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Being Jean Valjean in Today’s World
Les Miserables punched me in the gut. It showed the depths of desperation and the most crass and compassionate responses of the human heart. It had the good, messy, lovely and hopeless parts of people wrapped into one cohesive and fragmented whole, and I saw myself and my life reflected there — without any pretty filter. It wasn’t something easy to forget.
When I saw Les Miserables, I had recently had an encounter with a homeless man that showed me who I really was, and how far I was from who I hoped to be. I had finished a day of shadowing at a hospital, and was waiting to be picked up. A gentleman approached me in the lobby, and began to ask questions. He wasn’t entirely coherent, but seemed kind. He asked for money. I had $23 with me. I gave him $3.
Now, I am one of those self-proclaimed social justice people — I talk a lot about those in need and forgiveness and love — but when it came down to the moment, I found myself doing what I had hoped never to do. I was selfish and I judged. Twenty dollars seemed like a lot to give. I considered whether he might use the money for drugs. Me. The person who always criticizes those who assume. He looked at me and smiled a bit, saying that wouldn’t be enough for a great meal. He then asked my name, and I told him the first one that came to mind, Sally. He smiled more and said it was his mother’s name. He then gave me a piece of Hershey’s chocolate candy. I told him that I had to make a phone call, said goodbye, and left.
I don’t regret most of my actions in the situation. I was a woman alone, so my desire to not linger with a man I didn’t know was understandable. But my mistake was my selfish judgment. I assumed. I prioritized myself over someone who I knew needed the money more. I put the $20 in the offering plate the next week, because I knew that I couldn’t keep it. But I also knew that it had really been meant instead for this man that I’d never see again. I kept the chocolate in my purse until it melted to remind me of him, to remind me not to assume or be selfish.
Struggle to forgive
I cried hard after seeing Les Miserables. I cried because I was so unlike Jean Valjean, the Christ figure in the story.
Jean Valjean becomes Christ-like after his own figurative dying to his old life and rising to God’s love. He has a scene of struggle, which mirrors what my internal struggle so often looks like. He sits in a church, realizing what he has become and the bitterness which has filled his heart. He knows inside that this isn’t what he was meant for. He goes back and forth between anger and openness to God, until that crucial moment. Something changes in his heart.
He decides to forgive himself.
Doing the same thing, forgiving myself, is hard, even though my wise dad has reassured me that being good is a process; that it takes your whole life. He has explained to me that making the choice to forgive myself will determine this: if I decide to stay focused on my mistakes, I’ll never be able to look outside myself and care for others. I will stagnate, trapped in regret.
One of the saints said that we should rejoice in our difficulties and even mistakes because doing so gives God an opportunity to show more of his grace. Which initially sounds like one of those saint-type things where they just brush off difficulties and move along their saintly way. Sort of like a fancy “fake it till you make it.” That’s actually a pretty wise saying, though. To me it means that even if something doesn’t come naturally, I still have a choice.
However, I can be discouraged by seeing others who seem so naturally good, being just what they want to be without much apparent effort. It’s ironic that someone like me, who doesn’t naturally feel this way, would fixate so much on goodness.
Or is it? I’m only human, and because of this I have the human trait of deep desire for the Divine. I’m not unique — everyone wants goodness. Things that are good and beautiful are merely our bridge to reach out to God. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they shall have their fill” is my favorite beatitude because it gives me hope that maybe this desire for goodness is a step in the right direction.
In one of the gospels, someone says to Jesus, “Good Teacher.” Jesus says back, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Of course Jesus is good, but we long for something more than the goodness of this earth, which is generally more about appearances than substance. In my pride I want to do it all myself, yet alone we can never hope to reach our ideal. But that’s not bad, because God makes up for what we don’t have. Rather than concentrating on perfecting my self-image and public image, I should concentrate on letting God love radically through me. The rest will follow.
Later on in Les Miserables, Javert marvels at Valjean’s actions. He can’t fathom how a criminal could be so good. Valjean’s response is startlingly simple: “I am a man no worse than any other.” Valjean doesn’t hate himself or have delusions of grandeur. He simply is what he is before God, nothing more, nothing less. He loves the best that he can. Wiser people than me have called this what it is: humility.
So I’m on a journey toward this. I’ll probably never see the homeless man I met again, and he still haunts me a bit when I think about him. While knowing what I could have done hurts, he was never in my hands to begin with. God cares for him. God is in control and he brought us briefly together for a reason that day. I’m still learning how to live the lesson, and I’ve seen a bit of purity and darkness in my soul. God used the experience to teach me about who I am and who God wants to make me. The best thing I can do for this man, or anyone else, is just allow God to do His work and trust that God loves us all.