children • education • parents
relationships • marriage • the elderly


Our Battle with the Monster

August 10, 2017 by

painting of Grendel and Beowulf
Beowulf Wrestles with Grendel, Lynd Ward, 1933

My lecture went something like this: “‘Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner,’ says Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who also did his share of hiking: ‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step…’”

“Spare me.”

We had received from the communal clothing commissary what I determined to be appropriate footwear for a mountain hike and my middle school kid was chiding me over the brand. I failed to request the ones viewed currently as “popular.”

“Listen to yourself,” I said. “This is about performance. These have high ratings. You’ll be thanking me when you outrun that hungry bear. You’ll be safely ahead of your friends as the bear says to himself, “Oooh – those look ‘popular,’ just like big Gummy Bears. I like candy…”

I was the same at that age and still have my partialities, but as a parent I see the negative potential when my kids think they need to base all their decisions on the opinions of others.

So I explained to my son: you’re actually not “stuff”; your value as a human can’t be reduced to a t-shirt, an emblem on your footwear, the initials on your waistband. Living only for popularity is wretched and can end dreadfully. The first murder committed was the result of jealousy (Gen. 4:8).

We talked about how it’s what we do each day that makes us who we truthfully are. Substance over style.

Reading out loud with your kids is a great way to connect, especially outdoors on a summer evening.

I find it outrageous how children get the message that you’ve flunked at life unless you’ve met manufactured criteria. God made each person with special intention, and the results of creating such misplaced expectations are horrifying.

Last month I read the headline, “America sees alarming spike in middle school suicide rate”: “The suicide rate among ten- to fourteen-year-olds doubled between 2007 and 2014,” according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “In 2014 alone, 425 middle schoolers nationwide took their own lives.”

Another article states, “Experts say the factors leading to this alarming increase include academic pressure, economic uncertainty, fear of terrorism, and social media.…The most concerning factor to many researchers is social media, which has become a playground for cyber bullying among a susceptible age group.”

This monster that’s leaving kids so trapped and hopeless – the drive to be popular – needs to concern us a lot more. We adults need to spend less time on ourselves and care more about solving this atrocity.

One way I can provide more stability for my kids and reinforce their self-worth is to give them as much of my time and attention as I can when we’re together.

Reading out loud with them is a great way to connect, especially outdoors on a summer evening. Looking for a story that might illustrate some of my feelings on this topic had me reaching out for the Old English poem Beowulf.

These warnings from Beowulf are still relevant. The pursuit of things eternal gives life purpose.

Dating back to the sixth century, the account takes place mostly in what’s now Denmark. It’s an adventure tale of a young warrior named Beowulf, with the strength of thirty men, who comes with a shipload of warriors to rescue King Hrothgar and his people from the nightly attacks of a bloodthirsty monster.

King Hrothgar has built a great mead hall named Heorot, a central symbol of law and culture. Heorot is described, in Tolkien’s translation, as “the foremost of halls under heaven”; it’s bright and filled with song; it’s a place of community and celebration.

The jealously that enabled Cain to slay his brother loathes the echoing laughter. The songs and boasts of valor are chaotically strangled silent by the hand of Grendel who comes out of the swamps and turns this place of peace and fellowship into bloody phantasmagoria.

Grendel was the name of this grim demon
Haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
And the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
In misery among the banished monsters,
Cain’s clan, whom the creator had outlawed
And condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
The Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
Because the Almighty made him anathema
And out of the curse of his exile there sprang
Ogres and elves and evil phantoms
And the giants too who strove with God
Time and again until He gave them their final reward.

Single-handedly, Beowulf overpowers angry Grendel, who flees the hall minus one arm. Beowulf slings this bloody trophy over the gable of the roof.

But it’s not over. As Grendel bleeds to death, his far eviler mother comes from her lair, bringing her wrathful carnage. Beowulf eventually overpowers her, and after his triumph come the lines I think give this tale a moral.

King Hrothgar gives Beowulf a sermon. He tells the hero that all his wealth and strength will one day fade, and he warns against arrogance and ignoring God:

O Flower of warriors; beware of that trap.
Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,
Eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride.
For while a brief while your strength is in bloom
But it fades quickly; and soon there will follow
Illness or the sword to lay you low,
Or a sudden fire or surge of water
Or jabbing blade or javelin from the air
Or repellant age. Your piercing eye
Will dim and darken; and death will arrive,
Dear warrior, to sweep you away.

Centuries later, these warnings are still relevant. The pursuit of things eternal gives life purpose. Sacrificing ourselves to a cause greater than the accolades of this world gives life meaning.

Jesus said this:

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. (Matt. 16:24–27)

While there’s no quick fix to this monster menacing society, if I combat it myself and live as Jesus dictates, it may help my kids in their own battle with the monster and help them find peace in the halls of sanctuary.

All Beowulf quotes, except where noted, are from the Seamus Heaney translation.

Watch Beowulf performed in the original Old English.


About the author

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Jason Landsel

Jason lives in upstate New York at the Woodcrest Bruderhof.

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