Excerpt from the book Where I End: A Story of Tragedy, Truth, and Rebellious Hope
I would always rather be happy than dignified. —Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre is perhaps one of the finest female characters in all of literature. But if you're familiar with her tale, you will remember Jane as being quite dignified. She is an orphan, but she unabashedly shares her thoughts with those in authority. She is cast off by her aunt and treated cruelly during her orphan days, yet she is neither diffident nor feeble.
Twice she refuses to enter into marriage—in the first instance, she loves and is deeply loved by another. . . .With the second proposal of marriage, she resists the despotic pressure to marry another out of duty rather than for love.
Dignified. Passionate. Mournful. Expressive. High-spirited. Serious. Noble. Each of these adjectives describes Jane. Happy, on the other hand, is not the defining word that springs to mind for the character whose story is indelibly marked with sorrow. And yet curiously inserted into this tale is the brief phrase, "I would always rather be happy than dignified." Dear Jane, what are you trying to tell me?
There is little dignity associated with the inability to perform tasks necessary for daily living or care. . . . For the most part, the staff at the rehabilitation hospital was amazing. But I have seared in my mind a few nails-on-chalkboard moments. One time, I recall someone whose body language effectively communicated that she was not too thrilled about being assigned to help me eat. She put the chicken sandwich near my mouth, and I took a bite. While I was rapidly chewing, she continued to hold the sandwich, utterly bored and clearly irritated. I tried to make small talk (which is hard to do when you're scarfing down food), but she was unresponsive. Embarrassed, I wished my hospital bed would swallow me whole.
But even when a staff member whom I loved came to feed me, the situation was awkward. The mission was to get the food eaten. Talking interrupted such progress. I felt guilty for not being able to feed myself, for occupying the staff 's valuable time, as I knew they had other work to do.
On a separate occasion, one of the paramedics who had transferred me to the rehabilitation hospital came to visit and brought a friend to meet me. I was sitting in my wheelchair feeling pretty cheerful. I was humbled to have so many strangers visit me. Apparently, I was a fascinating subject of conversation among the paramedics—few people I suppose are so severely bested on a playground. After a short chat, they left. I looked down to find my Depends sticking out of my workout pants. This discovery left me feeling neither happy nor dignified.
Sometimes I felt I had been stripped of all dignity, naked and ashamed. Yet something peculiar happens to those struck with tragedy or sickness. Truth enters and pretense fades. We've all, to varying degrees, experienced this. Have you ever found yourself sick with the flu, on your hands and knees, not even caring that your face is mere inches from the toilet? You're so miserable you lose all semblance of refinement. All you want is to get the vomit out of your system and into the toilet so you can feel better. Similarly, those who are battling sickness in the hospital become less concerned about the thin gown and their disheveled hair.
There are moments in life when we must all come to terms with our smallness and fragility. Moments of truth when our hearts are recalibrated. Trifling anxieties and fears we've been collecting and hoarding lose their color. Folly is laid bare. The shallows of our heart make way for the deep. Our need for mercy and for someone to come and rescue us is brought into the light. In these moments, we are not, as some might presume, ashamed. Quite the opposite. Shedding the falsehood of autonomy and self-sufficiency, we can receive the love of Jesus and of others.
The Skin Horse in the children's tale The Velveteen Rabbit illumines for us this process of what he calls becoming "Real."
It doesn't happen all at once. . . . You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.
The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus, "for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12:2). What if Jesus had placed dignity above brokenness? If He had claimed His right to be right? If He had chosen to unleash just judgment rather than allow His naked body to be exposed for all to see lifted high on a cross, bearing the crushing weight of our iniquity, the filthy shame of our sin?
Jesus could have rejected the suffering and humiliation of the cross. Yet He knew there was a flood of joy that would follow and swallow His and our shame. He chose this joy over respectability, above what the world perceives as greatness and strength. He chose to die that we might live. To be ripped asunder from the Father that we might be rejoined, that we might be regrafted into the triune family. Perhaps our beloved Jane Eyre took her cue from someone bolder and wiser than she. What a good day it will be when with finality we shed our cloaks of insecurity and fear. When we no longer restrain our joy for fear of appearing undignified. When we cease to shelter ourselves in feigned moral virtue, but rather lap up every drop of happiness offered us. Oh that we might know the freedom of singing, and laughing, and dancing with a full heart, unhinged from pride and vanity. That we might yield our self-designed disguises and taste the cheer of pure, authentic, bona fide friendship.
© 2018. Published by Moody Publishers. Used with permission.