Archive | April, 2013

Heroic Journeys: Mordor, the Shire, and Kermit, West Virginia

20 Apr
Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and the ring he must bear.

Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and the ring he must bear.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Only six days and yet seemingly a lifetime ago, before the tragedy of Patriots Day plunged our community into shock and outrage, the youth of First Unitarian Church led a Sunday morning service that explored the heroic battle between good and evil in more of a literary context. The service, titled “The Quest for Peace – A Hero’s Journey,” explored the phases of the heroic journey from the “call to adventure” – including stepping outside one’s comfort zone to experience something new and, hopefully, transformative – to the challenge of returning home after this transformation, all in the context of humble hobbit Frodo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

As part of the service, the youth distributed rings to the congregation, which we then got to toss into a sculpted volcano. (I assume none of them were heirlooms.) One part of this intriguing service, well-planned and performed, was a reflection by Olivia Mandile – which seemed to touch on some of the same concerns as two recent guest blogs by Assumption students Marie Ebacher and Colleen Putzel. The notion of service as an adventure which calls one outside one’s normal life and self – and the challenge of what to internalize after the adventure is over – runs through all three pieces. Please enjoy Olivia’s below.

As teenagers growing up in a sleepy little area, my friends and I are always talking about growing up and going on adventures. We spend a lot of time talking about the future: summer, college, the careers we want. But as John Green wrote in his novel, Looking for Alaska, “Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia. We use the future to escape the present.”

So often we expect adventure to come knocking on our doors, as it did for Frodo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring. We expect adventure to be loud, big, and staring us straight in the face. But when it arrives on our front doorstep, we are often too caught up in what may happen years from now that we do not even recognize it.

I went on my first great adventure in my sophomore year of high school. I travelled, with nineteen of my peers, to the poverty-stricken town of Kermit, West Virginia, where the unemployment rate is a staggering 22% and many people live in trailers with nothing but cardboard for walls. I spent the week painting a house for a family that could not afford paint, tutoring children in a day care center that did not even have a playground, and caring for abandoned puppies.

The parts of my trip that affected me most deeply were the stories I heard from the people living in Kermit. My peers and I had the opportunity to talk to inhabitants of the town, who shared their lives willingly with us. We heard about the medical bills they could not pay, the times they could not go to work because they did not have gas money, the worries of a teenage girl who saw classmate after classmate drop out of high school because of another teenage pregnancy. These were all things I heard about on TV or on the Internet, but I had never met anybody whose life was wracked with so much worry.

Olivia Mandile (left) sharing good times on West Virginia mission trip.

Olivia Mandile (left) sharing good times on West Virginia mission trip.

If you could have heard the stories I heard in Kermit, you probably would have expected the town to be downtrodden and sad. But that week, I met some of the happiest people I have ever had the pleasure to talk to. The people of Kermit have so many reasons to worry about the future. Most of them do not know how long they will have jobs for, or if the cardboard on the sides of their trailer will keep them warm in the winter. They truly live, however, only for the present. I have spent the majority of my life waiting for something, anything, to happen. I can’t say that since my trip to Kermit, I have always lived in the present moment. However, when my mind wanders back to Mingo County and West Virginia, as it often does, I remember to take a deep breath and count my blessings. My journey to Appalachia taught me about poverty in our nation, but more than that it taught me to stop wishing for the future and start finding adventures in my everyday life.

In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo becomes so fixated on the end result of his journey that the future essentially destroys him. By the time his mission is over, he is unable to return home and function as he was previously able to. His inability to live in the present ensured that he cannot live in the Shire. Frodo’s adventure was not only about destroying the ring. It was also about friendship, acceptance of other people, bravery, and justice. However, while his best friend Sam was able to clearly see this, Frodo was not.

Most of us are not very good at living in the present. The future holds an interminable excitement that makes the mundaneness of everyday life bearable. But then again, when does the future actually arrive? By the time the next moment comes it is already the present, and before we even have time to notice it, is has become the past, which is never worth dwelling on.

Instead of waiting for the next big thing in my life to arrive, I am trying very hard to find excitement and adventure in the present moment: an enlightening conversation with a good friend, a poem that resonates with me, a night of playing board games with my family. There is always something great looming on the horizon, but I do not want to miss the millions of moments that will arrive before it. And, besides, perhaps the greatest adventure of all is the love of my friends and family.

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