The most recent natural disaster spreads itself across your news feed while coverage has preempted the day’s programming on NPR. A grizzled, rheumy-eyed man reeking of alcohol sticks out his hand and cobbles together a story of need. A blog post about the refugee crisis sets you to wondering if there’s anything practical your family, your church, or your community could be doing.
Human need on repeat.
By the end of the day, numbness has wallpapered itself over urgency, and a few chapters from a novel or an hour or two of Netflix-valium convinces you it’s impossible for one person to respond to it all. You have work to do, a life to live. Is it even wise to let the stories of others trouble your heart?
In Chapters 21-23, Jayber Crow makes the choice to let his heart be troubled by events in his community. He reaches into the past for backstory while also taking notice of the continual narrative arc of the Port William Membership. He takes a good hard look at his own role in the community and then follows through on a decision to enter into the heartbreak of others.
Who’s the Main Character in this Story, Anyway?
Athey Keith? The eponymous narrator disappears from the action for a time as Chapter 21 follows hard on the heels of Athey’s stand against racism and his soft-spoken conclusion that “if we can’t live together we can’t live atall.” It provides insight to the kind of home that produced Athey’s character, and also sheds light on the awakening of empathy in a young boy who had just had the pudding scared out of him, but still managed to feel sorry for one of his persecutors. We begin to see how Athey became the man who could put a stop to a loafer’s persecution of “Woger Woberts” but who decided to brook the antics of his abrasive son-in-law in order to preserve family harmony.
Troy and Mattie Chatham? Troy’s unfaithfulness to Mattie is chief among the happenings Jayber allows to trouble his heart. In the spirit of “know your enemy,” Jayber has pegged Troy as a man with no margins and is able to pin point with confidence the event that likely precipitated Troy’s adulterous choice. (232) At “the cold downward end of 1954,” the story of Jayber and Clydie’s romantic evening is swallowed up in Jayber’s sickening realization that he is no different from Troy in his philandering ways. The story’s flow returns to Jayber as he repents at leisure on the long walk from Hargrave to Port William, and Part II comes to a close with Jayber’s momentous choice that shapes the remainder of the book.
The Way of Love
Jayber was unsure at the outset whether the way that was opening up before him was more like a door — or a wound. Trying to convince himself that he knew who he was, he devised a dubious syllogism as he ruined his dress shoes while keeping to the “darker side of the difference” on the slushy path home:
(1) Mattie has an unfaithful husband;
(2) She needs a faithful husband;
(3) Jayber will be the faithful husband Mattie deserves.
In effect, Jayber made (and ended up keeping!) a vow of celibacy for Mattie’s sake. When Jayber referred to himself as “an ignorant pilgrim crossing a dark valley” (133), who would have suspected that the bachelor barber of Port William would embark upon a pilgrimage that would, for him at least, transcend time?
[L]ove, sooner or later, forces us out of time…. It includes the world and time as a pregnant woman includes her child whose wrongs she will suffer and forgive…. I saw that Mattie was not merely desirable, but desirable beyond the power of time to show…. Like every living creature, she carried in her the presence of eternity. That was why, as she grew older, I saw in her always the child she had been, and why, looking at her when she was a child, I felt the influence of the woman she would be. (248)
With Jayber’s vow in mind, we begin to see the art behind his choosing when he selected “the proper handful” of story elements from the “granary full of wheat” that comprised the details of his life. (29) This is what he meant when he referred to Mattie as part of his “future,” not yet imagined (62), and when he knelt beside her at her young daughter’s grave and called this “his calling in this world.” (207)
Whatever your opinion of Jayber’s devotion to Mattie, one thing is certain: We become like what we behold. While he was obsessed with Troy’s annoying qualities and his hold over Mattie, Jayber began to realize that he and Troy were brothers in a way that was horrifying. Once his attention was turned truly toward the object of his devotion (rather than his rival), Jayber’s heart opened up to all the things Mattie loved, and he seemed to find a new sense of belonging and a settledness that had escaped him before:
Before, I had yearned for company, especially the company of women, and gone seeking it. Now I no longer went seeking, but taught myself (and not always easily) to make do with the company that came…. Now, finally, I really had lost all desire for change, every last twinge of the notion that I ought to get somewhere or make something of myself. I was what I was. “I will stand like a tree,” I thought, “and be in myself as I am.” And the things of Port William seemed to stand around me, in themselves as they were. (254)
Though I was divided from the female society of Port William as much as before, I did not feel estranged from it as before. I was involved, a participant. The community I lived in and served by my unillustrious yet needful work was Mattie’s community also…. We were thus joined. I lived as I thought she did: hoping for good, reconciled to the bad, welcoming the little unexpected happinesses that came.” (259)
Jayber becomes rooted in the community through borrowed family ties that could never become more than a longing.
Questions to Carry with Us
Has the desire to be different from someone you despised ever served as a powerful motivation for a change in your own life?
A self-giving love that can never be declared to its object is a death to self that would be unthinkable to me. Jayber’s prayer to “know in [his] heart [God’s] love for the world” is his gateway to suffering. Is this why we shelter ourselves, averting our eyes from the pain of the world? How much courage would it take to love the world as God loves? I believe Jayber was on his way to truth with this insight: “. . . [A] man might so love this world that it would break his heart.” (254)
Did you notice that Jayber seized another opportunity to expand upon “barbership” as a “privileged position?” (231) As the man behind the chair, he became privy to details that served as puzzle pieces in putting together the story of the Port William Membership.
I found his observations on the connection between woe and comedy (231) to be particularly poignant, and especially accurate for that post-war era — and maybe our own? Further down the page, he notes that trouble served to bring a tenderness to Athey, “a suffering he neither complained of nor denied.” I confess to being weak in this area, with a low tolerance for suffering, for woe, and, particularly, for silence. Maybe we citizens of the 21st century need to join Port William in savoring our own comedy?
Now It’s Your Turn . . .
I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts as we forge ahead into Part III. Be sure to share links to any blog posts you write on Jayber Crow or related topics. Last week, the conversations were both lively and insightful, and I loved finding threads that continued over at the shared posts.
I’ll be back here next week having read Chapters 24-26.
Here’s the schedule for upcoming discussion posts:
Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion
OCTOBER 26………………….CHAPTERS 21-23
NOVEMBER 2…………………CHAPTERS 24-26
NOVEMBER 9…………………CHAPTERS 27-29
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32
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