I reprint the following post from January 4, 2010. It is as relevant now as ever.
A palantir, as readers of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings know, is a crystal ball into which one may gaze and see events occurring around the world. Although a seeming marvel, it can warp those who gaze into it. The palantir holds lessons for us on how we to approach our computer screens. Bear with me as I spell out the parallels.
In The Return of the King, Tolkien shows us how Denethor, steward of Gondor, has been twisted by a palantir that he has in his possession. He has been using it to track the growing might of Sauron, the Lord of Mordor, and his knowledge leads him to despair. In a heated argument with the good wizard Gandalf, Denethor informs him that all of his attempts to stand up to Sauron are doomed:
Nay, I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool. For thy hope is but ignorance. Go then and labor in healing! Go forth and fight. Vanity. For a little space you may triumph on the field, for a day. But against the Power that now arises there is no victory. To this City only the first finger of its hand has yet been stretched. All the East is moving. And even now the wind of thy hope cheats thee and wafts up Anduin a fleet with black sails. The West has failed. It is time for all to depart who would not be slaves.
Denethor then sets ablaze a funeral pyre he has constructed for his sick son and throws himself upon it. Gandalf reflects,
In the days of his wisdom Denethor did not presume to use [the palantir], nor to challenge Sauron, knowing the limits of his own strength. But his wisdom failed; and I fear that as the period of his realm grew he looked in the Stone and was deceived: more than once, I guess, since Boromir departed. Though he was too great to be subdued to the will of the Dark Power, he saw nonetheless only those things which that Power permitted him to see. The knowledge which he obtained was, doubtless, often of service to him; yet the vision of the great might of Mordor that was shown to him fed the despair of his heart until it overthrew his mind.
Every morning when I arrive at work, the first thing I do is turn on my computer and access The New York Times and The Washington Post. What I see is a world in turmoil: atrocities abroad, bitter partisan rivalry at home, seemingly intractable problems everywhere. Frequently the newspapers draw me in through my fears—I click on stories that feed on the despair in my heart. If I am not careful, I see only darkness and am in danger of having my mind overthrown.
Interestingly, when he looks into the stone, Denethor does not realize that the fleet of black-sailed ships wafting up the Anduin River is carrying victory, not defeat. Aragon has managed to seize them and is sailing to Gondor’s rescue. The outward signs may point one way, but the reality is different.
I resolve, this year, to say a little prayer each morning before I turn on my computer. The prayer will be for wisdom and strength to handle the news that I encounter, along with its fear-induced adrenaline rush. I resolve to remind myself not to surrender to fatalism but to maintain a balanced perspective. Hate is strong but it is not the only force at work in the world. The black shipped sails that seem to foreshadow our end may in fact be the dawn of a new day.