The Frodo Syndrome: Overcoming Grief and Melancholia in the Modern-to-Postmodern Transition

Summary: We find that there are serious depths of melancholy and grief on all sides of the postmodern-generational divides. The older generations often want to bless the younger, but feel unable to understand their emerging world or that the community connection has been frayed by their overcontrol. The younger want to be blessed, but feel unable to live in the world of the elders and also feel they must answer to a higher authority and be/do what they were created for in the world as it now is.  How do we find a language to express this disconnect, and facilitate a both/and, “wabisabi” dialogue designed to keep us connected and let all parties find purpose despite the chaos? Perhaps an answer is found in … “The Frodo Syndrome,” for how to overcome grief and melancholia in the modern-to-postmodern transition.

The WabiSabi Backstory

Wabisabi is a Japanese concept of bringing together polar opposites and finding paradoxical harmony – such as something refined with something rustic, rough with smooth, or people who are old with those who are young. Perhaps you’ve seen a picture of a earthenware teapot or bowl that has cracked with use, but instead of throwing it out, its owners have filled the gaps with gold. It may not be useful for its original purpose anymore, but its flaws do not make is now useless! That’s the sentiment behind wabisabi: keep together and conserve, find a way to make opposites work.

The WabiSabi event in Austin, Texas, during March of 2003 was designed to bridge some of the relational gaps caused by the modern-to-postmodern paradigm shift. It brought together polar opposites – older generations with younger, men and women, emerging paradigms with conventional. The organizers invited me to be one of three people who shared with the large group about our journeys as Boomers who were middle-of-the-pack to nearer the GenX end of the Boom. Ten minutes to share freely whatever I thought was important, to a group that ranged from ages 17 to 70s.

But what exactly would be important for this group at this time to hear?

The following article is what I spoke about during that 10-minute presentation, and then added to the next week when I wrote up what I’d said, and posted it as the very first article on my beyondposthuman blog. It was 10 years ago today: April 3, 2003. I have edited it only sightly, and kept in the quirky language that I used back then.

It’s rather longish and I tried to split it into two, but felt like it didn’t worked right then. So, it is what it is: just all in one. And as with many essays I write, they’re meant to be read slowly, drunk in with a cup of coffee or tea in hand, savored and reflected on. And I do hope you’ll find some gold in it to fill some gaps …

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Originally posted on ~ Thursday, April 03, 2003

The Frodo Syndrome:

Overcoming Grief and Melancholia
in the Modern-to-Postmodern Transition

© 2003, 2013 Brad Sargent

I’m still processing from this past weekend’s WabiSabi conference. I really enjoyed the connections with wonderful, integrative people of all ages. But I also had some unusual experiences, one that could perhaps be considered a little peculiar, or else a pretty cool “Spirit thing.” It happened because they asked me to be one of three people (with Andrew Jones and Mark Thames) who shared with the large group and then answered questions. So, here’s the little-known “backstory” to what I ended up sharing for about 10 minutes – “The Frodo Syndrome.”

That wasn’t at all what I originally thought I’d talk about. I’d woken up that morning about every 30 minutes because I kept thinking of new things that I thought God wanted me to talk about. But when I finally got up, I realized it was going to be a horrible day physically. Then at the gathering, I got into several conversations in a row that seemed to agitate all those rant-o-matic sore spots I have about “missions” that ignore postmoderns, dynamics of generational clashes involving control and contempt, Christian publishing … issues, issues, issues! Sadly, that made it worse, cuz I got so stirred up.

By the time I finally was called up front to share, I was practically a limpazoid, and (thankfully) had a barstool with a back to sit on. Otherwise, if I’d been sitting on a regular stool, I probably would’ve slipped right off, onto the floor, out the door, down the steps, and been whisked away by the butterfly breezes. Okay, nuf surrealist stuff. But that’s what it felt like. “Thin … like butter scraped over too much bread.”

So, I went to my last resort, which, according to good doctrine and wise practice, actually should have been my first resort. Pray. Pray God would sustain me. Pray the Spirit would overcome my already exhaustion at 10 AM and say something through me that would connect people with Jesus and encourage those who were there. And He answered, integrating a message through my heart and bypassing my normal tendency to do the intellectual-download thing.

And that’s how it came about that I launched into an unfinished article idea I’d been working on for weeks: “The Frodo Syndrome” – the essence of grief and melancholia in the modern-to-postmodern era … an article I’d tried several times to sit down and write out, but it just wasn’t the fullness of time for it then. At WabiSabi, it was. And apparently, it flowed. (I’ll look forward to hearing the tapes, because I was so tired that mostly the broad strokes only stayed in my mind.) Here is my written version from what I spoke, and more, just finished tonight.

