Sweat drips down my back. I can actually see the heat rising in a misty line from the asphalt of the streets. But we have to keep going. I hike my backpack higher on my shoulders, hoping for some relief from the weight of the water bottles inside it and turn to my three high school students, “Let’s stop and pray here.”
The building first caught my eye because of its beautiful architecture, but what stopped my prayer group in front of this Seventh Day Adventist temple was the sleeping mat and grocery bag of belongings that I spied tucked under the front awning.
We have spent the week walking the streets of our downtown on a mission trip, observing and praying for our neighbors, and it has been life-changing.
Or so I hope.
Summer turns to fall, and my companions change from high school students to highbrow classics as I decide to finally tackle the behemoth that is Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
When diving into this five-volume novel, it is painfully obvious from the beginning that it is a social commentary. The corruption of the system, the inadequate provisions for the poor, the branding nature of the prison institution are all tossed at your feet by the weary hands of Hugo’s rightfully-named miserables. It’s all a rather gloomy, though needed, narrative until you finally reach the romance.
Cosette and Marius, naïve, beautiful, and dreamy, they give you something to look forward to while you are still lying in a hospital bed with Fantine or sneaking through woods with Valjean. At least, that is the hope I am holding onto.
However, when I meet Marius Pontmercy, the resident knight-in-shining-armour, I become immediately aware of one sizable flaw in him: blindness.
When Marius strikes out on his own, he moves into a tenement house in Paris by the name of the Gorbeau House. The only other family living in the building are the Jondrettes, a father, mother, and two daughters who rent the most squalid apartment in the Gorbeau House.
Intent on earning his own bread for the first time in his life and profoundly, irrevocably in love, Marius somehow manages to live in this house for three years before he even hears of the neighbors with whom he shares a wall. When he does take note of them, it is their absence that draws his attention.
Marius’s landlady mentions that the Jondrettes have been turned out for not paying their rent for two quarters, and his attention is piqued:
“How much is it [that they owe]?”
“Twenty francs,” said the old woman.
Marius had thirty francs saved up in a drawer.
“Here,” he said to the old woman, “take these twenty-five francs. Pay for the poor people and give them five francs, and do not tell them that it was I.”¹
After three years of blindness, Marius seems to finally become aware of his neighbor’s plight and extends his small savings to rescue a family from the streets. But he still will not truly notice them.
Hugo writes, “His mind was elsewhere, and where the mind is, there the eyes are also.”¹ Marius lives alongside these people one more year, sometimes passing them in the hallway or on the stairs, “but they were mere forms to him,” just shadows of humanity.¹
A year after paying their rent, one of the Jondrette girls knocks at Marius’s door to ask for his help, and he is baffled: She called me by name. Who is this girl? How does she know who I am?
While Marius has been rushing blindly through his busy life, the Jondrettes have not had that luxury. They have seen him on the stairs. They have asked his name of the landlady. They have noticed him in the hallway.
I will not say that Marius is heartless, but I will say that he is sight-less, and that is why he could never truly help the Jondrettes. Though he paid their rent once, he never invested in getting to know his neighbors. Marius never recognized their humanity or extended his own toward them. He never said “good morning” to them, he never shook hands with M. Jondrette, he never saw how their eyes could be stricken with fear or lighted with hope in precisely the same way that his own had been.
A few months after the mission trip, my earbuds are plugged into my phone, and I am plugged into my job once more. The only thing keeping me sane is the sound of Brené Brown’s voice in my ear, reading her book Rising Strong. I nod approvingly and feel empowered as she lays out just what it takes to be resilient, to be an overcomer. I feel ready to take the world by storm.
Then I hear these words, “When you look away from a homeless person, you diminish their humanity and your own.”²
I am ashamed.
Because I have forgotten, too.
Why is it that when I am on a mission trip it is so easy to be mindful and present to the needs of those around me but when I am driving home from work, I can’t bring myself to even make eye contact?
Jesus saw the blind man before he healed him (John 9:1).
Jesus reached out to the leper before clearing his skin (Matthew 8:3).
Jesus called the woman daughter before stopping her bleeding (Luke 8:48).
How can I expect miracles without ever looking?
Look down, and show some mercy if you can
Look down, look down upon your fellow man³
¹Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, Volume III, Book V, Chapter V.
²Brené Brown, Rising Strong, Chapter 8.
³Claude-Michel Schönberg, “Look Down,” Les Misérables: the Complete Symphonic Recording
Sarah Hope is a West Michigan reading interventionist and writer who someday hopes to invent and obtain the position of a professional friend. She believes strongly in empathy, storytelling, and humans. You can follow her on Instagram at sarah.hope.