Last night I went to see Les Misérables on the big screen. This is not going to be a review of the film – well, ok, maybe just a little:
If this had been the only portrayal of the musical I’d ever seen, it would have been magnificent (Russell Crowe excepted). As it is, it was visually stunning with some stand-out performances (especially for the choral pieces) but, on the whole, I preferred the stage and audio versions I’ve heard to the movie.
There, that’s done. Now to the actual important stuff.
There was some discussion, post-movie, about the relative strengths of the characters. Some feel that there are “no strong female characters”, an argument which I can understand if not agree with. Without giving away any spoilers, I think it can be argued that two characters in particular – Fantine and Valjean – were incredibly strong. The interesting thing that these two people have in common, though, is that they really don’t live their own lives.
An Other Life
Every other character is motivated by some personal motivation: an urge for duty, or love, or greed. These two, though, give their entire lives (I’m speaking metaphorically, not literally) for one purpose, the care of the child Cosette. It could be argued that everything that they do is motivated towards that one end, the nourishment of the child.
And as a result, they end up being the strongest, most self-sacrificing and enduring presences of the musical (and yes, I fall into the “Anne Hathaway ROCKS!” camp, in case you’re wondering). They also, tangentially, affect profoundly the lives of those they come into contact with.
It made me wonder: absent Cosette, what were Fantine’s dreams? Valjean was originally jailed for stealing a loaf of bread to save his sister’s son. What if the child had been well-fed? What were Valjean’s hopes and plans for himself? There are hints here and there in the story, but it’s not really shown since early on he basically dedicates himself to becoming an asset to the people around him – providing jobs, charity, and the occasional strong back when you’re being crushed by a cart.
Is that really how it works? Is the key to a truly meaningful life to simply give up on what you want and go for trying to spend time working for others? It flies in the face of the whole “gotta achieve my dream!” idea, but studies show that people who volunteer in various capacities to help others are, in fact, happier for the experience. In some cases, in fact, the volunteering benefited them more than the people they were trying to help!
Give What You Have, Not What You Need
The big – and I mean huge – caveat from those studies is that it has to actually be voluntary. If you say to yourself, after reading this blog post, I want to be happier, so I’m going to go volunteer! then odds are you’ll get the results you’re looking for. On the other hand, if you say I really should volunteer, because otherwise I’m a selfish bastard, then you’re probably going to be pretty unhappy. Service done out of a sense of obligation or guilt tends to make people unhappy. In the Les Misérables arc, that would be the character of Javert, whose dedication to the law became his own damnation.
Likewise, “…being sacrificial quickly lowers well-being,” according to This Emotional Life. That means that you’re not actually helping anyone except in one particular way: you’re heading towards becoming one of those people who could benefit from a volunteer coming to help you out. I suppose that’s a kind of service – much like jumping off a second story building to provide the EMTs with something to do on a slow day – but I don’t recommend it.
Some of the most fun volunteering I’ve ever done was as an EMT for the McFarland Volunteer EMS. I did it for two years, and the benefits were plentiful. A nifty uniform. I got to drive the ambulance, with lights that went flicker-flash and buttons that made the whoop-whoop sound. Sometimes I was also in the back with the little machine with the wires and the sticky pads and the ping noise.
But also, every time I put on the uniform or washed down the ambulance, I was reminded of seeing my father coming home in his nifty uniform, of hearing the stories of delivering twins on the NJ turnpike or carrying large people down six flights of stairs on a gurney. It was a visceral, personal reward, which reinforced my self image.
But it also took away from my family. I had four children, and it was during my service that my wife and I decided to part ways. I don’t think it was related to the EMT service, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t help. And certainly being a volunteer when I was also a single Dad wasn’t going to do much for my kids.
So I went to Chief Hereid and told her that I needed to resign. She had the most beautiful and understanding look in her eyes, and I realized that she’d known that my energies were needed elsewhere long before I had. She simply nodded, thanked me for my service, and encouraged me to come back to volunteering when the needs of my family wasn’t as great.
I’ve never gone back to being an EMT; unfortunately, that era is past. But I have volunteered in many ways since then, keeping an eye towards balancing the needs of my life with what I’m able to give others. Sometimes that’s more successful than others, but hey, that’s what mondays are for: practice.
That lesson is the biggest thing to take away from the story of the selfless sacrifice of those in Les Mis: it’s a story. Reality means that you need to take care of yourself first, if necessary by treating your own life as a volunteer project. If you were a volunteer assigned to improve the life of someone just like you, what would be the first thing you’d do? Me, I’d do an intervention on financial management, followed by some time management tools that would help balance getting things done with relaxing. That’s where my own needs lie.