The Frodo Syndrome

I have become a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. There is so much theology in his amazing and complex story! Grief is one theme that struck me when I read the trilogy for the first time, just last year after seeing The Fellowship of the Ring. It continues to resonate when I rewatch the first two films. One dimension of that grief is summed up when the Elven Queen Galadriel communicates telepathically with her son-in-law, Elrond, and states, “The strength of the Ringbearer is failing. In his heart, Frodo begins to understand. The quest will claim his life.”

And indeed, we see Frodo slowly but perceptibly grow more weary at the increasing heaviness of the burden given to him, to destroy Sauron’s evil One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. But, as always happens when we embrace the suffering that God providentially lays before us, we see our strongest life potentials develop through Christlike character. And in the midst of a quest that could send us to the edge of despair, we can find hope. Maybe that’s why Samwise Gamgee’s soliloquy at the end of the film, The Two Towers, so touches our hearts.

Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.

Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?

But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.

Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.

Frodo: What are we holding on to, Sam?

Sam: There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

We need hope that our anguish has meaning. Frodo will eventually find that hope made manifest, but that takes many chapters in the books and won’t really show itself until sometime late in the third and final movie, The Return of the King, due in the theatres this Christmas season of 2003. Meanwhile, Frodo must struggle through the suffering. I think a turning point comes two-thirds of the way through the first movie in the trilogy, after Frodo has looked into Galadriel’s mirror and then freely offers her the One Ring.

Immediately after the Galadriel passes the test by not accepting the ring, Frodo realizes again he cannot escape his quest of taking this Ring of Power to Mount Doom, to “unmake” it by casting it into its flames. “I cannot do this alone,” he laments.

Galadriel turns toward him and says, “You are a Ring bearer, Frodo. To bear a Ring of power is to be alone.” She lifts her hand and reveals that she, too, is a Ring Bearer. “This is Nenya, the Ring of Adamant,” she smiles compassionately, “and I am its Keeper.” Then Galadriel catches Frodo’s gaze and tells him, “This task was appointed to you, and if you do not find a way, no one will.”

“Then I know what I must do,” he sighs. “It’s just … I’m afraid to do it.”

At this point, Galadriel bends down, and meets him at eye level. She speaks to him in a kind but serious manner: “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”

That one sentence summarizes the impact we can have as followers of Jesus Christ. “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” It gets me almost every time I hear it.

And as one who lives in the in-between zones of the modern-to-postmodern era of transition, I often feel the increasing heaviness of the quest to bridge the many cultural divisions manifested within our churches. Making it more difficult is the fact that there is no common language to explain what we experience, no shared framework to bridge our differences. Similarly, Frodo as Ring Bearer could never fully convey to the rest of the Fellowship about the impact that carrying the One Ring had on him.

So we find that there are serious depths of melancholy and grief on all sides of the postmodern-generational divides. The older generations often want to bless the younger, but feel unable to understand their emerging world or that the community connection has been frayed by their overcontrol. The younger want to be blessed, but feel unable to live in the world of the elders and also feel they must answer to a higher authority and be/do what they were created for in the world as it now is.  How do we find a language to express this disconnect, and facilitate a both/and, “wabisabi” dialogue designed to keep us connected and let all parties find purpose despite the chaos?

Two More Films to Show the Way Through Feelings

Films often summarize such dilemmas in concrete, relational ways that crystallize the essential dynamics of the problem. At WabiSabi, I illustrated this irony of melancholy with a pair of movies that focuses on the heart issue of grief over the disconnections: Mr. Holland’s Opus and Beyond Silence. In this pair of bookend films, Mr. Holland’s Opus shares the elders’ perspective, Beyond Silence shares that of the younger generation.

Mr. Holland’s Opus focuses on a man who is passionate about composing music, but who settles more for teaching music because it pays the bills. When his wife becomes pregnant, he anticipates with great joy in being able to share his passion with this child. But, sadly, their son is deaf.

After many relational struggles between father and son, Mr. Holland eventually “gets it” – he changes the course of his heart and thus the course of the future – not only for himself, but for his wife and son as well. He makes efforts to bridge the void, to find analogies in lights and vibrations to represent the emotions of music for communicating with his son.

In Beyond Silence, Lara is a German girl who is born to deaf parents – both of them have been deaf from birth. Lara learns sign language and she functions even as a pre-teen as primary interpreter for her parents when they go out banking, shopping, and otherwise attempting to navigate in the world of the hearing. They rely on her, and yet do not realize that Lara is filtering everything that she signs to them. She oversimplifies situations, thinking that they cannot (or would not) be able to comprehend the complexities of the world as it really is.

