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Dickensian journies through life

March 11, 2010

I’m not a great reader of the novels of Charles Dickens. They are too dense and long winded for an amateur fiction lover, such as myself, but I have always enjoyed their production as TV dramas or movies. There’s something magical about these stories, a world of make believe, that also echoes the contradictions, twists and turns of our everyday human lives. Dickens, in my opinion, traverses the territory of both the fantastic and the gritty, grimy, harsh realism of real life – even today.  He populates his stories often with an innocent hero in search of  domestic, personal and vocational stability, success, love or a home where he might belong. Throughout the narratives are morally and physically ambiguous characters most of whom offer at least superficially to help the protagonists achieve their needs and ultimate goals, but who often are inclined to use them for the fulfilment of their own selfish desires. At the same time, the stories are seasoned with unusual characters, somewhat difficult to appreciate with the eye that are at heart kind and generous, who often treat Dicken’s heroes like David Copperfield with compassion and selfless care.

As I have tried over the last twenty years since adolescence to make the most of my circumstances and to succeed in life, I have by accident really, come to see my life very much in Dickensian parabolic terms. Many events that at the time of occurence appeared surprisingly and pleasantly serendipitious or alternatively randomly painful and persecutory, take on new value and meaning when charted as points of a winding narrative. The personalities encountered on life’s journey, the  dull and depressing events of misfortune and sparkling moments of success, all gain new clarity and contrast when looked at with a touch of objectivity and emotional distance. The person who a few years ago impressed you as a figure of  striking wisdom, in hindsight appears slightly self-important with somewhat childish idiosyncracies. You  wonder whatever made you trust and respect them so implicitly. The eccentric associate  whom you ‘graciously’ put up with for mutual benefit, say lodging in a house together, looking back suddenly strikes you as one of the few very good friends you have ever had. You wish: ‘If only I could have more friends like that today? I would treat them better I promise!’ The esteemed authority figure, placed powerfully within an organisation representing enlightened humantiarian or religious values and upon whose approval and ‘benevolence’ you so desperately relied for proggression in your career of choice, begins to take shape as a rather  unworthy and distasteful example of petty bureaucratic prejudice and myopia. As British politician Anne Widdicombe once commented about Tory party leader Michael Howard – “He has something of the night about him”! So often can these authority figures who grace the upper echelons of supposedly altrusitic organisations.

The same applies to family too. In my case I struggled for years to really ‘connect’ with my father. Not that I didn’t like him or love him, just that I didn’t really understand him or feel that he understood me. Yet, five years working in a warehouse in the industrial heartland of South Yorkshire, England and a real need for finances to get married to the girl of my dreams, created a situation where I came to a place where I looked back on my father’s life and the struggles he overcame as we were children.  Gradually, I began to appreciate his small-time personal heroism. He had sacrificed himself, I realised, to care and provide for us as a family – my mother, my brother and I. We may not as teenagers have realised how dedicated he was in working for his family, when compared to other wealthier families who seemed to have so much more instant access to brand name goods and money, but as a young man working 8am-5pm in a warehouse five days a week for nearly five years I soon came to appreciate the self-discipline he had quietly exercised. With insight and reflection my father I came to see was not the unfashionable mystery man that I didn’t understand, but an understated, faithful and self-effacing founder of a happy family home.  The ‘yin’ to my mother’s ‘yang’ – I had once thought, but now I realised both dark and light forces were the creative and nourishing roots of my and my brother’s safe and loving childhood home. I am so grateful for that, although earlier in my life I would have never understood this.

The above observations, I believe points towards the paradoxical idea that peoples’ surface appearance, position or role does not equate with their inner qualities or weaknesses. Those who initially appear appealing and helpful can over time be seen to be restricitive, limiting and even obstructional in one’s growth as a human being. Those who strike you as rather eccentric, a bit of a nuisance and ‘un-cool’ can often be the real heroes in the battle for survival in an often uncompromising and demanding world where good friends and family are often few.

So, did Dickens write stories that mirrored life or does life mirror Dickens? I wonder if G-d, the ‘Author of Life’ has the same inventiveness and creativity at heart when he imagines our lives as Charles Dickens had when he created the wonderful heroes and heroines in his great ‘fairy tales’? From my experience, I am inclined to believe that he does. Educational and political campaigner from the 1970s Ivan Illich, I believe  is quoted as saying:

“God created man because he loved stories.”

I like that. Maybe it is reassuring to see our difficult and at times deeply upsetting, soul destroying existences;  yet sometimes joyous, abundant and sensuous lives as one part of a unique personal narrative within a dynamic and simultaneous multitude of other stories . Perhaps, it helps put each decision, each encounter with a stranger or familiar person, every moment of our lives into a bigger picture… and maybe then, when we ask ourselves: ‘Why? To what purpose?’ we can begin to catch a glimpse of a story…no matter how ‘ordinary’ that is actually worth telling and re-telling…a story with meaning…and value.  A story that matters…as each of our lives do.

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