Location: Fictional Digne, France and Lisbon Portugal
In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Jean Valjean is a man just released from prison, put on parole, and given a yellow passport that signified his history as a “dangerous criminal.” In that time it was extremely difficult for a man to find work after he was condemned with a yellow passport. Valjean searched far and wide for work or a place to stay but nobody would have him after they saw him for what the law claimed him to be. Valjean found himself in Digne, a small town in southeastern France. While there, he continued to look for shelter from the harsh nights. After a short series of events and knocking on all the doors in town, Valjean finds himself at the door of Bishop Myriel. The Bishop lets Valjean into his humble home, feeds him from his own table using his finest silver, and gives him what is likely the best mattress he has slept on in 19 years.
Valjean, however, wakes up in the middle of the night, steals most of the Bishop’s silver and flees. Soon after, he is picked up by the police and brought back to Bishop Myriel’s home. When the police inform him that they caught Valjean with his silver the Bishop tells the police that he gave the silver to Valjean. He goes on to chastise Valjean for not taking the silver candlesticks that he also “gave” to him. In doing this Bishop Myriel gave Valjean a second lease on life by not only preventing him from returning to prison indefinitely, but also by giving him the candlesticks with which Valjean could use start an honest life. The Bishop leaves Valjean only stating that he must remember the promise he made, to become an honest man. Valjean, however, never made an agreement like this, but neither is he in a position to argue.
This is one of the greatest acts of ruthless kindness represented in classic literature. The Bishop gives greatly of himself, despite his own poverty, to prevent Valjean from going to prison and even gives him the funds to start a new life and get back on his feet. I never truly understood this sort of kindness until I got a small taste of it as I was travelling in Lisbon, Portugal.
While I was living in France, I had the opportunity to travel to Lisbon, Portugal with one of my friends who happened to have family there. I always enjoy staying with people who live in the city I am visiting because it gives me the opportunity to really experience the culture of the city and find things that I would normally have difficulty finding on my own. Little did I know that I was about to experience a new sort of ruthless kindness that I would forever remember. I will refrain from telling you the entire story, but in summary I have never been shown more love, fed more dessert, bought more train tickets, or allowed to drive a car that is not my own and then get lost, then found and subsequently set back on track by somebody who I hardly even know much less by somebody who was not a member my direct family. I was so touched by this kindness that I wrote a journal entry the day I returned from Portugal:
June 9, 2012
“I don’t know if I have ever experienced such ruthless kindness before in my life. The ----- family gave until the last moment we were with them. They bought us food, train tickets, took us wherever we wanted to go, fed us, refused to let us wash our own dishes, they gave us their car, bought us delicious fruit, and gave us snacks for the ride home. I can’t repay their kindness in any other way but to, one day; give the same to another, as payment for what I took. If everybody in the world gave so freely and joyfully we’d all be broke but most of us are already, so at least we’d be happy.”
I hope that one day you meet your own family, so that you can experience a taste of such kindness. Or, better yet, I hope that you and your family become a family such as this. You never know, maybe you will change somebody’s outlook for the rest of his or her life, as mine was changed.