There are certain themes about the human condition that are absolutely timeless. These themes are told across the centuries in ageless tales, many recount the human struggle with ourselves.
I’m struck once again by the eternal struggle for forgiveness and redemption in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable. You know the story: Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to save his starving nephew and pays for his sin literally until his dying day. Ironically, his quest for redemption begins when an act of forgiveness and love causes him to turn his life around. Lest he forgive himself prematurely, he is also hunted across the decades by the vindictive zealot cop Javert.
Valjean lives a humanitarian life defined by kindness and generosity, but he cannot escape his self-recrimination for his sins. He even leaves his beloved Cosette to spare her from the shame resulting from the possible discovery of his secret past. He ultimately learns upon his deathbed that the value of his life is defined by his love for others, not by his mistakes. “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
Judging by the red eyes and the sniffles next to me in the movie theater, modern audiences still resonate with the theme. The human need for redemption and forgiveness is as timeless as the story itself. It seems we are all haunted and chased by our own guilt and Javerts. What is our sin for which we must endlessly suffer?
In Les Miserables, the French judicial system judges Valjean’s crime worthy of a lifetime of condemnation. However, Valjean’s crime may seem heroic to some, as the crime of stealing food pales in comparison to saving the life of another. In real life, morality or doing the “right thing” is rarely black and white, so why do we punish ourselves endlessly for situations that oftentimes are grey?
I suspect we carry these feelings of shame and guilt because of our subconscious Javerts who chase and hound us, often without our knowledge. Somewhere in our young lives we come to believe that we are inadequate, unlovable, shameful, or undeserving, and creating our own Javert to reinforce that theory. These beliefs are often self-fulfilling: I am unworthy, so I act unworthy, and then people treat me as unworthy, which reinforces my sense of unworthiness. In this way, we define our own reality. Any information that supports our own Javert is data that confirms our theory. Any contradictory information bypasses our attention as irrelevant.
Valjean also ignores the evidence that demonstrates he is a good man. The people he cares for, the lives he saves, the jobs he provides, and his courage to do the right thing, did nothing to assuage his sense of shame of being a tainted man as judged by a harsh and unforgiving judicial system, and perhaps more importantly, himself. Valjean has to be on his deathbed to see the truth and feel forgiveness.
Despite a lifetime of the self-righteous and blind pursuit of his prey, Javert discovers the truth, also ironically after experiencing Valjean’s forgiveness. After spending decades being unable forgive and to see Valjean’s goodness, he finally realizes he spent his life condemning and pursuing an honorable man. Now Javert is unable to forgive himself. The pain is unbearable and he throws himself into the raging river.
One reason to study history is to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. But authors such as Hugo show us that we are still making the same mistakes of centuries long gone. We need not follow the path of Javier and Valjean, blindly pursuing a harsh, (self-imposed) justice that is oblivious to contradictory information. We need not believe that voice of condemnation, whether from outside or within. We can break the cycle of judgment, choose love instead of pain, and give the gift of forgiveness to ourselves and others.