You’re Not the Only Masterpiece in the House
In the spiritual life, it’s important to remember that everyone is a protagonist.
It’s hard to find a piece of good advice that isn’t bad advice for somebody or, at the least, the wrong advice for a certain person at a certain time. Indeed, perhaps the chief thing separating a good advice-giver from a poor one is that the former knows what to say to whom when, whereas the latter dispenses wisdom indiscriminately to all and sundry. Likewise, the good listener knows when to accept and when to reject advice offered, and knows further that advice which was illuminating in one circumstance may be disastrous when applied in another. This is perhaps especially true of the spiritual life, in which today’s victory is apt to become material for tomorrow’s temptation.
For some time I’ve been fond of two analogies regarding how earthly life works. One compares life to a tapestry: while we live, we see only the backside, a confusion of buckling loops and tied-off threads. It is only in heaven that the design on the other side will be manifest, and each dangling thread’s part in our good and God’s glory revealed.
The other analogy makes a similar point by comparing life to a story. Like fictional protagonists, we don’t usually understand the significance of the little things we do and say and think and suffer; it is only when we finally view life from the Storyteller’s viewpoint that the plot becomes comprehensible, and we understand how its every twist and turn, however harrowing it seemed at the time, led towards the happy end.
These are comforting analogies, with a good deal of truth in them; but like any analogies they have their pitfalls, and may sometimes confuse more than they enlighten. The problem (or potential problem) is that both analogies make it all too easy to assume that one is the central character.
Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong with supposing oneself the hero of one’s own story; to a degree it may even be helpful. George MacDonald in his children’s books The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie suggests that each of us ought to imagine ourselves as the son or daughter of a King. Acknowledging one’s dignity in God’s eyes can be salutary for improving one’s behavior (besides, of course, being true).
But MacDonald’s insight does not mean that we are all special in God’s eyes—that would be a logical impossibility. Rather, it means (to quote one treacly but accurate inspirational speaker) that we are all precious. While each of us is absolutely the hero of our own story, it is crucial to remember that every person we meet is the hero of their own story, and that all our stories impinge one upon the other.
This was brought home to me recently with particular force. In a minor moment of irritation at another person, I took the (for me too unusual) step of actually saying a prayer. As I was frustrated, the prayer was not particularly polite. I think it went something along the lines of Dear God, I don’t want to deal with this. I know that we’re supposed to be sanctified by other people being annoying, but do I really need this person sanctifying me right now?
Rarely are questions asked in prayer answered directly. But every now and then an immediate response will pop up seemingly out of nowhere, like one of those little lightbulbs that spontaneously apparate over cartoon characters’ heads.
Of course you don’t want to deal with this person right now. But why are you assuming they’re here to sanctify you? What if this isn’t your big test but theirs? What if they’re the one who needs to do the growing right now?
The obvious having been grasped, a great deal follows. I realized that, without thinking about it, I had long been assuming that every encounter in which I was involved was somehow my test, an episode central to my personal story. But that is an obvious mistake. It would be like Mrs. Bennet assuming that Mr. Bingley’s failure to dine at Netherfield was a great tragedy in her life, when it is in fact a major plot point for her daughter Jane’s story. To be sure, Mrs. Bennet does take the incident as a personal calamity—because she sees everything as revolving around herself. Heaven preserve us from the fate of being Mrs. Bennet.
Of course, once one realizes that we are naturally inclined to Mrs. Bennetism, and begins to catch the evil inclination at work, the world becomes far more complicated and interesting. Consider the novel Pride and Prejudice as a whole. Elizabeth Bennet is the protagonist; but Mr. Darcy is so popular that there are spinoffs featuring him as the protagonist. Now imagine, if you will, a series of distinct novels—each quite as good as Pride and Prejudice, though not all perhaps so pleasant—featuring not only Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, but each one of the Bennet sisters and their prospective spouses (if any) as the heroines (or heroes). Take it further, and consider, if you will, that Mr. Collins is the hero of his own story. Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mrs. Gardiner. Mr. Bennet. Yes, even the atrocious Mrs. Bennet. Admittedly (as I said above) some of these novels may make for more edifying reading than others. But the protagonist of each one is (or rather, if these were real people, each protagonist would be) a center in his or her own right.
This is very much the case in real life. The shoe clerk who was having a great day. The lady at the Goodwill desk who always is having a bad one. The doctor who mixed your chart up with another patient’s. The baby that cooed at you in church. Their interactions with you are not just part of the warp and woof of your tapestry; they each have a tapestry of their own, in which they are the central figure—splendid, like Hercules, or tragic, like Arachne—either way, they are just as royal, just as “precious”, just as busy with working out their own salvation (hopefully) as you are.
Or—to take another example—consider the solar system. We admire the economical symmetry of a sun surrounded by nine planets surrounded by their moons. A single human life may, considered from the living man’s standpoint, give that same impression of solitary simplicity: he is the sun, and his family and friends and acquaintances are the various planets orbiting at various distances, some with their own little moon-friends and -family about them. But the truth is much more complex. If one man is one sun, his best friend is another, and so is his worst enemy. It is as if, after years of supposing Mars to be the mere satellite of a star, the astronomers were to discover that Mars is actually the star of its own system; and so on for Venus and Neptune and the rest: system within system without end. The mind boggles at the audacity of the designer … and glories, and is humbled, and gladdened all at the same unsearchable vision of unfathomable complexity.