It’s been a morning of contrasts.
I finished The Awakening by Kate Chopin.
Then I listened to a Focus on the Family broadcast: Overcoming Selfishness In Marriage.
Then I climbed 25 flights of stairs and thought about the two.
Here’s what I came up with:
1. 300 stair steps is no picnic when your lungs and legs are as disgustingly out of shape as mine.
2. There is enough elevation change in 25 flights of stairs to make your ears pop. And before they pop, they hurt. And while they hurt, it is hard to think on anything else of much substance.
3. Everyone else just rides the elevator down to the gym on the 4th floor.
4. In The Awakening, Kate Chopin tells of a woman’s coming to herself. “Edna was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.” Not such a bad thing, eh? I, too, have a fictitious self which I wear before the world; and I, too, am slowly learning to cast it aside. But Edna’s is a deeper, darker coming to: “Whatever came, she resolved never again to belong to another than herself.” “‘I don’t want anything but my own way. That is wanting a good deal, of course, when you have to trample upon the lives, the hearts, the prejudices of others–but no matter.'”
I found it a very disturbing story because of how often I find similar desires in my own heart. Edna is the picture of selfishness, yet glorified and magnified (in both the story and in current culture) into something admirable and worthy–and someone, to my shame, that I can sometimes envy and other times empathize with. Too often, I also “don’t want anything but my own way.” Not God’s, not Tim’s, not the church’s, not my relations’, not society’s. I have wanted the courage (or cowardice, depending on your perspective) to be “the bird that soars above the level of tradition and prejudice.” I have felt bitterly my own hypocrisy and farce: I have wanted to break all the rules (large and small, doesn’t matter, just so long as its a rule–not too long ago I actually got mad at Tim for refusing to forgo brushing his teeth before bed. Not sure how he puts up with me; sure glad he does), rebel against the weight of everyone’s expectations (there are times when they seem heavier than others), lash out and break out and break free.
In The Awakening, Edna does. She leaves the house on her established weekly reception day. She takes up frowned upon hobbies and develops independent interests. She abandons the responsibility of her children to their grandmother. She escapes from the oppressive care of a husband she does not love. She has an affair. Or actually two, simultaneously, since sexual autonomy is the doorway to happiness. She becomes alone, independent, completely free from restraint to pursue her own selfish interests and delights.
And she lives happily ever after.
No, actually, she doesn’t. Left to herself, she becomes very lonely. No one understands her. She cannot manipulate others to her own way. She drives herself to suicide. The editor of the American Lit Anthology I’m perusing sees this ending as a casualty of the evil patriarchal society and Edna an early martyr for the cause of feminism. But perhaps this is an interpretation of the 1950s, when Chopin’s writings were “rediscovered and reassessed” (she wrote in the late 1800s). What if Chopin was saying that such selfish abandon is not all that we imagine it to be? What if being true to ourselves whatever comes does not lead to happiness and fulfillment? What if autonomy breaks its promise? What if, as Townsend and Cloud suggested on Focus on the Family, personal happiness is the worst goal you can ever have for marriage but the best byproduct, a wonderful gift God gives as self surrenders? What if that same thing holds true for all of life? What if true joy is found only as we delight ourselves in God, as we submit to His rules and commands, and as we give up even our very souls (with all their selfishness) (Ps 25) to Him?
It’s not easy. I know it’s not, because it’s something I struggle and struggle and struggle with. Something I deny. Something I rebel against. But by His grace, He’ll keep my soul no matter what, and I’ll continue to learn to give it up to Him.
If Christ makes you free, then you are free indeed.