Complicating the plot is the fact that this young woman discovers a gift of musical talent when an aunt gives her a clarinet. She is a prodigy in her playing – but how can she share with her parents her talent and the world of music that she so deeply loves? Again, the double crux: In individual terms, how can you communicate your passion when those you desperately wish to share it with have no framework to understand it? In cultural terms, how can you communicate the realities of the world you live in when the generations at the other end of the age spectrum from you have no framework to understand it?

There are many points when the daughter moves towards despair at the conflict. Still, she embraces her musical performances as if driven by angels to make music that echoes in heaven, and she invites her very stubborn father to attend her symphony audition anyway, despite his opposition and confusion. At the end of the film, he is there, standing in the darkness at the back of the music hall – but he is there, nevertheless.

Working WabiSabi in the Kingdom

There are many intriguing parallels to consider within this pair of films. I find it worth thinking about how both films bring resolve to the intergenerational conflict when the elders in each story turn their hearts toward the children – just as the Scriptures talk about in Malachi 4:6 and in its repetition in the gospels: “… turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents …” The younger generation can request understanding and respect, but cannot force it. Neither can the elder generation demand understanding and respect … but they are still the primary party responsible for taking the first step to embrace and affirm those who are younger.

This is a hard, hard thing – for those on both sides of this mindset divide! In a “Kingdom culture” community, we must invest time and relational energy into blessing one another, equipping each other to understand our cultures, and journeying together as a team-family-fellowship. And we must move toward doing this unconditionally.

That means giving up control over the look of the results (which I suspect will be much harder for the elders to do, as emerging churches growers will personify very different styles which the elders may even find culturally offensive).

That also means giving up contempt against others over feelings of having been hindered in ministry (which I suspect will be harder for the youngers to do, as it has been culturally and spiritually traumatizing to feel so bound by tradition, hierarchical leadership, and institutional structures).

I don’t think this is a romanticized idealism; it is more than just possible – it is preferable. Actually, it is more than that – it is imperative. But the work is hard. And ultimately, integrating people from opposite places into one Kingdom through the tough stuff of relationships brings ennoblement to our spirits. Christlike character has a chance to steep within us, in the cauldrons of our community. And, speaking both from and to the older generations, I believe it calls upon us to bear the greater sacrifice by giving up our control and honoring the gifts and needs of the younger generations.

Frodo’s Sacrifices Fill Gaps with Gold

And so – bringing it back to Frodo – it is like when the four Hobbits of the Fellowship return to their homeland of the Shire near the end of Tolkien’s trilogy of books. As Gandalf parts ways with Frodo, Samwise, Merry, and Pippin, he tells them that all they have learned from the “War of the Ring” was to train them to deal with the evils that have now divided their homeland. Their mission is now to apply their character and all the wisdom they have learned, and make a constructive difference in rooting out whatever “anti-Kingdom” influences have corrupted their society and traumatized their people.

As this “scouring of the Shire” ensues, Frodo especially manifests a continued melancholy, but it demonstrates itself in his leading in a way that equalizes the tensions between great compassion and righteous conviction, between mercy and justice. How Frodo integrated his difficult experiences in the quest of the Ring prepared him for this moment of paradoxical impact as the leader of the Hobbits in their quest for survival.

It’s unfortunate that this final task of the four Hobbits is not shown in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, but its depiction in Tolkien’s books is profound. We find that once evil has been removed and peace restored to the Shire, it has taken a deep toll on Frodo. He mostly retreats to his home to write the account of all that happened. When his time comes years later, he leaves the Shire for the Grey Havens, to take a ship to Valinor, an eternal land that Tolkien uses to depict the Blessed Realm of heaven. And at this final parting, Frodo shares some wabisabi-ish statements with his faithful friend Samwise:

… I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you.

You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be, and the most famous gardener in history; and you will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone, so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more. (Frodo to Samwise, The Return of the King ~ Book VI, Chapter 9: “The Grey Havens.”)

As a member of the older generation, I find these to hold the essence of that kind of Kingdom wabisabi work that we find ourselves in the midst of doing: Preserve what needs to be remembered, but to leave the next generation with flexibility to transform their landscape as they find it, and to extend our story with their own. So, in that quest to transfer Kingdom reins to next generations, how will we let our Holy Father, His Son, and His Spirit work in our lives to redeem the melancholy we experience in the transition from modern to postmodern and beyond?