Worth Fighting For

(If you’re a regular reader, never fear: Word Nerd Wednesday will live on. It’s just been moved to the first Wednesday of every month.)

I don’t know about you, but for my husband and me, the holidays often involve movie marathons. This year, over the Christmas and New Year holidays, we decided to fully commit to the concept and watch all the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies. Yes, all of them. The extended editions. I know. That’s a lot of hours but I don’t regret it one bit.

There’s something immensely moving about beautiful cinematography and epic quests. Martin Freeman’s interpretation of Bilbo will never not delight me. (That man should’ve won all the awards!) But one character always captures me most: Samwise Gamgee.

A few years ago, I wrote about the scene in which he nearly drowns. (You can read that here.) I can watch a million, touching death scenes and feel next to nothing, but that scene practically gets me blubbering into my coffee.

This time, though, there was another scene that caught my attention. In The Two Towers, as Sam and Frodo are edging closer to Mordor and the ring is slowly sucking the life out of Frodo, the two hobbits talk about the great adventure stories they heard growing up.

Sam: “I wonder if we’ll ever be put into songs or tales.”

Frodo: “What?”

Sam: “I wonder if people will ever say, ‘Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring.’ And they’ll say ‘Yes, that’s one of my favorite stories.’ ‘Frodo was really courageous, wasn’t he, Dad?’ ‘Yes, my boy, the most famousest of hobbits. And that’s saying a lot.'”

Frodo: “You’ve left out one of the chief characters – Samwise the Brave. I want to hear more about Sam. Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam.”

Sam: “Now Mr. Frodo, you shouldn’t make fun. I was being serious.”

Frodo: “So was I.”

I love that scene. Why do I love that scene? For one thing, it’s one of the only times Frodo explicitly acknowledges what Sam has done, the contribution he’s made to their mission. Most of the time, Frodo is too busy nearing the end of his sanity to recognize it. Or being mislead by Gollum. (Newsflash: when your best friend tells you someone is up to no good, BELIEVE THEM. Ahem.) So to see him acknowledge Sam is heartwarming.

But mostly I love it because of what it says about Sam. Specifically, he thinks Frodo is joking when the ring-bearing hobbit talks about Sam as an important part of the story. Doesn’t that say so much about what Sam thinks of himself? He doesn’t see himself as important, as vital to the story. All he knows is that he made a promise and he’s going to keep it.

And he’s not wrong: in contrast to the others, Sam’s actually quite average. He’s no human king with elf gentility who’s running from his destiny. He’s no elf prince with grace and extraordinary skill with a bow. He’s no dwarf warrior who runs into danger like a battering ram.

Compared to his companions, Sam is just an average hobbit. Except when it comes to loyalty. Unlike his stature, his loyalty is giant and his commitment unmatched. And while the others understand why the ring must be destroyed, I think Sam sees it through a different filter: home. He knows that great evil is never satisfied, devouring everything it can reach, even his beloved Shire. And it’s that love of home and loyalty to Frodo that keep his hobbit feet moving toward great evil, going into battle with not much more than a frying pan (and wielding it with the skill of a Southern woman, I might add).

It’s not surprising that a writer (J.R.R. Tolkien) would write about the power of story. This scene is especially poignant in that regard because Sam is thinking about future generations who may hear their story and be inspired by it, as he and Frodo were by the stories of others before them. He starts out with a narrow view of what needs to be done: accompany Frodo. And over time, his view grows into a broad concept of how their mission may be remembered.

On every step of their adventure, Samwise follows Frodo right into the darkness. And when Frodo’s strength fails him, just steps away from the fires of Mt. Doom, Sam doesn’t wax poetic about the nature of evil. He doesn’t tell him the world will end if he doesn’t summon his strength. No, he reminds Frodo of home—of the strawberries with cream and the green meadows. He reminds Frodo of those things worth protecting by reminding him of what hobbits love and appreciate.

I have to admit, when it comes to the kingdoms of Middle Earth, I relate more to the elves, with their love of ancient wisdom, gorgeous waterfalls, and affinity for vegetables. But my husband is pure hobbit. There’s nothing he loves more than good food and a comfortable home.

Maybe that’s why I adore Samwise so much. Because I see much of my human in him. Like Sam, if I were called on a great quest, my own Samwise would be right there beside me, even if it meant going into danger and having to eat lembas bread for days on end.

I hope you have someone like that, someone who will walk into the darkness with you and remind you of all the things you hold dear, all the beautiful things worth fighting for. Because the only way evil loses is if you remember what you’re fighting for. The only way evil loses is if you hold onto the people you love. Love and friendship and home—as Samwise reminds Frodo, those are things worth fighting for.

We need to talk about “crazy”

It all started with an eight-year-old kid. I was a eighteen-year-old camp counselor at an outdoor center and he was one of my campers. Let’s call him Evan.

Evan had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, something my co-counselor and I knew because one of us took him to the infirmary for his medication every morning.¬†Evan was very aware of his own diagnosis. He used to say, “if I don’t get my meds, I’m gonna go crazy!”

It broke my heart. I don’t know where he learned that idea, whether it came from his parents or other kids at school. But somewhere along the way, he learned that “crazy” referred to mental illnesses like bipolar disorder.

One afternoon, we were playing a simple game, probably killing a few minutes between activities. We were working our away around the group, talking about things that made us unique, any fun detail that set us apart. A junior counselor talked about how her ears stuck out and it made her look a little like a chipmunk. I talked about how I never crawled as a baby, but scooted around instead.

Evan said, “I’m bipolar!” That’s the detail he thought made him unique, that defined him. That without his meds, he’d go “crazy.”

This eight-year-old thought “crazy” was lingering just around the corner.

I didn’t realize it until later, but that’s the moment I started to have a problem with that word: crazy. As a society, we’ve known for a couple decades now that using the term to describe people with mental illness is disrespectful, even harmful.

But we still use that word in other forms.

We say “life has been crazy lately” or “such crazy weather we’re having” or “don’t do anything crazy.” It’s easy to throw it around without thinking. I know I’ve done it in the past. It’s such a common part of our lexicon, it comes without a thought.

On one hand, there can be power in reclaiming a word and diminishing its stigma. But that would require severing it from its original roots. If you dig deeper, we’re still using it in the same way, to refer to aberrant behavior. Life has been out of control, is what we mean when we say it’s been “crazy.” We’re saying the weather has been abnormal. We’re telling our friends not to do anything wild or risky.

Even today, the word is hinting at the behavior it described decades and centuries ago, back when it was a label slapped on anyone who didn’t fit the norms of society. Back when it was used as an excuse to imprison and abuse people who needed help.

If you dig into the etymology of the word, it originated around 1580 and meant ¬†“full of cracks.” This was around the same time asylums were being established to hold such “cracked” people. The word then expanded to mean “diseased, sickly, of unsound mind.” And once it was attached to a human being, it was impossible to escape the label.

I will alway believe words are powerful. I’m a writer. Of course I think that. I know it’s impractical to research the etymology and history of every word we use. But some words cut more deeply than others. Some words carry a well-known history with them. And when a word with such a negative past lands on the shoulders of an eight-year-old child, it’s beyond time to bury that word.

Some words don’t deserve to exist in modern society. For me, this is one of them. I’m done with “crazy.”

(For more reading, check out this great article from Rooted in Rights.)