Lessons from Javert

Conrad and I just watched Les Miserables yesterday.  I love the music and I love the story--as tragic as all of it is.  I was surprised when Conrad told me that for him the most sentimental part was when Eponine died because to me, that was always a part of the story that I didn't really notice very much at all.  Eponine was (to me anyway) just a minor character and her story a side plot.  Certainly, she is pitiable (for being raised by the Thenardiers if for nothing else) and I don't mean to dismiss that at all, it just never stuck out to me.

But, the story that I think is extremely tragic is that of Javert.  Javert spends his entire life serving the law and exacting justice.  He identifies himself with the law.  He hunts down Jean Valjean everywhere he goes.  He devotes his entire life to justice.  He knows nothing of mercy or compassion.  His world view is so black and white, so absolute--there is no room for error, no room for forgiveness, no room for exception.  And then, when Valjean releases him rather than killing him, his entire world is turned upside down.  

Personally, I think that it is easy for many people to demonize Javert and thereby distance themselves from him--Conrad didn't have one good thing to say about him and didn't feel bad about him dying either.  But I think this is dangerous because each one of us really has a Javert inside.  When I first read the book back in high school, I probably had more pity for Javert than for any character.  The thing that I find so tragic about Javert is that his misery (and the misery he causes others) is entirely of his own making.  He is at the same time the perpetrator and the victim (although, not the sole victim) of his crime--not his crime against the law but against humanity.  His entire life he had the power to do good, but he never (that's probably a strong word, maybe "rarely" would be better) did not because he wanted to be evil, but because he thought that serving the law was the best way for him to be good.  

I would assert that by far the biggest cause for evil in the world is people doing what they believe to be right, but being completely wrong about that belief.  I don't think that Stalin really had in mind the slaughter of his people when he made his plan.  I think that he was trying to make a better Russia (and in many ways he did) and felt that the way he was doing it was effective.  I don't think the US government had as their goal the suffering of all the innocent civilians in Nagasaki and Hiroshima when they decided to bomb Japan.  I think that they really were doing what they thought was best.  Unfortunately, one's intentions do not excuse one's actions--as they say, the road to Hell is paved by good intentions.  I think that many of the evilest deeds ever done (as those mentioned) are done with the belief that they are actually good deeds.  

But, yesterday, as Conrad and I were eating dinner and talking about the play we had just seen, I started to realize one way in which I really could relate to Javert.  When he sees Jean Valjean be so kind to him, his world is shattered.  The way he viewed everything his whole life had been so wrong.  All he had believed and lived his life for was false.  He could not comprehend that someone could be as compassionate and forgiving as Jean Valjean was to him.  He could have had his life taken, and even expected it to be, but it was spared instead.  Unfortunately, the cognitive dissonance this created caused him to take his own life.  I had always seen this as his brain simply snapping because he realized that he was wrong his whole life.  And that's exactly how I felt when I realized that the LDS church is not true.  My brain snapped.  I didn't know what to think or what to feel anymore.  Such a surge of cognitive dissonance as I had never felt before.  Gladly, it wasn't so bad that I felt it necessary to kill myself, but I can definitely relate to how Javert felt.  

Of course, it goes further than that.  Just as Javert came to realize that people are good--that even a criminal can do something kind and compassionate for someone else--I came to realize that people are good.  I had always thought that people who didn't know Christ (or, more specifically, the LDS church) simply didn't know how to be the best they could be.  That is, I thought people were good in spite of being non-Mormon.  Then I came to realize that people are inherently good.  In fact, those who have no dogma to follow are more genuinely kind than those who are dogmatic.  That is, that people are good because they are non-Mormon (or, more specifically, non-religious).