard;
The highest Virtue seems empty;
Great purity seems sullied;
A wealth of Virtue seems inadequate;
The strength of Virtue seems frail,
Real Virtue seems unreal;
The perfect square has no corners;
Great talents ripen late;
The highest notes are hard to hear;
The greatest form has no shape.