Everyone’s talking about it. Doubtless you’ve heard.. This pandemic we’re going through… might be the best thing that has happened to us.
Now, hear me out. People as respected as Michael Hyatt and as intelligent as Cal Newport have said similar things. Before COVID hit, we had all become so complacent, so comfortable with life. There hadn’t been a serious political or social upheaval, at least in the First World, for decades. The general spirit of unity that followed 9-11 had dissipated almost completely. I’m sure you noticed it—that ennui, that boredom, that insidious thought: isn’t there something more important I could be doing with my life?
Then we were all plunged into the strangest and most extreme global reaction to a pandemic in history. We’re still in the middle of it, of course, but we’re definitely in phase two, if not phase three. And now more and more of us, frightened by the reality of our mortality and disgusted by the general lack of courage and virtue we see all around us, have begun to commit to something that Cal Newport calls “the Deep Reset.”
In a series of posts, Newport suggests that hardships actually have the tendency to unlock a deeper, more authentic, more satisfying life. And he insists (I agree with him) that this is the best response to unexpected difficulties.
But what example does Mr. Newport use to illustrate his point? That’s right. He uses myth!
Two Phases of the Deep Life
In my previous two posts, as well as in my new podcast, I make similar arguments. But Mr. Newport focused my thinking even more, by showing that any proper response to unexpected difficulties actually has two phases:
- Survive and progress
- Afterward, with a mix of humility and purpose, transform your life into something deeper
That “something deeper” is what he calls a “deep life.” Call it a life of purpose, a life of meaning—it’s all the same. It’s a life where you stop focusing on things that are on the surface, the shallows of life (like social media), and instead put your energy into lasting things that affect you, your community, and your relationship with the divine.
I was excited to find that there is a wonderful example of seeking a deep life in response to unexpected hardship in the character of Aragorn in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Although he is a largely obscure character in the novel (in the sense that we never really see into his point of view as readers), his story is illuminated in a beautiful, touching way in Appendix A of the book.
There, we find out that he was a child of war, left without a father at the age of two, while his mother was probably no more than a teenager. Though he was subsequently raised in Imladris with the elves, his life was not filled with poetry and feasting. He made his name in guerrilla warfare with Elrond’s sons.
It was because of his exploits in battle that he was eventually (at age twenty) given the full truth of his lineage by his foster-father, Elrond. He was actually the heir of the human kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor, the only man who could hope to unite warring factions to deter the return of Sauron, the dark lord.
At that same time, Aragorn, overjoyed at finding out the truth of his lineage, meets Arwen, Elrond’s daughter, and falls head over heels in love with her. This unexpected love prompts another conversation with Elrond, who then declares the full truth of Aragorn’s “doom”:
Aragorn, Arathorn’s son, Lord of the Dunedain, listen to me! A great doom awaits you, either to rise above the height of all your fathers since the days of Elendil, or to fall into darkness with all that is left of your kin. Many years of trial lie before you. You shall neither have wife, nor bind any woman to you in troth, until your time comes and you are found worthy of it. 1
Instead of a cushy life in the safest part of the known world, Aragorn was now faced with the unexpected reality of having to become the one man to redeem his forefather’s failure to destroy the Ring of Power. What was his response? “He went out into the wild.”
For the next thirty years, he labors in the cause against Sauron, his mortal enemy. In this, he embodies the first phase of Cal Newport’s proper response to hardship: survival and progress.
Phase 1 of the Deep Life: Survive and Progress
Aragorn does this by following a series of steps:
- He makes sure to find a vetted mentor. In fact, this mentor is so well vetted that he’s an angel incarnate.
- He embraces solitude, and yet retains a kernel of joy that shines out from him when he smiles.
- He hides his name and seeks renown under many different names. This includes going abroad into different lands, always exploring the hearts of men (both good and evil), and in the process uncovering the plots of Sauron.
- He becomes skilled in both crafts and lore.
- He accepts his doom, and makes it his guiding force, not an obstacle.
Only after he does this can he return to Imladris. At that point, he once again expresses his love for Arwen. This time, she is able to reciprocate. They plight their troth, but Elrond once again reminds Aragorn that only the king of both Gondor and Arnor can have Arwen for his queen.
And so, Aragorn then fulfills the second phase of overcoming hardship by taking up his quest. With a mix of humility and purpose, he transforms his life by dedicating it to a deep cause: the quest to defeat Sauron. Ultimately, he not only defeats Sauron, but becomes king and marries his queen as well.
It’s amazing to me how neatly Aragorn’s life fits into a discrete model for emulating a search for the deep life as a response to unexpected difficulty.
Modeling Aragorn’s Life During the Pandemic
Every phase of Aragorn’s life is easily translatable into a series of actions that we can take now, today, this moment, to begin to transform the chaos of COVID-stupor into a meaningful life that uses hardship to descend deeper, and maybe even to defeat evil in ourselves and those around us.
We begin with the testing phase.
- First, we must find a mentor, but it is absolutely necessary that he or she be the right one.
- Then, we must seek solitude regularly, because only in solitude can we find deep thinking, contemplation, and ultimately joy.
- We must try out different ideas by delving deep into their hearts. Test them out, keeping in mind the instruction of our mentors.
- We must find a craft and become good at it. In addition to working with our hands, we must also train our minds by a course of study that we choose and dive deep into.
- Then, we will find the courage to accept the hardship not only as inevitable, but as good for us.
But this isn’t enough. After this, we must follow with the action phase:
- We must extend our hearts outward. Now that we have accepted our “doom,” so to speak, we should help others do the same. Especially our loved ones.
- Then, with a mix of humility and purpose, we can begin the long work of transforming our shallow half-existence into a deep life.
Yes, this is hard. Yes, there will be much trial and hardship. Luckily, we have guides. They’re called stories. Fairy tales. Myths. They provide wonderful directions and specific instructions—a map, if you will—in how to begin, and complete, the quest for the deep life.
I want to share this map with you.
Resilience and Courage Through Story
Recently, I’ve started a new seven-week series on “Resilience and Courage Through Story,” where I explore the seven steps that Aragorn showed us can lead to a deep life. Each week, I discuss, in detail, each step of his quest for the deep life, using examples from stories, as well as sharing the expertise of science and the wisdom of philosophy and theology.
This series is only available to members of my email list, which I like to call my “story circle.”
If you’d like to join my story circle, you can have exclusive access to this email series by joining at www.nicholaskotar.com/resilience. I look forward to beginning this journey with all of you!
- Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings, at 1059. HarperCollins, 2004.