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No. 37 – Jean Valjean & misaligned affections

by | Dec 12, 2020 | Letters

“I want my friend to miss me as long as I miss him.”

“In order to discover the character of people we have only to observe what they love.”

~Saint Augustine

Dear Friend,

I trust the tree is decorated, the lights are up, egg nog is in the fridge, and the Thanksgiving calories are fully burned off by now.

As time with family approaches, I’ve been thinking alot about relationships. The tale of Jean Valjean has combined with those reflections to produce a thought I’d like to share.

Here it goes…

Saint Augustine said that you know a man by his loves. In that, he meant that the objects of one’s affection offer a summary of him. David Foster Wallace goes further in “This is Water,” and says that such affections are inevitable, that every human being worships. We all have a core affection.

Is that enough to summarize us? Surely, between Saint Augustine and David Foster Wallace, we’ve covered everything, right?

Well, maybe. But maybe not. Personally, I think there is more to add. At least in part, you can also know a man by those who love him.

See, it isn’t enough to know one’s affections. That’s just observing the “outbound traffic,” if you will. We all exist in relationship with those around us. Those relationships have some degree of mutuality. So in order to better know a person, we must also know those who have affection for him/her. In other words, we must observe traffic in both directions, inbound and the outbound.

Simply put, we can know a man by his loves and by those who love him.

Recently, I’ve pondered friendship. In that regard, I’m a privileged man, for I have many excellent friends. They’re accomplished, thoughtful, well-regarded, and generally virtuous (but not completely nor all the time, because that would be boring). Of my friends, one is moving to Paris. Another is wrapping up medical school. Another adopted foster kids and then received a surprise- a biological son! Now he and his family are moving to Asia. Another has recently realized a professional dream. Another opened his home to me after a 9pm phone call. Still another is fighting for his soul. And for some reason, they’re all my friends! Amazing!

As I have considered these and other friendships, I realized that each relationship has a unique but mutually aligned affection. Those affections are diverse: experiences in Africa, a commitment to inquiry and truth, a professional pursuit, a love of the French language, soccer, a TCK background, business, recovering from psychological hurts, etc. The point is that each friendship is based on an aligned affection for each other and some aspect of the world around us.

The abundance of these friends and aligned affections puzzles me. As I look around at the world, I observe the opposite. Most of the world rests on misaligned affections.

What are misaligned affections? Simply put, it’s when I have an orientation towards someone that isn’t equally met by that person.

For example, in friendship, it’s tough sledding. Most people have between three and five “good friends,” depending on the survey. A majority confess that they haven’t made a new friend in five years. It’s hard to find significant commonality.

In the realm of romance, my favorite mathematician Rachel Reilly (Just go watch 7 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown… but only if you like British humor and are not my Grandma.) postulates that the odds of finding love are approximately 1 in 562 (at least for UK readers). Oof.

Professionally, you know that opportunity for which you spent time, attention and energy (as good a measure of devotion as I can think of) writing a cover letter explaining how you were a such great fit for the role? Well, if you found it on a job board like Monster, Indeed, or ZipRecruiter, the chance of getting that job, or any other of the hundreds for which you applied is a measly 1.2% (and I bet that’s generous). Unless you stuffed it full of buzzwords, your cover letter has a 40% chance of getting binned by AI before it made it to a human. Tough sledding.

What about that tattoo of a favorite brand, sports team, or icon? Well, let’s just call that free advertising. Other than that, I’m sure MJ or the Broncos don’t care.

Long story short, we live in a world where our affection for people and organizations is often unrequited. Misaligned affections are a prominent theme.

As I read Les Miserables, I was aghast at the treatment of Jean Valjean. He gave to the poor and needy liberally of M- sur M-, built up industry and meted out generous wages, freely gave education and healthcare to the community, directed the local government (but only after the townspeople’s explicit, repeated request) and literally saved lives. In short, he had a profound affection for the community, particularly the disadvantaged. They seem to appreciate him, as well. Yet, when the tables were turned and he needed help, the community did not return that affection. Aligned affection descended into misaligned affection.

But that too is a theme of life… even aligned affections don’t always stay that way. The fickle devotion of M- sur M- to Jean Valjean maps on to friendship as well. The (likely) slain Roman politician Scipio “used to say that the most difficult thing in the world was for a friendship to remain unimpaired to the end of life. So many things might intervene: conflicting interests; differences of opinion in politics; frequent changes in character, owing sometimes to misfortunes, sometimes to advancing years.” Friendships are often “broken by a rivalry in courtship,” a “competition for office,” or “lust for gold.” Or, consider how marriages often come apart after the children grow up. Relationships fall away, and they often do so because of misaligned affections.

