Limits in What We Do

Do We Need Some Type of Limit?

I’ve recently watched The Hobbit trilogy, and images of Tolkien’s dwarf kings consumed with greed and gold have stuck with me. For whatever reason, the image of King Thror spinning around in a state of dazed confusion among his treasure, and the image of Thorin becoming corrupted by the same gold bounty have replayed through my mind. Tolkien and the artistic creators of The Hobbit are using the dwarf kings to show the negatives of greed, of lust for power, and the danger in pursuing wealth over people and relationships. They also show what can go wrong in the mind when we have everything.


The Hobbit came back to mind as I looked over quotes I highlighted and notes I took in Dreamland by Sam Quinones. My last two posts were about our efforts to avoid pain, suffering, and negativity and about how we try to fill our lives with consumer products that promise to make us happy. Mixed in with those ideas, Quinones adds, “man’s decay has always begun as soon as he has it all, and is free of friction, pain, and the deprivation that temper his behavior.”


Thror and Thorin show us what Quinones means. When the kings were at the top, when there were no constraints in their power or wealth, they used other people for their own gain. Their minds turned to selfish impulses, and turned away from doing what was right for the good of their people. When they reached the top, they atrophied, with nothing to work toward but the preservation of their own grandeur.


A curious phenomenon that Quinones highlights throughout his book is how opioid addiction cuts across all socioeconomic status levels. The sons and daughters of esteemed judges and doctors just as well as men and women who have grown up in poverty all seem to be victims of opioid addiction. For some reason we expect addiction among the second group, but find it inconceivable that the first group might face the same challenges. In some ways, the quote above from Quinones answers part of why we see addiction among middle class families and among the children of talented professionals.


When we have no limits in what we do, when our lives are tailored, curated, but isolated, we begin to lack purpose. Our lives might look full from the outside, but be void on the inside. When we seem to have it all, the value of our lives can decay, and without friction under our feet to push us forward, we can’t move anywhere. Just as our excesses produce terrible externalities, our having it all, or at least thinking we can buy it all, produces a feeling of purposeless that can lead to drug use to blunt the meaninglessness of self-indulgence.


My recommendation is to remember Thorin and his grandfather. To remember that our selfish desires can become our own downfalls, and to turn instead toward community building and relationships with others. To strive for our own greatness will leave us on an empty throne, but to work with others for shared goals will help us develop real structures in our lives that last and have real value.

Fencing Out the World

This last week Ezra Klein interviewed British journalist John Higgs for his podcast. About midway through the episode they talked about difference between people from the Millennial Generation and those from Generation Z, the following generation that is the first generation to grow up with smart phones. One of the differences they highlighted was in how the two generations think about the individual. Generation X and the Millennials are more likely to hold tightly to ideas of individualism than are Generation Z-ers. Unsurprisingly, given the technology they are growing up with, Generation Z-ers are more likely to see themselves as part of a network and are more sensitive to the connections they have with each other and with the world.


This connection and push against individualism is something I found really interesting and that I don’t have a great sense of myself. I am quite independent in general and have a strong individualistic push, but at the same time I try hard to recognize my dependence on others and to be aware of just how much I need the world around me. As much as I often want to set up my own perfect environment for me to operate within, I recognize that my individualistic barriers are continually breached by what is happening beyond myself, and not necessarily in a bad way.


This connects with a quote I highlighted in the first book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As Frodo is on his way out of the Shire, he runs into Gildor, an Elf traveling across the shire to leave the continent. Gildor says to Frodo, “The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.”


In a non-direct way this quote can come into alignment with my thoughts about individualism versus our dependence on others and on society. I want to be productive and achieve meaningful things. I often feel that I can shut out everything around me and focus on just those important items on the to-do list, but the reality is that I won’t ever be able to close out the world around me, and in attempting to do so I run the risk of ruining the work I am trying to produce.


The world is interconnected and the wildness outside of our neat box is always trying to force itself in. We can try to order our own lives perfectly and design our own spaces for perfection and productivity, but we cannot force out the rest of the world forever. We must learn to live with the world around us and to use the world in a way that will help us make ourselves and our work better. As independent as Millenials feel, they need to grasp the networks that make them who they are the way that Gen Z-ers do. The Gen Z-ers can teach us to think beyond, “is this good for me” to “is this good for the group I belong to” especially as that group is expanded to include people beyond our family, community, city, state, or nation. The protests we see today from our youngest generation highlight what is possible when we think outside of our own selves and desires, and expand our idea of the network we belong to as being a globally connected and integrated network of humans that must come together to change the world for the better.

Do What Is In Us

Lord of the Rings can be read as a reaction against the industrial age, a reaction against military might, and a reaction against colonial conquests. The most clean, well functioning, and happiest places in the book are places of nature, where hobbits live peacefully with plenty in the shire, and where elves live with wisdom and respect for trees, forests, rivers, and valleys. Tolkien seems to express the idea that we should live a bucolic life that is more connected with nature, tending to it to receive the gifts that nature gives us as opposed to laying down our black mastery of the planet and bending it to our will as we do with roads, railroads, dams, and the machinery of war.


