I still remember feeling really sick. So I decided to call off my trip for the week, and just get in bed—with “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens.
While I was feeling horrible, there was a pleasure in entering into the imaginative world of Dickens and his David. As I followed the story from his early sorrows, on through more heartaches and disappointments, I watched him grow from a boy to a young man. Slowly, slowly, he began to find his way. And then, sigh as I did, he married Dora, sweet young thing that she was—and of course she didn’t have much staying power, and died too early. There is much, much more to the wonderful story, but what I remember the next week, on my delayed trip, was feeling like everywhere I went I saw someone from the novel. There was Mr. Micawber, and over there was Uriah Heep, and then all of a sudden James Steerfoth came into the room, and of course, there was Betsey Trotwood too. They were all there, populating my world.
Perhaps it was the first time I remember thinking about the argument, “Bad books lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” Walker Percy told his tales more than a hundred years after Dickens, but they saw the same reality—and even better, wrote their stories knowing that it was true.
This past week Meg and I have been watching the BBC version of “Bleak House,” another Dickens novel. I find myself thinking the same thing. The stories he tells, the characters he introduces, are the world that I know. They are the people of my life, and I see them all day long.
At the heart of the story is a long, complicated court case, one that has taken years to hear—and of course, has cost a lot of money, “lawyers’ fees and all.” A fortune is at stake, and every Tom-Dick-and-Harry wants a piece of the pie. The novel offers this story through the characters of Richard and Ada, a young couple deeply in love, and even more deeply in love with their “prospects.” The best plans, the most sensible ideas, the wisest counsel, all are set aside for “their prospects,” for what someday might be. They don’t choose to have a life; rather they spend their life imagining a life.
Given who I am, and what I do, I see that. The twenty-something years are rife with temptations, and that is one of the worst. Finding the responsibility of life harder than imagined, we hope against hope that “if only” that would happen, or perhaps this…. and miss what is honestly before us.
I have lived my life for dreams of what might be, of what could be, of what someday will be. So there is nothing in me that disdains dreaming. But we have to be people who understand the holy tension of life, the place where hope meets history. We have to live in the world that is really there, the one with ordinary lives, and ordinary responsibilities. If we fail there, then who really cares what our dreams are?
Dickens understood that. One of the best lines of “David Copperfield” comes when Dora is dying, and David is contemplating their sad, short life together, concluding, “Trifles make the sum of life.” I was caught by those words, and said them so often, Meg eventually cross-stitched them and framed her work for my birthday one year. It still hangs in our dining room, reminding us all of what is real and true and right—and frail people that we are, we need to remember that that was not only true for David and Dora, but for us. Yes, frail people that we are.