Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. We have now organized what are modestly described as super-powers, which include groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together — surely a humanizing and character building experience. If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing.
Deep in our hearts there is a call to live in communion with others, a call to love, to create, to risk. But there is also that radical feeling of our poverty when faced with human misery. I am afraid to give myself. I have constructed a world of security around me…so many so-called interests which keep me from communing with others…I want to, but cannot. So many things seem to prevent me from loving and I feel them in my inmost being…so many defences and fears. I risk losing hope. I risk entering into a world of sadness and I begin to doubt myself. I have doubts about others. I doubt the value of my presence. I doubt everything.
This is our human condition. We want so much but we feel incapable. We believe in love but where is it? There are so many obstacles to break through within ourselves in order to become free and to become present to others; to their misery and to their person.
Even as a creative artist, I used to think enduring struggles and hard days in silence and telling people everything was great meant I was strong. And then I learned it just meant I was scared—scared of people not loving me any other way. Scared of sharing the lessons that pain had to teach. I no longer see perpetual claims of “fineness” as strength.
People desperately need to see the full human experience, especially the dark parts. They need to know that other folks struggle, too, and that it’s all part of a bigger story of triumph. They need permission to keep going, knowing that hardship is normal for everyone. Give them that gift. Have that courage. Tell the whole story.
Sure, once I published a piece or once I closed my notebook and left the cafe or stopped daydreaming, I was scared again, but while I was writing, while I was telling the truth, I was unafraid. I wanted that again. Fearless-ish. Afraid and not afraid. Scared and doing it anyway. Holding more than one thing. Two things at once.
― Jennifer Pastiloff, On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard
Like the turtle’s shell, the sense of self serves as a shield against stimulation and as a burden which limits mobility into possibly dangerous areas. The turtle rarely has to think about what’s on the other side of his shell; whatever it is, it can’t hurt him, can’t even touch him. So, too, adults insist on the shell of a consistent self for themselves and their children and appreciate turtles for friends; they wish to be protected from being hurt or touched or confused or having to think. If a man can rely on consistency, he can afford not to notice people after the first few times. But I imagined a world in which each individual might be about to play the lover, the benefactor, the sponger, the attacker, the friend: and once known as one of these the next day he might yet be anything. Would we pay attention to this person? Would life be boring? Would life be livable? I saw then clearly for the first time that the fear of failure keeps us huddled in the cave of self – a group of behavior patterns we have mastered and have no intention of risking failure by abandoning.
Stories set the inner life into motion, and this is particularly important where the inner life is frightened, wedged, or cornered. Story greases the hoists and pulleys, it causes adrenaline to surge, shows us the way out, down, or up, and for our trouble, cuts for us fine wide doors in previously blank walls, openings that lead to the dreamland, that lead to love and learning, that lead us back to our own real lives as knowing wildish women.
As he [Sir Malcolm Sargeant, conductor of the London Philharmonic] stood in waist deep in the shallows of Whaler’s Cove, the littler Spinners came drifting over, sleek and dainty, gazing at him curiously with their soft dark eyes. Malcolm was a tactful, graceful man in his movements, and so the spinners were not afraid of him. In moments, he had them all pressing around him, swimming into his arms, and begging him to swim away with them. He looked up, suffused with delight, and remarked to me, “It’s like finding out there really are fairies at the bottom of the garden!”
― Karen Pryor, Lads Before the Wind: Diary of a Dolphin Trainer
We often hide our true selves from people around us. Perhaps our authenticity is actually what the world needs.
To the upper class people who live in her elegant Parisian apartment building, Renée Michel is a simple concierge. They would never guess the secret that she guards every waking minute. It is a terrible weight on her conscience and a deep embarrassment. Due to a traumatic event that occurred in her family when she was a child, she lives in mortal fear that someone will see through the chinks in her armor, that someone will see beyond the hedgehog spines that protect her soft and vulnerable core. Her secret? Renée loves to read and think about subjects way above her station. She has a taste for cultured things: art, music, film and philosophy. She loves and appreciates beauty and is particularly fond of Japanese culture. One of the few things she does allow herself is a garden with beautiful camellias, which can be passed off as part of her job. There are clues. It just takes the right people to follow them.
Paloma Joss is the world weary daughter of an upper class yet provincial family. At twelve, she sees her family’s shortcomings and fears being sealed in the fish-bowl of modern adult life. She has no one to confide in and feels increasingly alien to the people around her. Seeing nothing but futility, she has decided to document the last six months of her existence and commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. Best laid plans do so often go awry.
These two women, who meet and become friends very late in the novel, are the narrators of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of theHedgehog, their individual voices being reinforced by a change in font. This is a story that will ring true to anyone who has felt left out of society, anyone who finds that the things they love most are not valued very much by most people. As a tribe, we are most likely to open up to others that don’t fit in: lonely children, alcoholics, addicts and people who are not “respectable”. Those people are less likely to make us uncomfortable than upper class folks who seem uninterested in life, those who have the privilege of being able to afford anything, but don’t seem to have any interests. When we do find kindred souls, we tend to bond deeply. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about those meetings between souls and how they change the world, even in the midst of death and decay.
There is a moment near the end of the novel, when the son of a former tenant comes to see Renée, who he knows as Madame Michel. This young man had a serious drug addiction when he lived in the building and has lived to tell the tale.
“In the flower bed, over there” –he points toward the far side of the courtyard– “there are some pretty little red and white flowers, you planted them there, didn’t you? And one day I asked you what they were but I wasn’t able to remember the name. And yet I used to think about those flowers all the time, I don’t know why. They’re nice to look at, and when I was so bad off I would think about those flowers and it did me good. So I was in the neighborhood just now and I thought, I am going to ask Madame Michel, maybe she can tell me.”
Slightly embarrassed, he waits for my reaction.
“It must seem weird, no? I hope I’m not scaring you, with this flower business.”
“No, not at all. If only I’d known the good they were doing you…I’d have planted them all over the place!”
He laughs like a delighted child.
“Ah, Madame Michel, you know, it practically saved my life. That in itself is a miracle! So can you tell me what they are called?”
Yes, my angel, I can. Along the pathways of hell, breathless, one’s heart in one’s mouth, a faint glow: they are camellias.
“Yes,” I say. “They are camellias.”
He stares at me, wide-eyed. A tear slips across his waiflike cheek.
“Camellias…” he says, lost in a memory that is his alone. “Camellias, yes.” He repeats the word, looking at me again. “That’s it. Camellias.”
There was a Camellia Tree of great beauty
Whose blossoms were white as honey wax
Splashed and streaked with the pink of fair coral.
When the moon rose in the sky,
The Camellia Tree would leave its place
By the gateway,
And wander up and down the garden,
Trailing its roots behind it
Like a train of rustling silk.
The people in the house,
Hearing the scrape of them upon the gravel,
Looked into the garden
And saw the tree,
With its flowers erect and peering,
Pressed against the shoji.
Many nights the tree walked about the garden,
Until the women and children
And the Master of the house
Ordered that it be cut down.
But when the gardener brought his axe
And struck the trunk of the tree,
There spouted forth a stream of dark blood;
And when the stump was torn up,
The hole quivered like an open wound.