Marcel Proust was not a Christian, but there is a beautiful Christian theme that emerges from his childhood memory in Swann’s Way that captures the drama of sudden relief that compassion has on our souls and the subsequent realization that we are in a more serious need for continued compassion than we had previously realized. In it I see how the Good News that God the Father accepts me the way I am can help me as a father accept my children the way they are.
Marcel was a troubled little boy and nights in his room were traumatic and sleepless, his imagination going wild. The one consolation was his mother’s goodnight kiss. His father, a practical man, thought that he was too dependent upon his mother’s nightly kisses that helped him overcome the terrors of his imagination night after night, but tolerated it except when company came. Mr. Swann was the only company they ever had and while everyone else in the household looked forward to his visits, little Marcel did not. When Mr. Swann came over to the house he was the unwitting cause of greater suffering for the boy because, on those nights, Mamma would not kiss Marcel goodnight and the little boy would be left alone in his room to wrestle his demons while sleep evaded him.
One evening when Mr. Swann had come by the house, the little boy was sent off to bed without kisses and so terrorized by the thought of a whole night without a goodnight kiss, he concocted a way to get a note to his mother through the help of the housemaid. This was a serious violation of the rules and it was very, very risky. Punishment was certain. But sometimes little boys want attention badly enough to risk punishment. So Marcel did just that; he risked punishment to get the attention of his mother. A goodnight kiss and a punishment was better than nothing at all.
Mr. Swann had left before Mamma could respond to Marcel, and little Marcel was creeping quietly in the hallway, outside of his bedroom, spying on his parents to see what would be the outcome of his little note. Mother found him first and was very displeased. She hurriedly tried to get him off to bed before Father found him still awake and demanding kisses, a thing that he thought was a disturbing sign of weakness. But before Marcel could be persuaded to go back to his room, Father walked into the hallway and to the surprise of both Marcel and Mamma, he suggested that Mamma spend the evening consoling Marcel, evening spending the night on the extra bed that was in the boy’s room.
Mamma had the servant make up a bed while she held Marcel’s hands and read to him.
Mamma spent the night in my room: when I had just committed a sin so deadly that I was waiting to be banished from the household, my parents gave me a far greater concession that I should ever have won as the reward of a good action.
From the boy’s perspective there was no reason to expect anything more than just the nightly kiss, and even that was a gamble. But here he was getting the full of attention of his mother for the rest of the evening and then while he slept she would be close to him throughout the whole terrifying night. This was more than he could comprehend. He couldn’t comprehend what was going on because he was too confused and scared and young to realize that even his parents were confused and scared about their son’s mental anxiety. But, for once, unexpectedly, both parents thought compassion was all they could offer.
Marcel said he was “wretched every evening” with his “nervous sensibility” and that his mother and grandmother loved him too much to coddle him more than they did. A goodnight kiss was all he got. But tonight was different because his father had seen his son’s condition and, more out of weakness than love, suggested that Mamma spend the night with him. Marcel tells his story:
Momma stayed all night in my room, and it seems that she did not wish to mar by recrimination those hours, so different from anything that I had had a right to expect; for when Françoise (who guessed that something extraordinary must have happened when she saw Mamma sitting by my side, holding my hand and letting me cry unchecked) said to her: ‘But, Madam, what is little Master crying for?’ she replied; ‘Why, Françoise, he doesn’t know himself: it is his nerves. Make up the big bed for me quickly and then go off to your own.’
What follows is poignant.
And thus for the first time my unhappiness was regarded no longer as a fault for which I must be punished but as an involuntary evil which had been officially recognized, a nervous condition for which I was in no way responsible: I had the consolation that I need no longer mingle apprehensive scruples with the bitterness of my tears; I could weep henceforward without sin.
Compassion for people with mental illnesses tells them that they can weep henceforward without sin. But sometimes even our normally healthy children have fears and emotions that they cannot define or articulate that result in crying or sullenness or extreme shyness. We would be wise to avoid oversimplified explanations of their behavior that justify in our minds unjust recriminations.