But what shall we do with the knowledge that misaligned affections are commonplace? Or, that aligned affections are rare and often devolve? Does that even matter, functionally speaking?

I think it does. But I think it’s only helpful if we view the world backwards. Commonly, we love that which gives us gain. It makes sense because it’s a mutually reinforcing, positive feedback loop. But what if we love that which strips us of ourselves? What if we love and lose?

A noteworthy writer I recently discovered, Steph Catudal, said, “to love and to lose is the same.” I didn’t understand that at first, but now it seems to make sense. Every aspect of life seems to be invaded with this idea. For example:

In self, you lose. To love yourself is to give up the desires of your present self and lose time, attention and energy to a future self you are not yet.

In family, you lose. To love a child is to impart love, direction and a sense of identity until the child no longer needs to receive it… until they ultimately lose dependence on you. To love a sibling is to lose sole rights to parental love, attention and familial resources. To love a parent is to accept the losses they demand of you (when you’re young).

In work, you lose. You turn over your creation to another to do with as they will. The best result is to give the outcome of your creativity to a recipient who has experience and analytical capabilities sufficient to realize all you’ve done. Such a recipient then couples recognition with gratitude and compensates you well for your work. Most of the time, that isn’t the result.

In friendship, you lose. You unveil your masculine or feminine energy (whichever the case may be) and in doing so lose the ability to protect its flame. One word from a friend can damn near snuff it out.

In Eros, you lose. You relinquish sole control of your life, subjugating your desires to that of another. You give to another out of your abundance, and when that has been emptied you search for more to give.

In the Transcendent, you lose. Much like Eros, the Other painfully sears the paradoxical impressions of your own grandeur and absolute unworthiness into your soul.

“Ok great, Martyn. I’m over this language of loss. What does ‘love equals loss’ have to do with misaligned affections?” Excellent question. And to your candid question I offer an honest answer… I don’t fully know. I’m grasping here, as well.

But it seems that the truth is this: We always love (remember St. Augustine and David Foster Wallace?). And yet, in our loves there are never aligned affections. Never. We always lose. But in our competitions, we’re seem to always pitted against a noble adversary: future self, family, friendship, romance, work, God. They’re all worthy of vanquishing us. The question is whether we lose to that which is greater than us, or to the smallness of our present self.

I confess I often don’t think in these terms. In all aspects of my life – self, family, friendship, romance, work, God – I often try to bring about victories. By that I mean, I work to bring about the best possible present, thinking that will bring about the best possible future. I seek to control and close down possibilities, all while being animated by pride, selfishness and a guarded franticness. I don’t realize it at the time, I’m actually just losing to the smallness of myself.

Maybe you can relate.

It seems the response to this is awareness, humility and acceptance. In saying that, I’m not advocating a course of action I have figured out. I’m the worst at all three. Like an enraged juggernaut, I pridefully fight what I can’t even see, unaware I’m only wounding myself. But upside is that I can stop wounding myself at any time. I can accept the infrequent, though deep wounds of love as life-giving, and move forward with humility.

So, I say all that to say, that I am grateful for my friendships. Through each one, I receive much more than I am capable of recognizing. Yet, I’m also aware that misaligned affections may come about in the future, and I will suffer a painful loss. But I would rather lose to the magnanimity of a noble friendship than the smallness of myself. Or, as Saint Augustine said (and Jean Valjean would be sure to echo), it’s “[b]etter to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.”

As this Christmas season beckons, here are a some questions to ponder:

Who have you lost to?
And who has lost to you?
In what ares of you life have you lost recently?
In what areas of your life have you not?

My hope for you is that you lose to what is far greater than yourself. I think, in that hope, I’m being your friend.

Cheers!
Martyn

PS. As this is written, it seems that we must accept the wounds of love, and merely continue on, now just wounded. It seems that I am making the case that we can either be wounded or small. What a choice.

But what if, with every love, we incorporate a part of that person into ourselves? What if love is ultimately an expansion, and to love something outside of ourselves actually makes us greater? I cannot think of a person who loves well who is not also a grand, ever expanding person.

For Stories #1 – A brief exchange at a gas station
“I really like that last sentence. It’s all good, but the last sentence is beautiful.”
-A

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