I have joined the long defeat
That falling set in motion
And all my strength and energy
Are raindrops in the ocean
I can’t just fight when I think I’ll win
That’s the end of all belief
And nothing has provoked it more
Than a possible defeat
–“The Long Defeat,” Sara Groves
As I compiled an extensive Dystopian fiction reading list for myself, I remembered how Kali once described me as a “pessimistic idealist.” I am someone who stares into the middle-distance and sees the ideal hidden behind a veil, within our grasp, should we choose to reach for it, but I also recognize that this is an imperfect world, where people are more attuned to their selfish desires than to squinting to see a world they cannot see. I’ve resigned that this sad fact is true for the world, but still hope, still dream, and still strive to reach for that ideal even if I am the only one looking.
When I heard “The Long Defeat” by Sara Groves, I had to look up the phrase because she seemed strangely defeatist. I found that in Lord of the Rings, Galadriel says to Frodo that she and Celeborn “together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” No victory is complete or without loss, and evil will rise again. Apparently Tolkien wrote in a letter: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.” I think Tolkien was a pessimistic idealist, too.
As a historian of sorts, and as a Christian, his words struck me as contrary to the popular belief I know to be held by most Christians: We have won. Christ defeated death and Satan when he triumphed Easter morning, and it’s only a matter of time before Satan gets his come-uppin’s and is thrown into the lake of fire. We continue in this imperfect world knowing that we are the victors, come the end of all things.
Yet the road is long, and the load is heavy. This is an imperfect world and each day comes a little farther apart at the seams. The universe spinning spinning toward entropy. We claim the hope that one day it may all be restored, but where does that leave us? The hope we hold restores all things by first destroying the old. For this universe, perhaps it is a long defeat. With every kind word, every time we place the interests of others ahead of our own, every time we are motivated by love instead of selfishness and choose the harder path over the easy one, we fight a losing battle against the powers of this world. But it is a noble battle, too.
“And nothing has provoked it more than possible defeat”—is this not true? The words of my philosophy professor come to mind: “You cannot claim your faith as your own until you have stared atheism in the face.” He made much of the class uncomfortable. I have considered whether faith is only poetry and song, of the possible defeat, and I have made the conclusion that even if it is, it is poetry to lift the eyes of the downcast, song to lighten the hearts of the weary, and is the noblest lost cause I can think of to live and die for. The history of Christianity is far from perfect, and those who call themselves Christians imperfect still, but if God was someone we could fully understand or something we could be fully comfortable with, then he would be of human design. And that is not faith. The stubborn hope of the unseen, inspiring those who believe to fight the long defeat, and in the process bring a little light into the darkness—this is faith. We who believe, we must continue even when we think our victory unsure, for to give up is certain defeat indeed.
These thoughts spurred from a song, dystopias, and riding with the horse-lords of Rohan. The answer to the question, “What are we holding on to?” is, as Sam says, “That there’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”