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(Sample Pages)

PREFACE

 Wisdom has suffered from short supply during the war-ravaged history of the past two centuries. That poverty continues into our own twenty-first century. This book is a plea for wisdom, not only in the public arena, which can seem beyond our meager influence, but at its very root in the life experience of ordinary men and women. If each of us can grow in wisdom–even a little–and manifest that growth in our daily attitudes and behaviors, we have power trigger a spiritual and moral revolution that will spread a balm of peace and harmony over our troubled world.

What is wisdom? In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo shuns an academic “wisdom is .  .  .” form of definition. Instead, he reveals its qualities in the person of his main protagonist, Jean Valjean. The story  begins with a spontaneous act of kindness done to the former convict by the self-effacing Charles-Francios-Bienvenu Myriel, Bishop of Digne. In turn, Jean Valjean pays that gift forward in charity to the poor and fair wages to his workers. He risks his life to save another’s and adopts as his own daughter Fantine’s child, Cosette. He surrenders to the law, rather than allow an innocent man to be imprisoned in his place. He forgives and spares his lifelong pursuer, Inspector Javert. Often, he wrestles with God, Jacob-like, seeking escape from the demands of conscience, only to resolve in the end to do what is right and just.

Hugo understood the wretched consequences for marginalized people (les miserables) when societies fail to learn from past generations’ mistakes. The author’s interior life, fueled by faith in God and activism for social justice, gave his literary voice power to move readers’ emotions and rethink their attitudes and opinions.

In Jean Valjean, Hugo provides a moral compass for principled living. He offers his readers hope that it is possible to exercise freedom of conscience, choosing right over wrong in a difficult, sometimes hostile social and political environment.

INTRODUCTION

 The inspiration for this book came to me in the early 1990s, as I wept through the final scene of Boublil and Schonberg’s musical version of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables. From its darkened perch in the balcony of San Francisco’s Curran Theater, my heart flew to the bedside of the dying Jean Valjean. Over the course of the evening, this fictional hero had moved me with his tale of conversion, forgiveness, and moral fidelity. I wanted to be at his side as he uttered these final words to his beloved daughter Cosette: “To love one another is to see the face of God.”

That magical experience led me to read the unabridged novel for the first time and subsequently to deeper immersion in Hugo’s text.

When the show returned for a repeat engagement a few years later, my wife and I saw it again, this time with our two elementary school-age daughters. I am not embarrassed to admit that tears flowed again from opening curtain to the final reprise of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” My own little Cosettes became enthralled with the story and the magnificent music–and have remained so into their adult lives. During the year that followed, we wore out an original cast cassette by playing it to and from school every day.

A marvel of Hugo’s story is its universal appeal. Set amid the political and social volatility of France during the first half of the nineteenth century, Les Miserables is still, in the words of author Mario Vargas Llosa, “one of the works that has been most influential in making so many men and women of all languages and cultures desire a more just, rational, and beautiful world than the one they live in.”

I discovered in Jean Valjean the essential qualities of principled living. For one like me, a Christian who is always in process, Hugo’s protagonist embodies the core values and ideals passed to me through my religious tradition. From this experience, I conceived a desire that grew into a passion. What if I could spend some time with Jean Valjean? What might I learn about life, love, and compassion for the poor from this former-convict-turned-saint? What might I share of this gift with others?

I originally planned to identify and draw upon themes from the novel. I have done that. Then, I intended to create a series of philosophical-theological essays based on those themes. I have not done that.

A new dynamic intervened along the way, and I followed the prompt of my creative instinct. Having meditated my way through the novel, I found it impossible to keep my own life experience at a safe distance from the work. Jean Valjean’s journey from living death to redeemed life led me to review significant moments in my history. Like Hugo’s protagonist, I have undergone a series of incarnations that have made me who I am today. Out of this examination has emerged, in part, an out-of-sequence memoir. Each new topic became an adventure in surprise that caused me, at different times, to shed tears of joy and cringe from memories long dormant.

While writing this book, I created a blog where I posted early-draft samples of the reflections that appear on these pages. In response to one of them, international photographer and graphic designer Michele Roohani wrote with great wisdom and insight: “I read Hugo’s masterpiece in French and Persian (my mother tongue) years ago. It’s amazing how Hugo’s book is relevant in my birth country, Iran. Cosette, Gavroche, Javert and even Eponine are known to millions of Iranians!  Jean Valjean, a hero. Humanity knows no country, no boundary, no color or religion.”

From the beginning stages of this project, my goal has been to help the reader awaken memories, explore personal feelings, and gain insight through reflection on Victor Hugo’s text. I hope you will identify with my joy and pain, but move quickly to your own past and current experiences and their impact on your life journey. To that end, I have included an interactive element. A set of questions, under the heading, “Harvesting the Depth and Richness of My Life,” follows each Reflection.

Ways To Use This Book

There are a number of possibilities for using this book for inspiration and personal growth.

Individuals have found it helpful to read a Reflection and spend time with the “Harvesting” questions.

The structure of the book is also well-suited for group discussion within small in-home or church-related journaling and sharing groups.

The Wisdom of Les Miserables is a valuable resource for leaders of human growth workshops and adult education programs. You will find ample material for the discussion of current issues related to individual morality (The Primacy of Conscience) and social justice (les miserables). The parenting sections (Shock and Awe of Parenthood and The Power of Story) invite discussion of family relationships.

However you use this book, I offer it to you as a gift, with a prayer that its message will lead you to deeper wisdom and provide nourishment for this portion of your journey.

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The book which the reader has now before his eyes is, from one end to the other, in its whole and in its details, whatever may be the intermissions,  the exceptions, or the defaults, the march from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from the false to the true, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from rottenness to life, from brutality to duty, from Hell to Heaven, from nothingness to God. Starting point: matter; goal: the soul. Hydra at the beginning, angel at the end.

Jean Valjean, Book Thirteenth, XX, The Dead are Right and the Living are Not Wrong

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