Put Down the Palantir

I recently finished reading The Return of the King again. When I have a newborn, I need books that are familiar, comforting, and uplifting to keep the despair at bay, and The Lord of the Rings always delivers (along with another favorite series, The Stormlight Archive).

One thing that struck me in this readthrough was Denethor’s descent into the despair and madness that eventually led to his fiery demise. Contrary to what Peter Jackson would have you believe, Denethor isn’t just a creepy old man who sits around eating chicken and tomatoes while Middle-earth burns.

As Mordor prepares to assault Minas Tirith, Denethor is making his own preparations, gathering his allies and sending the women and children to safety. He may be overly proud, but he’s a true enemy to Sauron, sleeping in his armor to keep himself sharp enough to deal with the looming threat to the free world.

Instead of stubbornly ignoring the outside world, Denethor eerily
seems to know too much. His men describe him as “unlike other men: he
sees far. Some say that as he sits alone in his high chamber in the
Tower at night, and bends his thought this way and that, he can read
somewhat of the future; and that he will at times search even the mind of the Enemy, wrestling with him.” And when Gandalf comes to rescue Faramir, Denethor reveals the truth: he has a palantir. And it’s that nifty, shiny, oversized marble that drives him to despair.

Gandalf laments, “[Denethor] was too great to be subdued to the will of the Dark Power, he saw nonetheless only those things which the 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…Thus the will of Sauron entered into Minas Tirith.” Pippin confirms that Denethor left Faramir’s sickbed, and when he returned, he was “changed, old and broken.” Captain Beregond reports seeing a “strange light” in the Tower the night Faramir was brought home.

Does any of this sound familiar?

We have ubiquitous objects that show us only what others want us to see, often driving us to despair and depression. Our phones and computers deliver us valuable information about the world and the ones we love, but filtered through sensationalist news stories and whitewashed social media posts. These objects can bring evil into homes and spaces that are otherwise well-protected.

Tolkien may have written these books decades before this kind of technology was invented, but he was a smart dude. He even got the “strange light” right—the blue light on our phone screens that wreaks havoc on our circadian rhythms.

I imagine Denethor rushing up to the Tower, looking up his son’s symptoms on PalantirMD, scrolling through some sensationalized headlines, concluding that everything is truly hopeless, and deciding he might as well end it all before Sauron destroys everything. It’s a heartbreaking situation, not least because it could conceivably happen to us.

I’ll admit I’ve acquired a bit of a problem with my own palantir use in the past few years. How many sleepless nights have I spent with my phone, bending my thought this way and that, checking in on people I admire and friends who have lost their way, obsessively checking the NYT Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker, glancing over an endless stream of articles about how terrible the world is and how much worse it’s getting every day, trying to calm myself but feeling more and more anxious? It’s unhealthy and depressing—not to mention a colossal waste of time.

Modern prophets have counseled us against excessive use of technology. And a few years ago, President Russell M. Nelson invited the youth and women of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to fast from social media, “and any other media that bring negative and impure thoughts to your mind.” He promised that by doing so, we could help gather scattered Israel. Aside from being a refreshing spiritual experience for many, this invitation sent a clear message: not only will wasting less time on the internet make us feel better, but it frees us up to actually serve people and accomplish some good in the world. Elder David A. Bednar offers two questions to help guide our use of technology:

  1. Does the use of various technologies and media invite or impede the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost in your life?
  2. Does the time you spend using various technologies and media enlarge or restrict your capcity to live, to love, and to serve in meaningful ways?

I plan to use these questions to think about how I’m using technology, and make an effort to “put down the palantir” and do something productive. I invite you to do the same.