Monday, October 28, 2019

On Love and Ties: Lessons from the Little Prince and Dante

Establishing Ties

– Qu’est-ce que signifie « apprivoiser » ?
– C’est une chose trop oubliée, dit le renard. Ça signifie « créer des liens… »
– What does that mean--'tame'?"
– "It is an act too often neglected," said the fox. It means to establish ties."
Establishing ties. Bonds. Friendships. Relationships. We were made for them. This is the stuff of which life is made. We were made to live in community and in communion with others.

Some ties are natural and familial, like those of father and son, mother and daughter, or brother and sister. Some ties are solemnly sealed, as in marriage, where a man and a woman become husband and wife. Marriage creates new family ties.

But life is also full of smaller ties that we form all the time—like friendships. When we form a friendship, we establish a tie. We create a relationship. We write a story. When we befriend someone, we begin to tame that person. The story of a friendship is a call to responsibility.

In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's classic book, the Little Prince is constantly thinking about the rose he left back on his planet—the rose he loves, despite her difficult character. But when he finds a garden full of roses just like his own, he is dismayed. All of a sudden, it seems as if his rose is not unique at all, but just one of many.

A little while later, the little prince meets a fox. The fox teaches him an important lesson:
– "If you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . ."
– "I am beginning to understand," said the little prince. "There is a flower . . . I think that she has tamed me . . ."
Because his rose has tamed him, the little prince understands that she is unique in all the world. As the fox tells him: "It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important."

The fox goes on to share with the little prince his most important piece of advice:
"You become responsible forever for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose."
And so, the little prince sets out to return to his rose whom he loves.

Breaking Ties

« C'est triste d'oublier un ami. » 
"To forget a friend is sad."
We live in an age when loyalty has become a rare commodity, and when betrayal and abandonment are commonplace.

When tensions or difficulties arise in friendships, relationships and even marriages, instead of valiantly working to seek reconciliation and make things right, we burn bridges. We prefer to flee by unfriending, blocking, and shutting people out of our lives (whether on social media or in real life).

Why do we resort to such childish acts of cowardice? Perhaps we don't grasp to what extent they accomplish nothing but leave behind us a trail of broken ties and broken hearts. Perhaps we don't see to what extent they wound our own nature.

In a previous post, I mentioned that I recently experienced two painful betrayals. The two experiences, which occurred one after the other in quick sequence, were oddly similar, though touching upon two different areas of life (professional and personal). Both persons involved were professed Christians in positions of leadership. I was wholly dedicated to both. Both acted in an eerily similar way:
Both took advantage of me while I was useful to them.
Both got rid of me when I was no longer needed or wanted.
Both were ruthless once they had made up their minds.
Both were more concerned about their reputation than about justice or kindness.
Both attempted to silence me to safeguard said reputation.
Both were unresponsive and stubbornly refused to respond to appeals for dialogue.
Both slammed the door to restoring or healing the relationship.
Although time heals and forgiveness becomes a little easier every day, it remains extraordinarily sad to think that these two persons violated ideals and principles that they professed to hold, and that neither made any attempt, however feeble, at repairing the harm they had done.

Why do people act like that?

Dante's World

Dante's Divine Comedy presents a magnificent theology of love. In the Inferno, we observe the tragedy of failed love and ties that have been broken forever. In the Purgatorio, we encounter the hope of redeemed love and ties that are in the process of being mended. In the Paradiso, we meet perfected love and ties that have been fully restored.

Broken Ties—Forever

In the Inferno, the damned are in hell because they refused to love. They broke ties and stubbornly refused to repair them.

In the circle of heretics, for example, Dante meets a Florentine noble and author called Farinata. Farinata is very concerned about his reputation; he ardently desires that people read his books. But when a former rival, a man called Cavalcante, appears and begins to speak, Farinata is unresponsive: he ignores Cavalcante and refuses to even acknowledge him. The two have "unfriended" and "blocked" each other for all eternity, as it were, and their bitter isolation is part of their eternal, infernal torment (Inferno X).

In the Inferno, the lowest level of hell is reserved for those guilty of "compound fraud," those who have committed acts of treachery against friends and relatives, violating "the special trust added by bonds of friendship or blood-ties" (Inferno XI, 61-63). In the frozen ninth and lowest circle of hell, we find three arch-traitors—Judas Iscariot (who betrayed Christ), Brutus and Cassius (who betrayed Julius Caesar)—being eternally eaten by Satan himself. (Inferno XXXIV)

Clearly—and not just for Dante—betrayal is serious business. It is the worst possible sin against God and neighbor. Hence we must avoid it at all costs. Yet great betrayals don't occur suddenly and out of nowhere. One does not wake up one day to become an adulterer or a Judas Iscariot. Like any other virtue or vice, we become what we practice. If we consistently exercise loyalty in small things, we will become loyal people. If we tolerate small betrayals in our life, over time we run the risk of becoming traitors.

And so, as I often tell my students: Watch for little patterns of infidelity, disloyalty, and betrayal in your daily life and in your heart. Do not tolerate them. Repent from them and fix them. Now.

Mending Ties

In Dante's Purgatorio, the road to purification and sanctification is accomplished with others, in community. Penitents climb Mount Purgatory in a spirit of reconciliation and collaboration with one another. They know that they cannot make it to heaven on their own. They must learn to forgive and love one another. They must learn to become friends.

It is no wonder that reconciliation is an indispensable part of both the Jewish and Christian way of life. Jews are called to restore broken relationships especially during the Days of Awe leading to Yom Kippur. Christ takes reconciliation even more seriously: He says that one should not even approach God's altar to worship Him before reconciling oneself with one's brother or sister (Mt 5:23-26). Clearly, healing broken relationships is not an option for both Jews or Christians. Why wait for purgatory? We must have the courage to do it now.

Restored Ties

In the Paradiso, everyone is reconciled. Broken ties are mended. Wounded hearts are healed. Shattered friendships are made whole. The community of the blessed love well and love fully.

This is our ultimate goal and destiny: to love and be loved. For this reason, we must take good care of the ties in our life, and courageously mend those that we have wounded or broken.

And so, let us learn to be loyal and faithful—every day. May we learn to become responsible for those whom we have tamed.
« J’aurais dû ne pas l’écouter... il ne faut jamais écouter les fleurs. Il faut les regarder et les respirer. La mienne embaumait ma planète, mais je ne savais pas m’en réjouir. Cette histoire de griffes, qui m’avait tellement agacé, eût dû m’attendrir… »
« Je n’ai alors rien su comprendre ! J’aurais dû la juger sur les actes et non sur les mots. Elle m’embaumait et m’éclairait. Je n’aurais jamais dû m’enfuir ! J’aurais dû deviner sa tendresse derrière ses pauvres ruses. Les fleurs sont si contradictoires ! Mais j’étais trop jeune pour savoir l’aimer. »