Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Gift of Candlesticks

We watched Les Miserables today, and oh, I cried, probably more than I did when I saw the musical on Broadway in 1988.  We emerged from the theatre red-eyed and wrecked.  This, I thought, is what the Greeks had in mind with catharsis.  It felt kind of good to sob for something not immediate and real right now, but images of oppression and reminders of the oft-futile nature of war made my mind wander to Syria and gang rape in India.  I've been thinking of the story all afternoon, rife with examples of what it is to be human.

I carried a glimmer of the hope promised in the film's poster out with me, too.  When Jean Valjean is offered food and refuge in a parish shortly after his release from two decades of imprisonment, he betrays his host by stealing silver from the church before he flees.  Police capture him and turn him over to the Bishop, who claims that the silver is not stolen, and that Valjean had, in fact, forgotten the candlesticks and adds them to his sack.  After the authorities leave, the Bishop admonishes Valjean to use his bounty to make an honest man of himself.  

The unexpected generosity and grace of the Bishop is passed on by Valjean, who refuses several opportunities to kill his dogged pursuer, the Inspector Javert.  Javert, though, is immune to paying it forward, never himself showing mercy for Valjean, and barely redeems himself by the end of the work.

I recognized Valjean's gift from the Bishop as one we have the choice to give, too.  It requires a complete selflessness and utter lack of desire for vengeance.  The Bishop, after all, could have manifested a defensible righteous indignation; smugness at his guest's predicted behavior; at the very least, grave disappointment.  Instead he offers kindness and opportunity, without any way of knowing or need to confirm that the silver will be well spent by Valjean (versus, say, on drugs).  The bishop's gift requires true gift-giving spirit:  that which demands nothing in return, that which looks past any notion that gifts are earned or deserved.

I am thinking of the ways we can pass the candle in our daily lives:

Cheerfully refusing to engage with road rage.

Declining opportunities to be locked in battles of wills:  giving in because it's the right thing to do, even if it means letting someone feel like she's "won." Everybody wins when we let go.

Biting a lip instead of biting back.

Resisting envy and the judgments which accompany it about who has or gets what, and whether they need or deserve it. 

Offering generosity in the form of compliments, attention, and favors to those who most challenge the giving parts of ourselves.

Acknowledging the wisdom and value in views and beliefs that aren't our own.

Doling out random acts of kindness. 

Practicing forgiveness.  Letting go of grievances and grudges.  Accepting someone else's burden. 

Here's to more candlesticks circulating in 2013.

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