Wednesday, June 22, 2011

About Redemption...and Forgiveness...and Life...

Last week, before we left for the beach, we had the chance to attend Les Miserables at Gammage in Tempe.  I have seen the show several times, and it remains one of my favorite musicals of all time.  I have tried getting through the book a few times, but never quite made it through more than a few chapters.  The story, though, fascinates me.  I was thinking quite a lot this week about Les Miserables, and redemption, and forgiveness, two things that have been weighing on my mind of late.  Tonight I found myself fascinated as I looked a little deeper into the story, and my own thoughts.  I think that most people when they see the play tend to focus on Jean Valjean, and his flawed, yet heroic character.  Jean Valjean is indeed a character that we can all identify with.  He is a man who has made mistakes, many of them.  But when he is caught stealing some silver from a kind bishop who brought him in off the street and fed and clothed him, instead of the bishop condemning him, and sending him back to jail, the man does something miraculous.  He gives him a set of candlesticks, and says this:

"Do not forget, ever, that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man.' Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of any such promise, stood dumbfounded. The bishop had stressed these words as he spoke them. He continued solemnly, 'Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!"
This one single act of kindness changes Jean Valjean's life profoundly, and also proves to change countless other lives as he tries to live up to the chance that the bishop gave him, and redeem himself in the eyes of God, and his fellow men.  He begins to find ways to serve others, to show compassion to those who showed only hatred to him, to make up for his sins and his faults.  In short, Jean Valjean is looking for redemption--aren't we all? Each of us has a need to feel like we are good, we are worthy to love and to be loved. Of course there are always those who fall short, those who choose a path of evil, but isn't our challenge to love them anyway, as this bishop did?  Isn't our challenge to try to look past people's sins, be forgiving, and give them the benefit of the doubt.  Sometimes this is the hardest thing for me, but what we need to remember, is we really can't judge another without knowing their circumstances, for truly each person is unique.  Victor Hugo put it this way: 

"Undoubtedly they seemed very depraved, very corrupt, very vile, very hateful even, but people rarely fall without becoming degraded. Besides, there is a point when the unfortunate and the infamous are associated and confused in a word, a mortal word, les misérables; whose fault is it? And then, when the fall is furthest, is that not when charity should be greatest? There are souls that, crablike, crawl continually toward darkness, going backward in life rather than advancing, using their experience to increase their deformity, growing continually worse, and becoming steeped more and more thoroughly in the intensifying viciousness."

Contrast this story, the story of redemption, with the story about Javert.  His character in both the play and the movie is villified in a way, he is thought of as harsh, unforgiving, and cruel.  As I have read more from the book though, I think that in a way, I started to see Javert in a different light.  I can identify with his character in the way that I sometimes see life, and people.  I tend to look at things as black or white, right or wrong, good or evil.  I always have.  I am not a person who sees anything in gray, it's just not in my nature.  Javert was exactly this way.  At a young age, Javert decided that he wanted to be a defender of the law.  He decided that he wanted to fight for fairness, and justice.  In the book he says, "I've tried to live my life without breaking a single rule..."  Impossible?  Yes.  But to Javert, if he was going to expect that others lived by the rules, he was determined that he was going to be a perfect example of them.  Javert eventually fell vicitim to his own expectations of himself. Speaking of Javert, Hugo says:

"Every good quality runs into a defect; economy borders on avarice, the generous are not far from the prodigal, the brave man is close to the bully; he who is very pious is slightly sanctimonious. Every blade has two edges; he who wounds with one wounds himself with the other."

