In his classic children’s story, The Happy Prince, author Oscar Wilde recounts the meeting of a southerly migrating swallow and a statue of a happy prince at the outset of winter. The statue had once been a young boy, sequestered within a garden estate where everything that he saw was beautiful. Now, as a statue at the entrance to a city, he experienced the misery of poverty and sickness all around him for the first time. And the prince was crying. He befriended the swallow, convincing the bird, however reluctantly at first, to stay with him and remove the rubies, sapphires, and gold plating from his statue-body in order to provide them to the forgotten, suffering people of the city. As winter set in, his loyal friend, the swallow, died from the cold (but in service to others) at the feet of the statue. The now-shabby statue was subsequently removed, disassembled, and melted. However, the prince’s leaden heart would not melt down and was discarded, along with the dead swallow, into the trash.
The story’s author, Oscar Wilde would have viscerally understood the notion of rejection in his own life on a very personal basis. Wilde was a highly noted and prolific novelist, playwright, and poet during the late 19th Century. He resided in London, England with his wife and two children. However, at the peak of his notoriety, popularity and wealth, Wilde was prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned for a same-sex relationship with another man. Society deemed his behavior indecent and scandalous. He was roundly rejected and derided for expressing his authentic, deeply felt sexuality in ‘unacceptable’ ways. Wilde was released following two years of imprisonment, but his health had badly deteriorated as a result of his incarceration. He died financially destitute and alone only a few years later in Paris, France. How ironic that, like the happy prince and the sparrow in his own short story, Wilde was discarded in the marginalized ‘trash bin’ of society.
We don’t have to look very far to find similar, real-life, and more current examples of rejection in our own neighborhoods, work spaces, and even our places of worship in some instances. This rejection is often based on the premise of Other— driven by differences in others that we perceive as inferior to ourselves or to our accepted norms. The issue here isn’t the differences themselves. For we’re all different in ways both on and under the surface of things. Instead, the problem is how we actually view and value these differences. And, far too often, we de-value or even fear them for threatening our own ‘space’ of entitlement, possessiveness, biased notions of acceptability, or comfort with only those people who look, think, and act like us already. When we do that, it’s not a large leap to the next step: excluding and excoriating them for tyring to encroach into ‘our own backyards’. Strangely enough, this is sometimes most present in the sanctimonious, divisive attitudes of our many, varied religions practiced throughout the world—the venues that we’d think should be the most loving and inclusive. The late Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once said that “The most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” This distain for ‘otherness’ remains true today in one degree or another between far too many religions, within-religion denominations, and geographic areas across the world.
Most of us join groups or organizations in order to feel a part of something. To be welcomed and accepted by others. Perhaps this act of ‘joining’ meets our intrinsic human need to belong. How ironic, then, that some of these groups (even places of worship) can overtly or inadvertently reject and displace others who happen to think, believe, feel, look, or act differently than the majority of its members—at times as an excuse for their own unconscious self-doubts and insecurities. Contemporary author and theologian Richard Rohr has articulated this idea quite effectively:
“We hate our own faults in other people, and sadly we often find the best cover for that protection in religion. God and religion, I am afraid, have been used to justify most of our violence and to hide from the shadow parts of ourselves that we would rather not admit…”
In other words, our very own religions are sometimes used to protect the false, illusionary sense of our individual righteousness and superiority by scapegoating and crucifying others. We subconsciously project our own unacknowledged faults onto someone or something else in the name of our respective faith traditions.
There are many divergent opinions on the origins (etymology) of the word ‘religion’, itself. As such, it’s impossible to define this term precisely. But one potentially helpful theory posits that the roots of the world lie in the idea of ‘choosing again’. This means that religion should be about reconnecting with God and with others in loving, whole communion. If we accept this definition, we’re called to recover the Universal Creation Purpose of God, not cling to rigid tribal doctrines that separate us today. Religion should be about showing us how to live together, as humans, in God’s love—not an obsession with what’s ‘absolutely and inerrantly’ right relative to what we theologically believe to be true. This applies, of course, not just to churches, but to any group that has the power to include and exclude. To any tightly gripped, zealous, and sacrosanct ideologies, practices, politics, and social values that are held out as somehow ‘religious’ in their nature and following.
