Five Lessons Learned from Les Miserables

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

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Grace can change the course of a life. Just ask Jean Valjean. The Bread Stealer, who being shown grace through the receiving of two candlesticks, decides that the only way to live is to love others.

When an online friend mentioned that Les Miserables by Victor Hugo was a story of grace vs. law I knew that I needed to read the book. My adult life has been a struggle to know when to give grace and when to hold a boundary. How to give grace in the face of injustice? How to love others when they hunt you down? How to free your enemy letting them go in forgiveness? These are all concepts I struggle with.

So here's a quick look at some lessons I learned along the way as I traveled through the pages of Les Miz...

Stealing bread and giving candlesticks can change a life. The course of our lives can change in an instant. Jean Valjean knew this all too well. By stealing a loaf of bread he landed himself in prison for nineteen years. One bad decision. One sin. One desperate act can forever change who we are. Likewise, when the Bishop of Digne gave Valjean the candlesticks plus all that he had stolen from the worthy priest, the convict turned into a compassionate man for the rest of his life. In a moment in time all life can change. Sin and grace alter our course.

It's best to own up to who you really are. Jean Valjean carried many names--Monsieur Madeleine, Ultime Fauchelevent, Urbain Fabre, and of course, his prison numbers: 24601 and 9430. Yet, in the end, the one name that allowed him to be reunited with Cosette and Marius was the name he had tried to hide for most of his life: Jean Valjean. Sometimes it is best to own up to who we are instead of hiding our past. Owning our identity and what we have done brings us back into relationship with those that we love. This is why apologizing and being truthful while scary to do can actually heal a broken relationship.

There can be evil in "good". Javert was the opposite to Jean Valjean. After receiving the candlesticks, Valjean lead a life of grace. Javert, however, was all about the law. Hugo writes, 

“Without knowing it, Javert in his awful happiness was deserving of pity, like every ignorant man who triumphs. Nothing could have been more poignant or more heartrending than that countenance on which was inscribed all the evil in what is good.”

Legalism, a idea that all has to be perfect and anything short of perfection must be punished, is the "evil in good". There is a dark side to expecting perfection in ourselves and others. It lacks grace. Yes, there is a time for reprimands and consequences, but a standard set too high becomes a critical spirit.

You can survive a sewer if you just press forward. I can't imagine walking with a man on my back and sinking in the mire of a sewer like Valjean did. Yet, life is life a sewer sometimes. We sink into grief, depression, heartache and think we will never find the exit. We carry heavy burdens around that impede our progress. To give up is to die. The only option is to keep going. We must trudge through the ick to reach freedom and to grow.

People can change, and some never do. The change that comes over Valjean is unbelievable...from hardened criminal to hero. It is possible to change. We just have to have the resolve to do it. And yet, there are other characters that never change just like there are people in real life who are set in their ways. Javert never learns the power of grace. Thénardier continues to manipulate until the end looking for ways to enhance his dishonest gain. There are people like that in life. While we should always hope for change we need to realize it may never come and be on our guard.

Here are a few resources and fun items around the web related to Les Miz...

Les Miserables-The unabridged paperback
The Wisdom Of Les Miserables: Lessons From The Heart Of Jean Valjean
To Love Another Person: A Spiritual Journey Through Les Miserables
52 Little Lessons from Les Miserables
Photos of some of the actual places mentioned in the novel
Les Misérables (DVD) with Hugh Jackman
Les Miserables with Liam Neeson
24601 More Than a Number Art Print
This bracelet (while on the expensive side) is incredibly cool! A timeline of the book.
Les Miserables candle holder
Jean Valjean crisis identity shirt

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