I saw a video clip of a well-known speaker preaching about disobedience. In the clip that I saw he talked about the common sight of a child too shy to say hello to him in response to the parent’s command to greet the pastor. The pastor said he normally would just say, “That’s okay,” but he realized that he was tolerating disobedience from the child and that, by his acquiescence to the child’s shyness, the child, the parent, and he were all disobeying God! The clear intention of message was that no parent worth his salt would tolerate that kind of disobedience disguised as shyness and, if I were a member of his church, I got the clear message that my shy kid better say, “Hello, Pastor” or I’d be shamed and embarrassed. I would know what his ideal for my child was at every greeting and I would make it my ideal for my child even if I didn’t agree. Because I’d be nervous and irritated if my child clung to my knee and refused to say, “Hi.”
I winced the whole time I saw that bad advice and bad doctrine. The problem is that some kids are actually shy, but that’s not the biggest problem. The larger problem is that we cannot demand our children live up to our ideals every moment of their lives. While an obedient life is the end goal of every parent for his child it cannot be the ultimate goal of every moment with that child. The ultimate goal of every moment is for them to see the goodness and glory of God through Christ in us. Commands are necessary, but commands are not the only way to help a child (or adult) understand their own mind with its peculiar challenges and obstacles. Sometimes compassion will do the trick. In Marcel’s story this is what happened. He started understanding himself better, even as a little boy.
I ought then to have been happy; I was not. It struck me that my mother had just made a first concession which must have been painful to her, that it was a first step down from the ideal she had formed for me, and that for the first time she, with all her courage, had to confess herself beaten. It struck me that if I had just scored a victory it was over her; that I had succeeded, as sickness or sorrow or age might have succeeded, in relaxing her will, in altering her judgment; that this evening opened a new era, must remain a black date in the calendar. And if had dared, I should have said to Mamma: ‘No, I don’t want you; you mustn’t sleep here.’
He started realizing he had a serious problem. Mother had just made a first concession. And with that realization of his own weakness he started seeing his mother as more beautiful than he had ever seen before.
Certainly my mother’s beautiful features seemed to shine again that evening, as she sat gently holding my hands and trying to check my tears; but, just for that reason, it seemed to me that this should not have happened; her anger would have been less difficult to endure than this new kindness which my childhood had not known; I felt that I had with an impious and secret finger traced a first wrinkle upon her soul and made the first white hair show upon her head. This thought redoubled my sobs, and then I saw that Mamma, who had never let herself go in any tenderness with me, was suddenly overcome by my tears and had to struggle to keep back her own. Then, as she saw that I had noticed this, she said to me, with a smile: ‘Why, my little buttercup, my little canary-boy, he’s going to make Mamma as silly as himself if this goes on. Look, since you can’t sleep, and Mamma can’t either, we mustn’t go on in this stupid way; we must do something; I’ll get one of your books.’ . . . I was only too delighted. . .
Mamma then began reading to him until he fell fast asleep. See the progression?
There’s crying and inexplicable sadness. Then surprising compassion. With that comes a new awareness of one’s own deeper needs that even compassion cannot make go away, but it is followed by an increased awareness of the beauty and loveliness of the one showing the compassion. Then follows a sorrow for what our weakness is doing to the one showing us so much compassion and our sobs redouble. Then comes more compassion with fellowship. Finally, peace. And all this started when a parent sacrificed her ideal and embraced the reality of who her little boy was.
Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant (Philippians 2:4-11) to embrace the reality of our fallenness. He can do so much more than we can do. He can restore us and heal us. Completely. And this should inform our parenting and our counseling, all of our dealings with people who have inexplicably complex emotional and mental struggles.
Marcel Proust’s troubled life and philosophy should not distract us from hints of grace and illustrations of Gospel love that come through his writings. We could argue about the exact way to treat a child with mental illness or a child with a feisty sin nature in any particular situation, like when they are not going to bed as quietly and happily as they should. We can debate about when or if or how consistently to impose an iron hand of discipline. But sometimes we need to just concede our ideals and hug our child. Sometimes we need to feel the embrace of God our Father who accepts us even without ideal children, and while we pull our child to us let her write with her trembling hand the first wrinkle on our soul and make the first white hair show upon our head.