The Mayor of Caterbridge begins with a man selling his wife and daughter for five guineas. The man was drunk at the time, and he really didn’t expect that someone would actually buy her. He was only tormenting his wife, as he occasionally did when he had had too much rum not to speak his wishes out loud. Michael Henchard had married young, making good wages as a hay trusser; but the strain of married life made it easy for him to imagine that without the expense of a wife and child—his own consumption of rum mysteriously failing to enter into the calculation—he would have saved enough money in the two years since his marriage to better himself in the eyes of the world. What he hadn’t counted on that night was that Susan Henchard had had her fill of being tormented, and the prospect of being bought by someone who actually wanted her was looking increasingly appealing. Neither had Michael anticipated a certain sailor to be passing by who would put five guineas down on the table, in front of the whole crowd who had been listening and laughing as he went through the motions of auctioning off his wife. After a final warning from Susan not to do so, Michael picks up the money, and his wife with the baby walk out on the arm of the sailor.
Now if that beginning doesn’t get you interested in a story, I think nothing will.
I have often thought about this story when I am counseling. It is very easy to imagine that our problems are someone else’s fault. True, we suffer a lot in life from the torment, unkindness, neglect and abuse of others. And certainly there are times when the only apparent remedy is to flee an abusive relationship (and perhaps that was exactly what Susan Henchard was thinking). However, before relationships become abusive, they often start by being sick–a little relational cold that gets out of hand and turns into pneumonia. One of the common relational viruses that I run into develops in a mind like Michael Henchard’s. Michael thinks his life is about his life. Others in Michael’s world exist to encourage, discourage, help or hinder his life.
Actually the world is full of Michael Henchards. To get a little more to the point, Michael Henchard lives in me. Even in my most intimate relationships, it is too easy for me to think almost exclusively about me: How will what she is doing make me look? How can I do the right thing and yet disturb my plans, goals and dreams as little as possible? What effect will this or that action have on me? Michael Henchard is always whispering in my ear. And if I listen too much to Mr. Henchard, I begin to see even those I love as hinderances in my life rather that as what they really are: my life.
In the novel, Michael Henchard had failed to find Christ. By this I do not mean that he failed to have a religious experience–he does have one, actually, after he realizes what a stupid thing he had done (but that’s a topic for another blog). What I mean is that he had failed to let others into his heart—the Christ in his brother, his sister, his wife. Mr. Henchard’s relationships with others were merely contractual, outside himself, something to be negotiated to his best advantage. And thus, when a relationship is not working to his advantage (as he imagines it), the relationship should be terminated.
However, when we hold others in our hearts, then they are ourselves. There is no either me or them, there is only us: me and them. Negotiating us is still a pretty stiff task, but it is possible; and, most importantly, it is Christian. Negotiating us requires flexible and occasionally permeable boundaries (never no boundaries). In a mystery, I become us without ceasing to be I. When my brother or sister is in my heart, then I can believe that however my plans, circumstances or dreams change with the requirements of that relationship, love and contentment will be the result. Ironically, the path to getting what you wanted all along often lies in graciously accepting the guidance and even limitations put on you by those around you.