Tuesday, October 6, 2015

"Getting" What We've Done or Lessons from Jane Austen Part I

My favorite book and movie of all time is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.  It is a good soothing movie for me, a break from the realities of the real world, and funny to boot.  So after a really long, full week, if I really need a break from everything, the A&E 5 hour version of Pride and Prejudice gets put into the DVD player for an afternoon of pure laziness and recuperation. A wonderful way to relax. Still, there is one part of it that always irritates me.  Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 when puritan values still presided. Lydia, the youngest of the Bennett sisters in the story, ran off with the horrible, though handsome and charming Mr. Wickam.  She believed he wanted to marry her, which he didn't.  And so, in order to avoid throwing her entire family into disgrace (which is why giving you the period of time in which this was written is important), this horrible man with whom she had been living is "bought". In other words, he was paid substantial money to marry her because what she had done, living with a man to whom she is not married, would have left her a disgraced woman, banished from all good society as well as casting disrepute on her entire family, making marriage for her sisters all but impossible, leaving the entire family in a state of ridicule and shame. I'm not interested in arguing the various pros and cons of the morals of that time; in the story world, this makes sense for the time in which it was written.

But what drives me crazy is that Lydia NEVER GETS IT.  She has no comprehension for the scandal she put her family through.  She comes home married to this terrible man, and rather than expressing gratitude, apology or humility in the face of her actions, she is simply proud, boastful and even self-righteously snobby towards her now "lesser" unmarried sisters. She has no idea, none at all, of the stress and humiliation, of the shame and fear which she put her family through. She does not know how close she came to ending up a street woman, with no husband, ever, for the rest of her life (and again, in those days, that would have been doom for her).  She can't comprehend how close she came to ruining the dreams and hopes of all her family. She is not grateful for their sacrifices and has no comprehension of what they are. It bugs me no end that she does not begin to understand how she has hurt others, that she never apologizes because she has no sense of what she has done, that instead of a healthy dose of self-reflection and humility, she is proud and feels superior to her sisters. They allow her this ridiculous attitude, never bothering to point out to her her faults, never challenging the horrible behavior because they know she would never get it anyway.  There are never any consequence for the damage she did. And I have to admit, for all my talk about forgiveness, letting go, not needing revenge or seeking vengeance, this bothers me.   Her story book sisters forgive her, but I struggle to do the same.  Everyone goes on to live wonderful happy lives, but I remain irritated that she never gets it. I want justice, in the sense that I at least want her to feel some remorse, some humility around what she has done. And the fact that she is incapable of those feelings threatens my sense of what is just.

One of the gifts of Jane Austen is that she captures human behaviors, attitudes, and feelings well. There are people just like Lydia who never can "get" it.  I don't ever want to be one of those people, though I'm certain I, too, have blind spots at times. We all do.  It is easier for most of us to recognize those faults in others. I encounter, as we all do, those who tend to be the most privileged folk, those whose lives are comfortable and who cannot see or appreciate the sacrifices others have made so that they might have the comfortable lives they claim. There appears to be very little justice where they are concerned. They get where they are by stepping on the backs of others without realizing the hurt, harm and damage they cause. They won't, or can't, look at how they've injured others. That's just part of the life we live here. Life isn't fair.

But eventually we have to let go of our need for other people to be brought to justice or we will be consumed by our own anger, frustration, need for vengeance and living in the past. We have to choose instead to strive for peace and good and justice in all we do, this day and every day, regardless of the past. We have to let go of our judgments and condemnations of others, and begin to be more self-reflective on what we have done that we might not want to look at, how we can change so that we hurt others less, and what we can do differently that will make life better for everyone we encounter. And, like Lydia's family, we can keep working towards the highest good for the other, even when they refuse to get it, even when their actions cause us to suffer, even when they are unaware of it. We can choose to act with love, peace and integrity since we are called to do nothing less.  And, as hard as it is, we can strive to leave the justice of it up to God.  After all, as Romans 12:19 says it, "Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge."  I don't tend to see or believe that God is wrathful.  Rather, I think God really understands us at our deepest level and has compassion, even for the dumb mistakes we make.  But at the point where the injustices of life simply feel too much, perhaps we can let go of them for a time, remembering it isn't ours to "fix" anyway.  Not easy.  But necessary for our own peace of mind, for our own growth.  When we are focused on others, there is no room to look at ourselves.  The opposite is also true.  When we focus on growing ourselves, we usually have a whole lot less time or space inside to judge others.  We are called through our faith, not to judge or try to "fix" others while helping ourselves, but instead to work to fix ourselves while helping others. It's a whole lot harder.  But it will also lead us more fully into wholeness, a wholeness that I believe to be contagious for those with open hearts and open eyes.