In the story, Gandalf says, in a reaction to Sauron trying to rule everything, “Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”


Succor is defined, according to the dictionary in my Kindle, as “assistance and support in times of hardship and distress.” Gandalf says that we should live our lives in a way that sets the world up to be more successful and bountiful in the future. We should strive to remove bits of evil from the world, to constantly make small improvements or do our little part to make the world a better place. We should not do this just for ourselves and for our happiness, but so that future generations can inhabit a world that can still provide for their needs.


This message is important for me. We can set out to be the best, to always have more, to accumulate as much fame and notoriety as possible, and to rule the world with golden towers and green acres everywhere we go. Or, we can accept that the world is not ours, we can strive toward mastery of a few things without spreading ourselves too thin, and we can focus on our corner of the world and what is in our power right now to make the world a better place. This may look like picking up trash along our local street, it may look like calling our grandma, or it may look like smiling at that person smoking outside the Walmart and saying hi rather than giving them a contemptuous look and treating them like trash. We can strive to be great and to make lots of money and influence the world, but what really matters is if we take small steps daily in the ways we can to make the world better for the future, even if that means we inconvenience ourselves a little to do the good work.
Morning Counsels

Morning Counsels

I do almost all of my writing for this blog in the morning. For whatever reason, thinking clearly in the evening (at least clear enough for writing) feels impossible for me. Once I have gone through an entire day, once I have spent my mental capital at work, listened to podcasts, and had dozens of conversations with colleagues, friends, and family, my brain can’t quite focus and think about what it wants to say about a given topic in a coherent way. At a certain point at night, I am completely unable to string together clear and coherent thoughts. It is certainly not a time where I am going to have great insights, and probably not a great time for me to make big decisions.


Many, though certainly not all of us, share this type of pattern. There is something about sleeping and unplugging for several hours that allows us to return to our thoughts and ideas from the day or night before with more clarity. I have noticed many times that jumbled, cloudy thoughts seem more organized in the mornings, the connections between disparate pieces coming out more profoundly in the morning than at night. Decisions, and my resolve to commit to decisions, are much more clear in the mornings as well. What seemed like only binary choices become full of possibilities I had not recognized nor considered before, and making a choice to stick to is simpler when my brain has had less stuff to manage for a day.


In J.R.R. Tolkien’s book, The Lord of the Rings, King Theoden’s brain apparently works the same as mine. while traveling and preparing for a battle, Theoden reached a point where he recognized his weariness and need to rest before making a decision and planning for future clashes. He said, “In the morning counsels are best, and night changes many thoughts.” Sleeping and getting some rest helped him to think differently about what choices he had to make and about the things he had observed. The night helped him develop new perspectives and become more considerate and insightful.


The quote from The Lord of the Rings makes me think about all the times I have made decisions while camping or traveling late at night. The decisions are never good and I usually get tired of making nuanced decisions and just decide for the future to do whatever feels easiest in the moment. We should postpone decisions while camping or traveling when our minds are exhausted at the end of the day. Sometimes the best we can do is say, “we need to sleep now and we can make a final decision on this thing in the morning.” For me, that would have certainly saved myself and the people I was traveling with a lot of headaches and given us back a bit more time for sleep. We should be like King Theoden and recognize that we won’t be able to process nuances at night, so rather than endlessly stating challenges and obstacles to decisions that need to be made, we should do nothing, and sleep before we make a hasty decision.

Hatred Hurts Itself

In general, in most of our lives, we probably do not get yelled at by other people too often. We also probably don’t do that much yelling at other people either. I don’t have kids, so usually if there is something that I really want to yell about it happens when I am sitting alone in my car driving. When I do get so agitated while driving that I want to yell about some other driver bothering me, I try to consider whether the other driver even knows if I exist, whether they are aware that they are frustrating me, and whether they will ever remember that they slightly inconvenienced my drive enough to make me angry.


These thoughts about anger and yelling at people came back to mind while reading over a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. When Isengard fell and Saruman locked himself in his tower, Galdalf spoke to Pipen and said, “Strange are the turns of fortune! Often does hatred hurt itself!”


Being outraged often doesn’t lead to things we want. When we fly into a fit of rage, we usually don’t get people to do things that make us happy and fix the underlying thing that made us angry. When we hate people uncontrollably, we usually make things in our own lives just as bad as we make things in other people’s lives.


What anger and hatred do is reveal a weakness in ourselves. If I were to yell at someone while driving or try to insult someone, I would not be harming them, but really harming myself. I would be revealing that I am not a calm and collected person, but instead a hateful and angry jerk who has little self control and little ability to think of others. Hatred is meant to be outward and in some senses is intended to tear down another person, but instead it reveals a weakness in character that pulls us down and in our rage causes us to make poor decisions that harm ourselves more than others. Gandalf was spot on with his observations of an angry and bitter Saruman.


For more on outrage, check out an old post of mine about feeling superior by being outraged.