After their encounter with elves on the road, Frodo asks Sam what he thinks of elves now that he has seen them up close. He says, “They are quite different from what I expected—so old and young, and so gay and sad, as it were.” As I read this, it struck me that as I have grown older, I have grown elven.
I have certainly not had the long life of the Tolkien’s elves, but I have lived enough to see the world is filled with loss and sadness. The brokenness of the world, people, and dreams litters the heart’s landscape. And as I have grown older I have come to care more for others than myself. My dreams are for my children and grandchildren. But loving more means hurting more. There is no shortage of sadness.
Yet like an elf, I feel younger than I have for years. Perhaps because like a child I am again free of what people think. I have stepped out of the self-consciousness and self-importance that seized me in adolescence. I play.
But it is more than that. Time reveals that much we think matters, really doesn’t. Tolkien talked about how age casts a golden glow over things because we see everything as though it may be the last time. Ordinary things make me happy. Despite all the reasons for sorrow, the immediate—sun on the dew, wind in the trees, birds on the wing—is a constant source of joy.
This last quarter of teaching, I knew I had become elven because I was usually more playful and joyful than my 18 and 19-year-old students. I suspect this just made me annoying—especially at nine in the morning. I was shocked by my cheerfulness. Where was Mark W. Puddleglum?
Sometimes Teckla and I get a Hot-n-Ready pepperoni pizza from Little Caesar’s in Coos Bay. We eat it on our drive back to Myrtle Point. It makes us happy—happier than people of our age and refined tastes should be. I’m happy that simple things make us happy. And increasing like an elf, I have joy for no reason at all.
And at the same time, I carry deeper sorrow. I have attended two funerals in the last couple months. One was the funeral of Lucas, a nine-year-old who died of cancer. People prayed years for his healing, thanked God for his healing when the cancer was in remission, and were broken and confused when the cancer came back. The other funeral was for Rolene, a wonderful older but not elderly lady whose patience and kindness were boundless. She died suddenly in the night, leaving us shocked and her husband shattered. I say this to make clear that my recent attacks of pointless joy are not born from things going well.
Although I recognized my odd mix of joy and sorrow because of Sam Gamgee’s description of elves, this mix is nothing more than becoming Christian—and to a small degree apostolic. When Paul describes his apostolic ministry, he includes in the list, “as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things.” While embracing apostolic suffering (something I haven’t), Paul was capable of abundant joy because of the wonders of God’s love lavished on him in Christ.
So maybe I am, at this late date, simply learning to follow Christ—it may be that this mix of sorrow and joy has little to do with age and much to do with spiritual maturity. But at least the lines left on my face by time, faithfully serve both joy and sorrow.