This is probably one of the better-known quotations from Tolkien thanks to Peter Jackson’s use of it. But it was one of our favorites long before that.
‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’
Simple yet powerful. We are not given a choice as to when we shall live; God creates us at the right moment for each of us. We are not promised lives free of troubles and cares either. Some times are worse than others, certainly, and I would suspect with Gandalf that no one would be very likely to choose the really bad times for themselves when those times come along: who would really want to have been a Christian in Stalin’s Russia?
But we are not given that choice. What we have to decide is how we are going to live in the time that God places us?
Tolkien’s answer given above is really a summary of what the full answer is. What are we to do with the time we are given? We are to do our duties. That implies that we have responsibilities that extend beyond our own navels. We have duties to others that we are obliged to fulfill. We are and must be concerned about more than just ourselves. We must be concerned about the common good, and about the future. Frodo’s Quest was, frankly, ridiculously impossible. How was he ever supposed to get to Mordor, get in to the place, and then toss the Ring into a volcano? All this while he is being actively pursued by his enemies. It was a hopeless cause.
But what did Gandalf say to that?
‘Despair, or folly?’ said Gandalf. ‘It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope.’
When all other courses were weighed, there was only one choice. The right thing to do was the craziest, hardest thing to do.
That is one part of what we need to decide about the time we are given: what is our duty, and will we do it? But I think that there is a secondary decision that Tolkien emphasizes that we must not overlook. It falls, in a certain sense, under duty: loyalty. Observe Sam, Pippin’s, and Merry’s loyalty to Frodo: scared out of their wits, they stick with him as best they can. Observe Aragorn’s decision to rescue Merry and Pippin: this takes him completely off the course he might have expected (going to Gondor to fight and to claim his throne). But instead he remains loyal to his friends: he wouldn’t give the two hobbits up to torment and death.
Loyalty. Duty. In a certain way they are almost the same thing. That is what we must do with the time we are given (among other things; but these are two of the most important).