Spring break this year was early and brief for Luxemburg-Casco, the district where I teach, but it wasn’t without special moments. On Saturday and Sunday, my daughter Genevieve (Viva) and I were able to go to the park and spend a few hours playing ball. She looked great with her new Rawlings glove, and we were able to break in her favorite Christmas present: the Louisville Slugger Blue Flame Pitching Machine.
Those few hours were a taste of the many we’ll spend together playing ball this summer, but for as much as I both enjoyed the time and took pride in Viva's desire to work on her skills, the best moment with her actually occurred Tuesday, when Winter Storm Quinn dumped enough snow on Northeast Wisconsin to shut down classes in Green Bay, where Viva attends Leonardo da Vinci School, allowing us to have a day together before it was back to work for both of us.
A couple of weeks ago, Viva and I had watched the opening numbers of the 10th Anniversary Concert of Les Miserables on YouTube. Those numbers made enough of an impression on Viva to get in her head and under her skin, and when I came back into the house from clearing snow Tuesday morning, Viva asked if we could watch the 2012 cinematic version of Les Mis.
Les Mis is only my favorite musical of all time, so Viva didn’t have to ask twice. While the cinematic adaptation can’t deliver what the Boublil/Schonberg stage version of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel does, it’s an admirable film that captures the spirit of both the novel and the musical.
Though the film is often dark, Viva is oftentimes 12 going on 25 and very capable of comprehending the themes explored in the narrative. At no point, however, did I realize this better than when the revolutionary students gave Javert to Valjean, presuming Valjean would execute the police inspector who’d infiltrated their ranks.
Russell Crowe’s Javert believes Valjean will kill him when he’s taken away, and he’s prepared to meet his maker as Valjean approaches him with a knife. As Valjean moves toward Javert, Viva said, “He doesn’t realize Valjean won’t kill him.”
When Viva said that, she said it as though her declaration were obvious, and that filled her author/English teacher father with pride, as it showed that she was understanding Valjean’s character and Hugo’s exploration of theme on a deep level. I asked Viva why Valjean wouldn’t kill someone he was, for all intents and purposes, justified in killing, and her answer just about made my heart explode with even greater pride: “Because the priest showed Valjean mercy.”
Not only had she understood Victor Hugo’s development of Valjean’s character in a deep and profound manner, but she had expressed a sentiment that I believe she will always carry with her into the world, a sentiment too many of us lack in an era determined to take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Viva had understood the transformative power of compassion--its capacity to change one’s heart and the possibility of its use as a substitute for revenge, no matter how justifiable that revenge may seem.
Valjean is not a man without flaw. He had stolen bread to feed his sister’s starving son years before giving Javert his life. Paroled nineteen years later (five for stealing the bread, fourteen for having tried to escape imprisonment), Valjean is filled with venom, leading him to steal silverware from a bishop who takes him in and provides food and shelter when the rest of the world only sees Valjean's parole papers. Apprehended by the police, Valjean tells authorities that the bishop had given him the silver as a gift. Not believing Valjean, the police bring him back to the bishop, believing that he will confirm their belief that Valjean had stolen the silver.
To their surprise, the bishop tells the authorities that yes, he’d given Valjean the silver--and that Valjean had actually forgotten the most valuable portion of the gift: the silver candlesticks.
Dumbstruck, the authorities have no choice but to release Valjean, and the bishop then reveals the one-two punch behind his act of compassion: 1. his hope that Valjean will use the silver as the means to a noble end, and 2. that in showing Valjean compassion, he’s reminding him that his soul belongs to God--that it has been bought and paid for through the ultimate act of compassion, the sacrifice that brings to an end the need to offer God any other sacrifices.
In lying to the police, the bishop recognizes moral law above civil law, and his act indicates that these two powerful sets of laws do not always work in conjunction with one another. This sequence of events leads Valjean to begin his life anew. He’s been transformed by a simple but profound act of compassion. Whereas he once would have killed Javert without guilt or remorse, Valjean now gives the inspector life through the gift of compassion. Sadly for Javert, his black/white, either/or perspective cannot fathom such an act--or living in a world where such an act is possible given his understanding of the law. Tragically, Javert takes his own life; he knows no place for compassion, but Valjean does.
So does Viva--and she recognized its transformative power.
May she, and all of us, always know a place for compassion, both in our hearts and in the world we build and inhabit. Knowing that place is necessary if we are to foster compassion in our own hearts and in the hearts of those we influence, putting to use its transformative power to ensure our survival.