I just watched Les Miserables last weekend. I cried, from the moment the movie started until the very end. After reflecting on it, and realizing my hormones and cycle were partly at fault for all the sobbing, I pin-pointed what was so touching for me: how grace and forgiveness drive out shame. How many relationships and marriages could be salvaged and thriving if grace and forgiveness were practiced more often? Countless numbers, for sure.
Les Mis, for me, highlighted the importance of redemption and second chances in the human experience. There is nothing more reviting than a good comeback. Everybody loves the story of the underdog. And Les Mis shows us this over and over, in every character. Except Inspector Javert.
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The lead character, Jean Valjean, unjustly serves 19 years in slavery for stealing a loaf of bread. When he is released from prison, in desperation, he steals again only to be completely forgiven by the priest from whom he stole. Confronted with this undeserved grace, Valjean makes a courageous choice: to live according to the grace he had been shown. When we experience this kind of forgiveness, the life-or-death kind, gratitude is overwhelming and changes our character in profound ways.
For others, full of shame and legalistic mental rigidity, forgiveness cannot be really experienced. In part, this is due to the nature of shame itself. Brene Brown makes a powerful TED Talk presentation on the topic, stating that when we live to avoid shame, we also avoid all types of emotional connections because "you cannot selectively numbe out emotions". Shame-full people, such as I can be most days, tend to reason "there is something wrong with me" instead "I sometimes do the wrong things". This minor mental shift is actually monumental in the experience of affect, inter-personal relations and most of all, intimacy.
My upcoming book explains this in detail, but for now, suffice it to say that when we are full of shame — believing that there is something inherently wrong with who I am — the only recourse left is to hide. We hide all the parts of ourselves that remotely point to our imperfections, and punish those who courageously show up vulnerable, with their brokenness and all, because their authenticity is a mirror of the masks we wear. This is what happened to Inspector Javert. When Jean Valjean forgives him, Javert is confronted with his own evil, with his own unforgiving heart, with his imperfections, with the side of our humanity that we are most scared of: vulnerability. Javert, instead of living according to the grace that has been granted, committs suicide.
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In my own life, I've had to forgive many things that really should never have happened in the first place. Unfortunately, people have had to struggle with forgiving me also. But forgiveness is not about approving. It is about accepting that the past cannot be changed, and that the other person cannot possibly erase what was done.
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