If we’re ever going to address the divisiveness and associated exclusion of others in our organizations, communities, and religions, we must ultimately and inclusively encounter our differences from above, not at the surface level. We need to see ourselves as God sees us. This is the first and most important step. Because from above the surface, we’re all human beings. We’re all loved, sacred beings. We’re all formed by God as special creatures, unique from other living species. Like all other living things, we are born into life and we’ll die one day. We’re mortal and finite in our earthly beings. But, as humans, our lives are far more nuanced and complex than other living creatures. For, perhaps unlike these creatures, human beings have the ability to seek and understand our place in the world. To be fully cognizant of our own mortality and to act in ways accordingly. We have the innate capacity to think beyond the immediate tasks at hand. To truly seek and find fulfillment and transcendence in our work and in our sacred lives.
Furthermore, humans share an innate desire to love and to be loved. Not just romantically. But in a far greater, more far-reaching holistic sense. We share this need. We mutually seek its fulfillment in our sacred beings. The 20th Century French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin aptly stated it:
“Love is the affinity which links and draws together the elements of the world. Love, in fact, is the agent of universal synthesis.”
Lastly, the entirety of humanity shares the desire for immortality. For some, this means going to Heaven after death. For others, it’s about leaving a legacy behind– whether an inheritance, children and grandchildren to carry on the family name, a lasting accomplishment or difference made, stories to hand down, or loving memories for the generations that follow our passing. We want and need to know that our lives have actually mattered.
So, in the end, there’s much richness and value in the diversity of all that which lies at or beneath the ‘water’s surface’ of our lives. However, in order to think more deeply about ourselves, we need to get above it all. Not to look ‘down’ on others. But to see all of those around us just like the flying swallow did in Wilde’s The Happy Prince. Even more importantly in this regard, we need to see ourselves as God sees us. If we do, we’ll most assuredly come to know this: no matter how diverse we appear to be, we all share the one thing that matters most. We share the lasting bond of common sacred humanity. And we begin, however haltingly but surely, to see all others in the way that God does. With love.
Here, again, Wilde’s poignant short story, The Happy Prince, comes to the fore. That’s because the story didn’t end with discarding the statue’s heart and the dead bird into the trash. No. There’s a much more profound ending to it, as things turn out. The narrative states what happened next:
“Bring me the two most precious things in the city,” said God to one of His Angels; and the Angel brought Him the Prince’s leaden heart and the dead bird. “You have rightly chosen,” said God, “for in my garden of Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me.”
The Prince’s un-melted, unwanted, and leaden heart was worthless in human terms. But it was nonetheless precious in God’s eyes. Like the happy prince, we’ve all been gifted with a heart. A heart from God with the capacity to love, share with, support, respect and value, and help empower others—whether we see them as like us or as different from us. And fortunately, our hearts can melt. We can see our world with new, understanding, loving, compassionate, and ‘connected’ eyes: the very eyes that God gave us in creation. And, with this vision, our hearts will melt. As our hearts melt, they can be moved as well. For, unlike the statue-prince, we are not lodged in stone. We can actively and generously reach out to the forgotten, marginalized, and ‘other’ people of this world. Then embrace with love what others reject in fear, suspicion, misunderstanding and disdain.
The shabby, decayed dead Swallow in Wilde’s story was likewise considered useless and discarded. But it was loved by God as priceless. Just like the swallow, we’ve all been gifted with wings and feet. We can see, however imperfectly, from afar and from above. We can respond, in love, to the loneliness, sadness, heartbreak, rejection, and poverty experienced by others. We can deliver real presence, hope, and accompaniment. Most importantly, we can simply ‘be’ with others in their times of need. We may be asked by another to remain through the cold, bitter, and howling winds. We may be asked to make a significant sacrifice. Our plans and ‘migration routes’ may need to change along the way. We’ll be uncomfortable and unsettled in the process, to be sure. However, this is what real friendship is all about. Especially when it’s with others whom society has discarded, minimized, disrespected, and forgotten. And, like the Oscar Wilde’s swallow, we join the ‘other’ in this world not to get thanks. It’s the other way around, actually. We give thanks for the precious ‘other’. In fact, we should all give grateful thanks for being One with An-‘Other’.
Now, that’s a great ending to our story…