Plunder-Guarding and Forever-Living

Dragons, we learn in the first chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:
“guard their plunder as long as they live (which is practically forever, unless they are killed).”
When I first read that, I was in 7th grade. I didn’t see any logical connection between these two attributes -- plunder-guarding and forever-living -- of dragons. Do you?

I now think Tolkien was representing a wonderful insight, whether he was conscious of it or not. Dragons don’t just happen to guard plunder and live forever. They surely guard plunder because they live forever.

An increasingly sharp awareness of my own mortality began to grow on me some years ago, and with it came a sense of relief and liberation. Whew! I don’t have to figure out how to live forever – only right now. If, like a dragon, I would live forever unless killed, I think I’d have to devote all my energies to making sure I wasn’t killed. I’d be “guarding my plunder” with all my might. The gift of mortality – of knowing down in our bones that all things are temporary, including the motley hodge-podge of attributes I call my “self” – is that now we can relax.

Of course, we all know about death, right? But there are different ways to know this. We can know death by keeping it constantly in mind. Or we can know death by acknowledging the fact of it only when necessary and pushing it out of mind as much as possible. We can live in forgetfulness of what we know -- or we can face the fact of death with steadiness.

When we let our transience fall out of mind, then we slip into living in ways based upon the pretense of the possibility of permanence – the permanence of our things, our status, our self. Our lives become governed by the assumption – which we do not articulate to ourselves because its falsity would be self-evident – that these things will be permanent if they are only given sufficient protection. We become like a Tolkein dragon, guarding our plunder.

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