Sometimes, even when we are trying to do good, to be good, we risk being so hard on ourselves, and others, that it becomes nearly impossible to live by the ideal that we have set for ourselves.  We find it frustrating to even make the smallest of mistakes, and we will not allow others to make them either.  We become self righteous, judgemental, and unyielding.  Javert had spent so long trying to be perfect, trying to administer the perfect justice, that he had forgotten that part of justice, maybe the most important part--is mercy.  That's the part we are all most grateful for when we NEED it, but many of us are not so quick to administer it to others.  Can any one of us expect redemption in our own lives if we are not willing to extend mercy, and forgiveness to others?  In the book it says this about Javert:

"He walked with his head down for the first time in his life, and for the first time in his life as well, with his hands behind his back. Until that day, of Napoleon's two attitudes, Javert had assumed one, the one that expresses resolution, arms folded across breast; the one that expresses uncertainty, hands behind back, was unknown to him...Before him he saw two roads, both equally straight; but he did see two; and that terrified him--he who had never in his life known anything but one straight line. And, bitter anguish, these two roads were contradictory.  Javert's ideal was not to be humane, not to be great, not to be sublime; it was to be irreproachable. [blameless, impeccable, unflawed--in a sense, perfect] Now he had just failed... He believed in the straight line; a respectable optical illusion, but one that ruins many men."
I love that--"He who had never in his life known anything but one straight line".  How many of us are like that?  I know I am sometimes.  So sure of my way, my path, critical of others.  Very unyielding, very unforgiving, very stubborn. In the end, Javert begins to realize what Jean Valjean has become, and he can't believe it.  It says:
"A benevolent malefactor, merciful, gentle, helpful, clement, a convict, returning good for evil, giving back pardon for hatred, preferring pity to vengeance, preferring to ruin himself rather than to ruin his enemy, saving him who had smitten him, kneeling on the heights of virtue, more nearly akin to an angel than to a man. Javert was constrained to admit to himself that this monster existed.
Things could not go on in this manner. "

For Javert, this was something he could not allow himself to accept--that a flawed man, a criminal, could change.  That a man like Valjean, someone who Javert looked at with contempt, could be the man that he had become, maybe even a better man than Javert was. For the first time in his life, Javert was faced with a situation where he could not act lawfully without acting immorally, and vice versa. He could not bring himself to punish Valjean, since he had spared his life, yet he could not justify to himself letting a criminal go free and not doing his duty to uphold the law. He faced an immense inner conflict, as his black-and-white view of the world of Good and Evil was, in a sense, lost in gray.  Unable to find a solution to this dilemma and horrified at the sudden realization that Valjean was simultaneously a criminal and a good person—a conundrum which made mockery of Javert's entire system of moral values—Javert decides to remove the problem by removing himself from the problem. Tragic, isn't it?  That Javert's heart was so hardened, so calloused, that he could not allow himself to change his perspective, and see what was there all along, that not only did Jean Valjean deserve mercy, and to be forgiven, but Javert deserved it too.  

Certainly, a little forgiveness, a little compassion, a little mercy, goes a long way in life.  Sometimes, it's okay to give people the benefit of the doubt, even if in the end, it doesn't turn out like we think it will.  Even if people take advantage of you, or hurt you.  I believe that a merciful God will give us credit for trying to do good, to be good.  My dad has always told me that 'the effort we put into helping is much more important than the outcome'.  I believe that.  We all have our sins, we all have our failings, the least we can do is to be patient with others in theirs--in the hope that someday, someone will extend to us that same courtesy. I know it is my hope that in the end of my story, there will be one final act of mercy, one miraculous act of forgiveness, provided to me by the one who is called "Redeemer".  That He will be able to look past my failings, and see the good that I tried to do, even though I constantly fall short of my own expectations, as well as His. What a miracle--that even though I fall short in so many areas of my life, I can still have the hope of a happy ending!  Thank goodness for that perspective! 

Finally, one of my favorite quotes of all time, which happens to be in the book, Les Miserables, (surprise!) which sums up this post perfectly:
"Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake."  Victor Hugo--Les Miserables
And now, that is just what I will do--it is 3 a.m. now, and my rather lengthy monologue may not make any sense in the morning.  Oh well...if you've spent the time to read this post...I know you won't judge me!  :)


linnylou said...

thank you for your words. it was just want i needed to hear.:)

Ed said...

Beautiful Tami.

Huston Family said...

"Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones" Yep, I need this one on my wall somewhere!

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