Have You Heard This Story Before?

I guess it was 1990 or thereabouts. I went to visit my sister Jane in Sausalito, California, where she was living at the time. She’d arranged for us to see a play in San Francisco, which is across the Bay.

The tickets, I recall, were a little pricey. Maybe they were $40. At that point, I doubt if I’d ever spent $40 to see anything. But Jane said this would be good. She was right. We took our places in the theater to see the musical Les Misérables.

Before that event, I did not know that plays could be this good. I’d never seen anything as well done.

Sometimes when an old story comes back to mind, you want to hear it again. In the 2000s, I’d purchased a set of DVD movies. One of these DVDs had a flip side, like records of old. The 1935 movie version of Les Misérables was on one side; the other side had a Les Mis movie from the 1950s. I watched both versions. I noticed that they weren’t exactly alike nor entirely dissimilar. It was as if the creators of the movies each read the whole story and picked out the parts they felt they could tell in a 2-hour timeframe.

In 2012, I watched the other movie version, a musical based on the play I’d seen years ago. Maybe you saw it too. This week I watched the conclusion of Masterpiece Theater’s version, a multi-part series. At first it seemed weird that there wasn’t any singing, but I did learn more of the story than I’d seen so far.  

It seems people keep telling this same story over and over and over, and I keep getting a slightly different version. It has to be this way. I’m never reading the book on my own. It’s something like 1900 pages long, one of the longest novels ever written. Also, the original is in French. Reading 1900-page French novels is just not my thing.  

Not only that, I keep seeing the story from a different place in my own life. Early on, I focused on the injustice of Valjean’s justice (19 years for bread!), tried to understand Javert (leave Valjean alone!) and felt wistful about the bishop’s kindness (what is it like to be treated with that kind of unmerited favor). In 2012, I thought about the children living in terrible conditions. In these movie extras I saw children over time who had lived lives like that, and how do you make sense of a world where that happens? In 2019, the callousness that led Fantine to her fate was too hard to watch. I flinched and skipped those parts.

Stories are fluid. Even in text or on film, stories are still fluid in that, over time, you are not the same person hearing or seeing or reading the story. And, over time, people pick out different parts to tell.

In every version, this part is consistent. Jean Valjean served 19 years after he stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family. When he is finally released, he has nowhere to turn. A bishop takes him in, gives him a meal, provides a bed, and offers a good night’s sleep.

Then Valjean steals from the bishop. He becomes the man he expects himself to be.

When police discover Valjean with a bag of silverware, he is returned to the bishop to hear the formal accusation. The bishop has another idea, however, and says the silverware was a gift, and, further, Valjean forgot to take the candlesticks.

Jean Valjean has never seen anything like this before. He did not know a person could be this good to him. He becomes the man the bishop asks him to be.  

I’d want this kind of mercy for myself. Who wouldn’t? But oh, to be in those bishop’s shoes. I’m not sure I’d step in. Maybe if I knew in advance what Valjean was going to do to make something of himself, sure, I’d let him have the silverware and candlesticks and send him on his way. If I could fast-forward to the end and see if my investment would pay off – sure, maybe I’d be in then.

When stories are being written, we don’t know how they’ll go. We might not have the power to change someone else’s story. But sometimes we can help people write a better story for themselves by extending a grace they don’t deserve.

I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying I’d do it. I’m just saying, this is a hard enough lesson that it’s worth hearing the same story over and over.   

Enjoy your magnificent journey.

– Minnie Lamberth
The Magnificent Journey
Vol. 3, Issue 11

Photo by Reuben Juarez on Unsplash