With pandemic reading coming to a close, I began to read short stories to my husband. First, a little Flannery O’Connor, then to check the item off my to-do list, we settled on the couch and I began reading “The Lament” by Anton Chekhov.
The art of the short story is the art of capturing an entire world in a single moment.
The more ordinary the moment, the better the author has done it. I once approached short stories as a news article, give me the facts, or a magazine feature, paint me a detailed and wide-ranging illustration of what we are about. This expectation made some short stories, like “Springtime á La Carte” by O. Henry very satisfying and “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor approachable, but left others utterly baffling (see “Hills like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway).
As my husband and I came to the last words of “The Lament” our reaction, both of us was to pause and say, “hmm.” It was hard to know what else to say.
In series of short stories titled, “The Poet and the Lunatics: Episodes in the Life of Gabriel Gale” by G. K. Chesterton, through a comic-murder-mystery telling, Chesterton explains to the world this breed of a person is called a poet. It may be “a person who writes poems” but, to put it more, ahem, poetically, a poet is one who “possesses special powers of imagination or expression.” According to Chesterton, this might make him one step away from lunacy, but it certainly makes him more insightful. Only the truest poet can capture the short story because only the poet can whole worlds in a brief exchange.
“The Lament” captures a moment, a man on a cab, drawn by a horse in the snow, who takes a single passenger and then a group of passengers before turning in for the night. He attempts multiple times to begin the same conversation, “My son…died this week,” he starts.
There are moments of awkward sympathy and comic dismissal. Overall, the world around him does not care. The narrator tells us, “It will soon be a week since his son died, and he has not been able to speak about it properly to anyone. One must tell it slowly and carefully; how his son fell ill … surely the listener would gasp and sigh, and sympathize with him?”
It is certainly a story for our times!
The world is moving so fast, so anonymously around him, and in the end, there is no one else to listen to him but his horse, because no one else has the time, the care, or the relationship to listen.
It relates to the world now because people are lonely, their pets become like children. For too many, they have no one else to love them, or with whom they feel safe enough to open their hearts to vulnerably.
Mother Teresa said,
“The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.”
The world without may see to be burning down around us, but what goes on within us? To love and to be connected to others breaks the heart that it might soften. When it softens, it will meet with grief and heartache. The power of enduring love is the choice to continue even though.
As C.S. Lewis wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
Chekhov sees in his cab driver that desire to preserve the softness of his love for his son in his grief, by holding the story of his death sacred. There is no one with whom he can share it.
In the end,
“Iona’s feelings are too much for him and he tells the little horse the whole story.”
Let’s not allow our communities to come to this point. Let us hear the stories. Let our hearts break a little when some suffering comes our way so that we can, as a community, be built stronger together than divided apart.