In December 2001, the first of three films adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s opus “The Lord of the Rings” (my all-time favorite book, or series of books, depending on how you count them) had just been released in theaters.
I sat in a packed house on opening night, as I heard Ian McKellen recite one of the most poignant lines in the trilogy of novels. The words from Gandalf the Grey come in response to main protagonist Frodo’s wish that all of the chaos and uncertainty around him, and the accompanying fate-of-the-world implications, had never occurred in his time.
“So do I,” the wise wizard said, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
The line struck me in that theater, providing no small amount of encouragement. Two months earlier, terrorists had seized four passenger jets, slamming two into the World Trade Center and collapsing the towers. Another hit the Pentagon. The fourth crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after passengers decided to fight the hijackers on board. Nearly 3,000 Americans died that day. It was the most tragic national event of my lifetime to that point, and the United States was collectively grieving and in shock, not only over the horror of such an event, but also in grappling with the obvious fact that our country would never be the same.
There was no one in America who would not have wished to undo that event; to not have to live in such a time. But that was not our choice. The passengers on Flight 93 decided that, with the time given them, they would fight. Most Americans concluded, with the time given us, we would band together. We would support the victims and their families. We would support our country. We would not give the terrorists the satisfaction of thinking they had cowed or divided the United States.
Not all decisions made during this time were the right ones. But we as a country certainly grasped that we could not falter or fracture in the world in which we suddenly found ourselves living.
I think about that line a lot today. What are we doing with the time given us, as now more than 200,000 of our fellow Americans are dead from the coronavirus?
Are we following the proper public health precautions to protect not just ourselves, but others, or are we, as 16 West Virginia Senate Republicans did, firing off an angry letter to West Virginia University because some football players wore “Black Lives Matter” stickers on their helmets?
Are we leading by example while doing what we can to help our neighbors, or are we, as one Marshall University professor allegedly did, wishing all Trump supporters who aren’t taking the virus seriously would get COVID-19 and die before the November election?
Are our elected officials fighting for their constituents or turning this event into a political squabble, putting more people in danger and even spreading the virus among themselves at ultimately meaningless fundraisers?
What am I doing with the time given to me? I’d like to think I’m doing the right things and setting a good example, but I know I’m not always. In fact, this column was originally going to be about my outrage regarding Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s hypocrisy on display this week when she said a U.S. Supreme Court justice should be appointed with a presidential election barely more than a month away — a stark contrast to her stance four years ago. Yes, it upsets me. Yes, it could wind up being important. But what do I have to say that would make a difference? What is political hypocrisy over judges in the face of more than 200,000 dead Americans and counting, with cases rising in more than 30 states?
What can we do with the time given us? We can demand our local, state and federal governments be transparent with us regarding what we face. We can follow public health guidelines and make choices that, although seemingly small, could save lives. We can vote. Wherever we are on the political spectrum, we can cast our ballots for those we believe represent our values and will act with our interests in mind while in office. We can exercise our right to control what we can control. We can start small and, ultimately and hopefully, make the world a better place.
I wish none of this had ever happened. I wish COVID-19 would just go away. But that is not my choice to make. It is not our choice to make. Instead, we must decide what we can do here and now. Choose wisely.