Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost: Shame, Transformance and Tolkien

“Why do I feel so bad?” my client asked. “I feel like I have so much potential and I’m not living up to it. I get stuck in the same patterns, the same bad thoughts.”

Sandy* was a puzzle. Clearly bright and capable, and a hard worker, she seemed very uncomfortable in her own skin. A writer and a healer, she clearly had many gifts to share with the world. When she spoke, I could sense a lot of power. Yet she was underemployed and seemed on the verge of going into panic or breaking into tears much of our time together. She talked earnestly of her struggles with her family, of not getting much approval and of her difficulty feeling like she belonged anywhere. As I sat with her this time, a line from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings kept floating through my mind. I noted it and decided I would look up Tolkien’s poem later and perhaps send it to her. But the line wouldn’t let go of me. After listening to her for a few more minutes, I finally had to interrupt.

“Have you read The Lord of the Rings?”

“I’ve seen the movies. Seemed kind of scary.”

“Well, a line keeps running through my mind: ‘Not all those who wander are lost.’”

She took in a breath and looked at me. “That’s interesting.” There was a change in her face. I felt that we were somehow on the same plane right now. I wanted to give her the rest of the poem, but I couldn’t remember it.

“I can’t remember the rest of the poem. I’ll find it later.”

We went on with the session, but my mind wouldn’t rest. “I think I have to tell you the rest of the poem now. I have a copy of Lord of the Rings upstairs. I’ll go get it.”

I was speaking from a different era. No need to go upstairs. She took out her cell phone and googled “Not all who wander are lost.” Of course, the poem came up immediately. I had her read it aloud:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not touched by the frost.

From the embers a fire shall be woken,
A light from the darkness shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that is broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

As she read, her voice grew stronger and deeper. I felt chills go down my spine. We sat in silence for a long time.

“This is about the warrior in the movie, I think,” she said. “I can’t remember his name.”

The chills were still in my spine. “Aragorn,” I said. “It’s about Aragorn. And it’s also about you.”

We sat in silence again for a while. I felt a deep contentment. While empathically witnessing how lost she felt, while gently receiving and feeling her stuckness and confusion—as well as her power and brilliance—I had allowed something in me to remember that poem. All that had come at first was the one line, because she was so clearly wandering and felt herself lost. And yet I knew she wasn’t. Then the first line, “All that is gold does not glitter.” Tolkien’s play on “All that glitters is not gold.” Both are true. The surface may not show what’s truly underneath. Then the rest of the poem with its deep imagery of renewal and the resurfacing of what had long been buried. Shame serves as a dark cloak, a gooey substance that can cover us, hiding all that is beneath it. Yet underneath, hiding, is the integrity and power somehow kept by being covered by shame, like a seed hidden in the ground until water seeps in through the covering soil and awakens it. The work of healing can provide the water.

“Do you think I’m really like Aragorn?” Sandy asked.

“In many ways,” I answered. “You are on a quest. You have hidden reserves, you are far more than your surface may show, you have a gift to share with the world with your writing and your desire to help people heal. As we talked, I couldn’t stop thinking about that poem and I think that’s because it fits you so well.”

She took another deep breath and smiled for the first time since she had come in.

“I’ll print out a copy,” she said.

“Read it a least once a day,” I counseled. "Maybe put it on your bathroom mirror."

“I guess I should watch the movies again.”

“Probably a good idea.”

Silence again.

“I feel really good right now.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“I feel really different.”

“You look really different.”

In fact, the transformance was startling. A glow permeated her face, like a deep light had come on. I could feel myself glowing as well. I felt so grateful to be together in this special moment. Her pain had called to me and my unconscious had answered with that poem. Now we just sat quietly, contented.

After a while, reality came back and I realized we had probably run way over session time. I looked at the clock.

“It’s probably time to end,” she said.

“Yeah, we’ve run way over—and it was worth it,” I replied.

“Thanks so much.”

“It was really my pleasure. Thanks for inspiring me to remember that poem.”

She left, glowing. We were both glowing.

Many years ago, before I knew much about shame, I gave a guest sermon at an alternative church. I talked about “sharing your gift with the world.” The sermon didn’t go well. I could feel a strange reaction from the people there as I spoke, and the feedback wasn’t positive. After it was over, I asked one of the congregants about the speech. “You don’t understand,” he said. “You made us feel bad. You talked about sharing your gift with the world. You just made people think about not having a gift to share.”

I realized that I had inadvertently shamed people—or rather, brought awareness to their shame. Their gift, which I believed and still believe everyone has, was hidden from them. I now understand that what covers the gift, the beauty, the life-force, the great contribution we all can make to the world—in big ways or small—is shame.

Tolkien’s poem is so amazingly powerful because it describes the power and resilience of that which is deep inside us, hidden very often by shame, and it says that what is good is not lost. It will renew.

My work, and my life’s purpose, has been about finding ways to help people get back to their roots, to their center, to the beauty, power and specialness that they were born with.

Tolkien is such an incredible writer because he catches this basic truth, which lives under all the difficulty and suffering. We are all born to be lights in the darkness. We all have special gifts to share with the world.

*Client name changed to protect privacy.

© 2018 Bret Lyon
Photo by Bret Lyon