I have long intended to write more about what I’ve come to call “the ABCs of recovery and resiliency”—Arts, Beauty, Creativity. In my studies of forms of abuse since 2007, I’ve frequently noticed these ABCs showing up in profiles of survivors of abuse, and in people involved in resistance against evil. Even in the most extreme situations of control and violence, forms of media emerge as a source of comfort, solidarity, inspiration.
I will have much more to say about some of the case studies I’ve come across. But, on this first day of 2023, I have an initial story of my own interactions with the ABCs to share … and how The Lord of the Rings saved my sanity after severe spiritual abuse 20 years ago.
The Fellowship of the Ring was released in theatres in December 2001. It may surprise you that, at that time, I had not yet read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy! As a novice immersing into Middle-earth, I remember the movie being hard for me to follow. So many characters and places and plot points, and the names Sauron/Saruman being so similar—and which was who again?
It was daunting. I asked a lot of questions of friends who knew their Tolkien well. Still, the journey of Frodo and the Fellowship inspired me to read The Lord of the Rings while awaiting The Two Towers, Peter Jackson’s next installment in December 2002. There was something deep here which tugged at my spirit, broadened my perspective, opened my emotions. Although I’d wished I’d read LOTR sooner than age 46, I was glad I finally had!
It turns out, I moved from Marin County, California, to Austin, Texas, in the autumn of 2003. This was to join a group of friends two decades younger than me who wanted to experience living in community. Among them were Shannon and Jessica, who’d been prime movers of my starting to blog, and Nathan and Amy, Erika, Laura, Stacy, and TK. We’d all been at the milestone WabiSabi event earlier that year, exploring authentic ways to connect with people like us who could be described as “cultural postmoderns.”
I was thankful to be there—not just to be in community, but to recuperate. I had recently exited from the founding team of a church plant that had turned worse than sour. It had proved downright toxic! I’ll have much more to say about that some other time. But, for now, I’ll just say the stress of that entire two-plus year situation depleted my already broken health even further. Right after the move, I could hardly walk more than a few hundred yards without being totally tuckered out. Sleep and rest often added up to more than 12 hours a day. I was a wreck!
But the time in Austin was healing—for body, soul, and spirit. LOTR played a memorable role in that, both then and later. In December 2003, our entire household went on opening night to see the finale of the trilogy: The Return of the King. We were excited for the event, as themes from LOTR had been a regular topic of conversation. (TK even went dressed as Arwen, in a spectacular burgundy and gold costume she’d made just the day before.) And we were not disappointed. Our whole row whooped and hollered and clapped at the film’s conclusion!
I didn’t know at the time, but The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy would become a strong source of solace and encouragement for me when I returned to California in the autumn of 2004. I was still dealing with the crushing impact of spiritual abuses experienced in that church plant, and, unfortunately, ended up in another church ministry that turned out likewise to be manipulative and malignant. How could I cope with serial spiritual abuse situations?
Something subliminal from deep in my previous experiences of abuse drew me then to LOTR for recovery and resilience, just as other forms of media had before. For instance, I had worn out several sets of Handel’s The Messiah on cassette tapes after a devastating church split in the 1970s. A cross made of nails from the Coventry cathedral destroyed in World War 2 had been a point for reflection after another disastrous ministry experience. And I had cycled through the Broadway soundtrack of Les Misérables over and over during that horrific church plant.
All of these somehow touched memories and opened emotions that had been harmed by abuse. I couldn’t predict what type of media would do this, but came to trust that something would serve to unlock my longing for arts, beauty, and creativity.
Anyway, I started watching the entire LOTR trilogy on DVD repeatedly. At first, the shorter theatrical version satisfied my longing for the ABCs. But, oh! The extended edition with almost 11 and a half hours of following the Fellowship! That became my main go-to free-time selection for the next five years.
I’m certain I’ve watched the trilogy at least 250 times in 20 years, and there was a time when I could quote every line. But “enduring” the epic most often felt like slogging through Middle-earth in real time. I didn’t always enjoy the experience—but if the Fellowship could endure such suffering and still overcome various impacts of evil, then perhaps there was hope for me, too.
What else drew me in?
- The creativity and complexity of Tolkien’s story.
- The loyalty, bravery, and resiliency of characters.
- The operatic quality of the emotions-opening score.
- The brilliant artisanship shown in creation of multiple cultures.
- The beautiful depictions of nature and showing the importance of earth-care stewardship.
- The decisive-moment perfection of photography that captured the poignancy and peril of the fight by the free peoples of Middle-earth to overcome evil.
- The evocative truths of “eucatastrophe”—that an unexpected, providential turn of events can lead to positive outcomes when it appears all is doom and destruction.
- The echo of biblical realities that evil will eventually be unmade and its consequences undone, often by God working through weak and marginalized people to overcome the privileged and proud.
It has been months since I last watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy. These days, I generally only watch a few hours (one of six discs) at a sitting. And I have been watching it this New Year’s weekend. It reminds me of a poem I wrote in 2003 after my first completion of The Lord of the Rings: “I Want to be Like Gandalf …” I’ve just updated it slightly to post here in celebration of 2023’s 20-year anniversary of the movie trilogy. I hope you enjoy it … and that, this year, you find the unique ABCs of recovery and resiliency that inspire and equip you toward deeper healing, higher aspirations, and enduring fellowship.