‘Les Misérables’ shows even failed trust can be healed

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, May 20, 2009 

One of my all-time favourite films is Bille August’s 1998 interpretation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, starring Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean. Set in 19th century France, the opening scenes, in particular, have taught me much about trust, failure and redemption.

Jean Valjean has just been paroled after 19 years of hard labour in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Passing through a small town late in the day, he knocks on the door of the local bishop. When the bishop answers, Valjean asks for some food and shows the bishop his papers identifying him as a dangerous convict. Ignoring the document, the bishop invites Valjean to come inside and share dinner with him and his housekeeper.

While the three are seated at the table, Valjean is eyeing the valuable silverware as the housekeeper asks what crime he committed.

“Maybe I killed someone,” he answers, and then adds, “How do you know I’m not going to murder you?”

The bishop turns the question around and asks Valjean, “How do you know I’m not going to murder you?”

“What’s that, a joke?” Valjean asks.

The bishop responds, “I suppose we’ll have to trust each other.”

“Trust each other”? Allow me to digress for a moment. In last week’s column on failure, ownership and accountability, I quoted Cochrane author David Irvine:

“Trust lies at the foundation of every relationship.”

Breakdown in trust is possibly the most difficult failure of all to recover from. It’s often associated with self-interest, cover-up and denial. As St. Albert coffee companion Jenny Bocock wrote the other day, “We cannot have trust unless there are honest and greed-free people.”

Failure of trust within families and among close friends is especially tragic. Cochrane area aerospace entrepreneur Sandford “Sandy” McLeod describes it this way in verse:

When families feel a breach of trust,
Faith dissolves in a cloud of dust,
We feel the pain of being alone,
We veer off course like a drone.

But even here, there is hope – at least for those who take ownership of failed trust and are prepared to become accountable. Cochrane businessman Paul Morel, responsible for hiring many over the years, put it this way in an e-mail:

“One thing I’ve noticed is that those who have made failures – sometimes spectacular ones – and recovered tend to make the best productive workers at all levels.”

But where does such recovery have its start? With the one responsible for broken trust? But what if that person is so caught up in a distorted mindset that he or she is incapable of initiating the changes necessary to restore a relationship of trust?

Now back to the “Les Mis” dinner table.

After the bishop says, “We’ll have to trust each other,” Valjean recounts his sad tale of imprisonment, not for murder, but for theft. He then retires for the night, saying to his host, “In the morning, I’ll be a new man.”

In the middle of the night, however, he is awakened by a nightmare. He gets up and stuffs the bishop’s silverware into his knapsack. When the bishop catches him in the act, Valjean knocks him unconscious and flees.

Later that day, police officers arrest Valjean and bring him and the stolen silverware back to the bishop. The bishop tells the officers that he had given the silverware to Valjean, and turning to the man who only hours earlier had so violently broken trust with him, asks why he hadn’t taken the valuable silver candlesticks, too. He even has the housekeeper put them into Valjean’s knapsack.

The officers release Valjean, as the bishop reminds his guest about his words of the previous night: “Don’t ever forget, you’ve promised to become a new man.”

Valjean asks why his host is doing this.

The bishop looks deep into his eyes and says:

“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil. With this silver I’ve bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred. Now I give you back to God.”

The bishop saw in the Valjean standing before him, not the violent thief who broke trust the night before, but the new person he would become over the following years.

Jean Valjean eventually became a successful industrialist and popular mayor who never forgot the grace the bishop had extended to him. He became an agent of that grace for others, and relationships of compassionate trust, though repeatedly tested, stood firm.

If trust, by definition, is a relationship of reliance, then the new Valjean illustrates that failures even in this, when ownership of failure is acknowledged and forgiveness embraced, can be overcome.

© 2009 Warren Harbeck

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