The Long Defeat

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.”

9 thoughts on “The Long Defeat

  1. Chris says:

    Excellent food for thought… I’ll have to get back to you on this, though (as a Calvinist, particularly! ;o) ), when Yeats isn’t eating my brain… :o/


  2. Danielle says:

    (sends you paper) According to Steve, there is an early church tradition that incorporates this concept that I seem to stumbled into (isn’t that always the case).


  3. Chera says:

    Danielle: I think that’s always the case for the both of us. What’s funny is how we tend to do it at the same time… I say we learn more about Penthos, shall we?

    Chris: I can’t wait! And ooh, I didn’t know you were a Calvinist 😉 Yes, I expect us to have many interesting conversations!


  4. Kali says:

    I liked the post. I miss you. I think about you a lot and even tried to call you the other day, but apparently I have your number wrong in my phone. Anyways, I really was wondering, how in the world do you have so much time to look up all of this stuff?!?!? I think ‘Eastern’ time must go faster than it does in Scotland. I love you, friend.


  5. David says:

    As a messianic Catholic, a term I coined some years ago upon meeting some of my messianic Jewish brothers, I can so relate to your thoughts here expresed. What we have that is real above all else is hope. A dear friend shared with me a conversation he had with a Jewish man, some years his senior, on a business flight. My friend was ready some Old Testament text and the Jewish fellow commented to him about it and began a conversation. pon learning of Brian’s Christian faith he commented “You know son, one thing I’ve noticed about devote followers of Jesus is they have hope, I am a surgeon and I watch these people accept terminal consequences with such grace. A Jew is screaming that we do everything to save their life and they slip away angry and bitter.” Oddly it is not enough to recognize the benefit to our faith, what is required is that we are called. We can’t take too much credit for our response because when we are truely called we are truely compelled by that voice to answer in the affirmative. Rather Calvinistic for a Catholic don’t you think?


  6. Chera says:

    Dear Kali, you wondered the same thing when we lived in Shawnee. I chase rabbit trails when I usually should be doing something else: in this instance, sleeping in order to get well.

    David: Thank you for sharing! I’m really interested about the term ‘messianic Catholic’… I don’t know if you noticed, but a couple weeks ago I mentioned how a Catholic friend and I were talking about her research involving post-Holocaust Judaism and how we’re both interested in learning more about our ‘parent’ faith in order to strengthen our own.

    Hm, as to what we are required… I would amend your sentence to be “what is required is that we respond.” I don’t deny that those who respond affirmatively to God’s call would describe it as, “How could I not?” but I do think it is the sad fact of humanity that there are those able to reject him. I guess you could say that those who choose to believe were “truly called,” but I, myself, am wary against making such judgments. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” our Lord says. Do we open the door and invite him in, or send him on his way, or ignore him entirely? I do think there is choice involved.

    The best way I can explain how I understand it is to quote from The Queen of Attolia (truly, I think in books!): “If I am the pawn of the gods, it is because they know me so well, not because they make up my mind for me.”

    So, how does our approach to this question affect how we treat our journey in this present world? As a long defeat? Or as certain victory? …or somewhere in between?


  7. Lola says:

    I am finally commenting!
    But like I said to you yesterday, it’s funny that you write this post so soon after we discussed a very similar thing in class. In Judaism, it was always understood that there is a cause and effect relationship between sin and calamity: God’s people sin, God punishes them. The temple is destroyed. The Holocaust happens.
    But is that the right way of looking on things? It’s only recently that Jews have begun readjusting their idea of the Holocaust in terms of God’s wrath, that maybe it is not that they were deserving of such travesty (as faith might dictate) but that it was a meaningless, terrible tragedy. Except for one thing: there’s a flip side to the idea of God’s retribution, and that’s the idea that from tragedy, something can be built out from it, and that is what God intends us to do.
    So now the question must be begged: do we build from the ashes of the Holocaust? This is why I’m so intrigued by post-Holocaust Jewish identity, which is strongly rooted in the fact that they are a people who have survived one of the greatest tragedies the world has ever known.
    An aspect of the Jewish faith is not so much collective memory as collective experience: the entire population of the faith experienced the flight from Egypt, not just Moses and his companions. In this way, every Jew is a survivor of the Holocaust.
    There are problems here, of course, but if I keep writing it all out here, I’ll end up writing my senior thesis 😉
    The main point I have, I guess, is that: as a Catholic, I can understand all of this. Since my belief is so closely tied to the idea of resurrection, I can understand a people striving to rise in a similar way, phoenix-like from the ashes of destruction, and find something new and beautiful in that collective experience.


  8. David says:

    There is little I don’t notice but mch on which I don’t respond. I feel at time a bit of an interloper upon your site here. My thoughts often out running my typing skills and readiness to read though before posting.
    In “Messianic Catholic” I address what I have come to describe in all Christian expressions of faith as “cultural Christianity” We are born in the West, especially the US so we are Christian. When I first began visiting an evangelical church I would hear people speak of being saved out of as it where the Catholic Church. I recognized quickly that is was that they had been isconced in this cultural affair with faith their whole life and they experienced Jesus somewhere else so it could not have been their fault they never found Him in the Catholic Church but that He simply was not there. After 35 years in the church quite involved with KC and Opus Dei I had ample opportunity to see the Lord at work in many and seemingly absent altogether in others claiming the same faith. As a “Messianic Catholic” I claim a faith response that says this unbelieveable love story of being chosen is true. We can live with the knowledge that we walk in certain victory over death. Our salvation is stored up for us undefiled by a perfect sacrifice.

    Oh, post holocaust Judaism, today the learned say of the Christ, after much research into the dead sea scrolls, offically- we just don’t know. That is huge!!


    If you get back to this terribly lenghty response please consider this, the Jews are God’s chosen people. A people that at times will say “oye pick someone else for a while”. The Holocaust was consistent with the cyclical experience of God and His people. I prefer to look at God as a Father that waits patiently to bless us while not medling to much with the results of our poor choices. We do something wrong He does not so much punish us as we create a barrier between us and His blessing or protection. What we always have at the end of the cycle is a people that God alone saves. We are all create for His glory, the heavenly rejoice when we who have free will choose to reflect Him who saved us. Sorry, I can get just a little preachy.
    Joseph’s brother sell him into slavery the land is devastated, the Lord uses the circumstances to deliver “Israel” to Egypt. They overstay their welcome and become enslaved and God delivers Israel back to their home. An so on.
    Speaking of rabbit trails– why would a group of astrologers from a place east of Israel know of the birth of a King foretold precisely to the day by a prophet captive in the east some 600 years earlier. God always makes lemonade out of Israel’s lemons.


  9. Lola says:

    Thanks for your explanation of ‘messianic Catholic’, I was really curious about that phrase too 🙂 I think what I was trying to convey in my earlier comment was that there’s currently an ongoing debate in Jewish theological circles whether or not the Holocaust *should* be seen as part of a cyclical pattern, and whether it should be treated as such.
    My understanding of G-d seems fairly in line with yours. As a Catholic who has devoted her life to studying the Holocaust, I find a constant tension between understanding my own beliefs and those of Judaism. Naturally, our theologies dovetail nicely in many ways, but they also differ enough that sometimes I have to set aside my own beliefs and see things from a different perspective– which, in the end, often helps to strengthen my faith.


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