Poverty is timeless. Its resilience as a way of life speaks volumes not of those that live it but of those that do not.
There are many who suffer in poverty and misery with little hope of respite. In counterpoint, there are multitudes who speak of ways and policies to “fix” the problem. And yet, the problem persists. However, I believe there is a way to end poverty, but it is not easy. In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s Monsieur Myriel, also known as the Bishop of Digne, offers us the solution.
There are no ways to sugarcoat some of what I am about to say. Likewise, I can hardly say it without also feeling hypocritical. What I am talking about is an ideal, but inevitably, we all fall short. What each of us is able to do for another person varies as much as our personal circumstances.
So just to be clear, I am not trying to condemn anyone nor make anyone feel guilty. I hope only to inspire and to change people’s hearts. I wholeheartedly believe that we have a purpose in life, and that it is to become better people than we were before, a daily effort. Such is the work of a lifetime not a moment. It is the commitment of day after day of effort not the time it takes to read a blog post.
Please take this for what it is, an honest opinion from someone who is also trying.
Poverty Has Few Escape Routes
Without getting too personal, I know a little bit about what it’s like to be poor. Maybe not so much poverty, I was never homeless, and I always had food, but not wealth. We ate pancakes for many days in a row because that was all we had. I know the feeling of helplessness when you think there is no way out of your situation. It’s been a long time since I felt like that, but I remember.
When I wrote about homelessness in my post A Tale of One City, I really wanted to emphasize one thing. Those that are in need are not “somewhere,” they are all around us. They are here right next to us. And because of that, because they appear to have all the opportunities we who are not poor have, it is easy to say that they are just lazy (or whatever other term you want to use).
But that is not true. For people that “have,” most things are actually pretty easy. For those that “have not,” many things, even simple ones, become very difficult.
Monsieur Myriel offers us a glimpse of another way, the only way, to truly end poverty. Victor Hugo knew life. He was a realist and he brought his realist and realistic views to life in Les Mis. I believe he truly understood the plight of those in need.
His character, Myriel, is an example. This bishop interacts directly with Jean Valjean, one-on-one. The bishop does not donate a sum of money to a local charity and then go home feeling good about himself. Instead, he intervenes directly in this unwanted person’s life, and Valjean becomes a guest in his home. While there, the bishop learns about him personally.
Not only that, but Myriel understands even better than Valjean the ex-convict’s plight. The bishop knows the challenges Valjean will face and provides him with means that Valjean would otherwise be incapable of obtaining. He shows Valjean mercy beyond what the ex-prisoner has earned. He meets him not halfway but all the way, asking nothing for himself in return. His only demand is that Valjean take the opportunity given and make something better of his life.
We Are Them, They Are Us
This is the way to cure poverty. This is the way to make it better. Each person is unique and needs attention, resources, and focus. Every person needs to feel not that they are part of a system that will “fix” them or of a process that will take care of them. They need to know that there are people watching out for them personally and that they will eventually be able to make it on their own. This can only occur with individual effort from two sides.
Most people expect “someone else” to take care of these problems. I think many of us feel like we pay our taxes (or make a contribution) and the government (or the charity) will handle the poor people. But that is not the way things really are.
Perhaps in a utopia it would function that way, if the utopia had poor people. But we live in the real world. And the real world is hard. It does not, is not, working ideally. What that leaves is opportunity to make a difference.
Facing Poverty Head On
It’s no secret that I love Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. I write about it frequently—I used one of his quotes as the tagline for my website—and I really believe it is one of the most applicable pieces of literature ever written. In the musical, which I also love, the bishop sings a song that touches me no matter how many times I hear it.
Here’s a youtube link to it:
At 1:47 in that video, the bishop sings the line “come in, sir, for you are weary.” He goes on to invite Valjean to share essentially everything that he has with no strings attached. There is an incredible amount of courage in this statement, “come in, for you are in need.” What action could you or I take of comparable quality?
I do not think you have to invite every homeless person into your house. But I do think that if you want to make a legitimate change, you have to do something that is very likely outside your comfort zone. And it might be hard. You have to feel like that bishop felt, like you might be wasting your effort on someone who won’t appreciate it.
But, this is the attitude that we need to have to truly help those in poverty. Whether or not the person is grateful, we have to take the action.
As I alluded to at the beginning, the reason poverty persists is that those who could alleviate it do not. If we all behaved as M. Myriel, we could collectively make an incredible difference in the lives of those in need. What does it really say about us if we just wait for the government or some other organization to do the right thing? We can do the right thing ourselves.
The Importance of Doing Right
There are numerous themes and messages in Les Mis, enough to write many more articles than this. But the overarching themes to me are two. First, that we can all choose our destiny and who we are, there is no predetermined course for anyone. Second, that the importance of doing what is right and good far outweighs any comfort or luxury we feel we deserve.
I’ll leave the first of these for a different discussion. The second, however, fits with my current topic perfectly. Immediately following the bishop’s acceptance of Valjean into his home, Valjean steals everything of value and flees the scene. He is caught the next day and brought back to the bishop to be accused.
Here is where the bishop truly shows us his character. In the face of the soldiers, he testifies on behalf of Valjean and gives him additional valuables that he had neglected to steal. The soldiers leave chagrined and Valjean leaves ashamed.
Who are we?
This is the power of individual action and personal interaction. The bishop was changed internally by his care for Valjean. The narrator of the book says this about M. Myriel:
“The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine.”
In addition, Jean Valjean was also affected by this one-on-one exchange, and his heart changes as well. Both the giver and the receiver were elevated. I have found this to be absolutely true in my own life. When I help someone else, we both are better for it and we learn more about who we are and what we can become.
In the musical, Valjean sings the famous song “Who Am I?” to demonstrate his change of heart. I wonder who I am sometimes. Who am I, and who am I becoming? That question should be one that returns to us frequently. It is the purpose of our life. And how we treat our fellow life travelers is a measure of our answer.
What do you think? Leave a comment below and start a conversation.