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Becoming Gollum

Another birthday, another year. I have much to be grateful for. I’ve often thought about people in less fortunate circumstances and try to imagine how my life would be very different if I lived in an impoverished nation or had been born into poverty. I can never quite gain traction on those thoughts; they make my head hurt. My heart aches for those who suffer, especially the children.

No one gets through life unscathed irrespective of our location and situation of birth. Barring extreme circumstances such as incurable illness or disability, how a person charts their life depends as much on their internal moral compass as their environment. At its core, enduring adversity without becoming bitter or engaging in sociopathic behaviors begins with knowing right from wrong. Which brings me to the point of this blog post.

Does anyone besides me feel like it’s open season on things once seen as good and right? Most of us learned it was wrong to take something that doesn’t belong to us, otherwise known as stealing. It’s not wrong any more, at least not in California where stealing up to $1,000 in goods is seen as a victimless enterprise and, in some circles, justified (even celebrated) as reparations. Victimless? What about the store owners? What about the customers who will pay higher prices as the stores try to recoup their losses or close altogether? And how does stealing elevate any ideal? This twisted and damaging logic impacts us all not only in monetary terms but emotionally due to a lost sense of security. We are all violated when criminals are allowed to run rampant.

Internalized offenses, real or imagined, are a major contributor to the bitterness expressed in the coddling of criminality. In other words, the longer one clings to an offense, the more likely bitterness and wrong thinking will result. As an example, consider Gollum in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Gollum, formerly Sméagol, is a pathetic character who murders Déagol when Déagol refuses to give him a powerful ring. Sméagol, beguiled by the ring and embittered by Déagol’s refusal, deludes himself into believing the murder is justified. He became an outcast, a horrid, treacherous swamp creature who hides with the ring in a watery cave. Gollum possessed the ring, but truthfully the ring possessed him. Tolkien’s work was not written as idle entertainment; it is a study in morality. As the character of Gollum illustrates, there are no lies as damaging as the lies we tell ourselves.

To be fair, it does little good to preach morality to someone who is beset with hopelessness. Hope, however, cannot be generated artificially; enduring hope goes hand in hand with faith. The founders of this nation understood the country could not endure without the tenants of faith which informed the principles of our Constitution. Certainly they also comprehended the State should not dictate beliefs or any system of religion, but a common understanding of right and wrong had to be embraced by a majority of citizens for the nation to thrive. I fear we are reaching a tipping point where a majority of citizens who, having rejected faith, have become so inured to wrong-doing that they barely react when a beautiful young woman is stabbed to death by a career criminal. We are becoming Gollum.

As I look to the year ahead, I am reminded to watch for signs of my own moral complacency. Are there offenses I coddle? Am I living forthrightly? Are my beliefs founded in truth? How will expressing those beliefs instead of conforming to others’ expectations impact my relationships? And how can I do so while respecting another’s sensitivities? I sure can’t right all the wrongs in this world, but I can start with myself.

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