Why I Need to Look Down

As I was driving to go see Les Miserables for a second time today, I stopped at a stoplight and there was a man panhandling on the corner. I had to force myself to look at him rather than avoid eye contact. When I didn’t make it through the first light and had to stop again, I rolled down my window, waved him over, and gave him some cash I had left over from my trip to Austin over the break. I told him “Happy New Year” and rolled up my window and found myself with tears in my eye, without really knowing why.

As I sat in the dark theater, watching the poor of Paris begging the rich to look down and see them, I began to get a better understanding of why that small moment upset me so much. I wish I could say it was the man’s poverty that moved me to tears, but that would not be the truth.

No, it was the callousness of my own heart. It was the fact that my first response to seeing him was to think of all the reasons why I shouldn’t give him any money. It was the fact that I initially didn’t even want to look at him, to acknowledge him as a human being, made in the image of God and full of dignity.

Just last night I started rereading Les Miserables. I had wanted to for a while, but it’s long and there are so many other books in the world, but after seeing the movie and listening to the music pretty much nonstop since Saturday, I couldn’t help myself. As I read the first 70 pages, which are dedicated entirely to the Bishop of Digne, I marveled at the way he was described.

Hugo spends those first 70 pages describing a man who trusts God to an extent that others call foolish, who gives generously even when it costs him comfort, who refuses to speak without backing up his words with actions, who treats each person he meets with kindness and courtesy and grace, no matter who they are. I found myself hoping that people would one day describe me that way as well.

And so my heart broke as I sat in my comfortable car, looking at the man on the corner with such little courtesy and grace. There was a time in my life when I would have invited him into my car and taken him to get something to eat, no matter how reckless or stupid other people thought it was. And now I find myself in a place where I have to force myself to make eye contact? How did I end up here?

And so as I sat in the theater in the dark and watched the story of “les miserables,” of the wretched and poor and lowly, I could not help but wonder what this story would look like if it took place in America in 2013. Part of the richness of Les Miserables is its historical setting, so it hasn’t been updated and changed and adapted in the same way something like Romeo and Juliet has.

But there are still people in our culture who beg us to look down and see their plight. Can’t you picture Fantine as a teenage single mother? Can’t you picture Gavroche as a young boy doing whatever he can to prove himself to a gang? Can’t you picture Jean Valjean as an illegal immigrant trying to make a better life for himself and those around him? Who is it in our lives that is asking, pleading with us to look down?

And more importantly, how do I respond? Am I Javert, placing justice and what is “fair” and the letter of the law above everything else? Or am I the Bishop, who sees the soul behind the crime, who sees the pain and the suffering behind the violence?

I know who I want to be, and so I am glad to begin this coming year by rereading a work that speaks of the redemptive power of love and grace, even if it ends up taking me the whole year to get through it.

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  1. gabe

     /  January 1, 2013

    Great post. I hope to read more between now and summer break!

  2. This is beautiful! I haven’t finished reading Les Mis, seen the play or seen the film, but it just moved further up my list.

  3. mandcsmom

     /  January 2, 2013

    Wonderfully written.

  4. Welcome back! I’ve missed your blog!


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  • A collection of ramblings and musings on Jesus, life, education, family, and anything else that pops into my head.

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