In Flannery O’Connor’s controversial, dark short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a petty, conniving, vain, selfish grandmother is accosted by escaped convicts while on a road trip with her son, daughter-in-law and 3 grandchildren. She and her family (spoiler alert) are shot and killed by the cons. Near the very end, the grandmother shows elements of humility and compassion as she reasons with and even tries to comfort the lead killer, named ‘The Misfit.’ It doesn’t work. But after he shoots her, the Misfit claims, in a moment of perverse remorse, that the grandmother “would have been a good woman, if there had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
I read it and immediately felt like I had been shot through (no pun) with a moment of painful clarity into human nature, or at least mine. I was just given a gift of insight and self-awareness. After all, Isn’t that what separates literary geniuses from the rest of the gifted writers. These geniuses give us images that expose us, enlighten us, humble us and, if we are lucky, transform us
Commentators believe O’Connor, a devout Catholic, makes two main points in this brutal short story.
One, the grandma and the Misfit are two sides of the same coin; deeply flawed sinners in need of the saving grace of Christ. O’Conner, a uniquely Southern writer, captures the essence of the ‘White Southern sinner’ of her time – full of pretense, false hospitality and graciousness that mask a deep suspiciousness and dislike of “the other,” and the willingness to use Jesus when convenient. The Misfit, more base in nature, lacks the pretense of the grandma. Neither measure up. All have sinned and fallen short.
Second, one traumatic event will not change your life necessarily for the better or forever.
I endured a great trial when I suffered through treatment in 2014 – mastectomy, chemotherapy, near-death infection, radiation. I was a better person through all that, or so I thought. I was gentler, less anxious and petty. I trusted God more and consequently enjoyed His presence more. In 2015, after treatment, I began to revert to my old self as i gained a false confidence that I was going to live mythically forever (to be explained). I don’t want to overstate this to make a point. I didn’t shoot a family along the roadside. I didn’t start manipulating and guilting my family, like the Grandma, to get my way. I hope I didn’t. But I did notice a subtle taking advantage of the grace of God and feeling a pressure to have my own way seeping its way back into my personality.
It is now 2019. I have Stage 4 cancer, which is not curable. In a sense I do have a gun to my head every minute of my life. And as a result, the petty vain things of this world are sloughing off faster than I can say Amazon Prime and faster than I can think up an endless list of what my husband should be doing for me or faster than I can complete a critical or judgmental thought of how someone has disappointed me. I like the new me, the metastatic me. Don’t get me wrong I’m not a masochist. I don’t want this disease. I don’t want this. I will say it again so I’m clear, I don’t want this! Nor would I have chosen it in order to get to the new improved version of me. And I am not sure that I will continue to like this new me. It could get ugly and so could my mood. But now, I am kind of feeling good about myself-my gentler personality . When I am not in pain that is. Methadone helps with that.
Here is what I’m learning
…you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.
Much of life is not cherished when we live in the “mythical state of immortality.” I am seeing how much of life is lived carelessly, vainly, judgmentally, critically, trivially, selfishly and proudful. ‘Mythical immortality’ (my term) is the belief that other people die, I don’t. The myth that I live forever, physically; a myth we can’t help but believe if our strongest desire is to live for ourselves and for our own happiness or at the least for the happiness of our own little tribe. When I live in this state, I find that my opinions and sentiments are imbedded deeply in the soil of self-righteous indignation. Everything matters; from the inanest to the most profound. There’s little wiggle room to separate out the important opinions from the trite. It’s all emotionally equal and meaningful because it originates with me and I am the master gardener of this creation – my life. Along the way of this mythical immortal self becomes the thin skinned, gossipy, greedy, worried, envious behaviors that are so common that I hardly notice them as being anything, but the way life is lived by all.
‘Mythical immortality’ is the belief that other people die, I don’t.
But then – Kapow! – the gun is at the head and the myth evaporates: a nice doctor gives me not very nice news. I am sick, really sick and not going to be allowed to live within the mythical boundaries of forever future plans. Within minutes of the news, however, I am given an invisible blank memory stick and I begin to upload two files. First file: a list of all that I am going to be “cheated” out of. Second file: what there is to be grateful for. It is easy to download what I might be cheated out of. Its not so easy to do the other bit.
But here is the catch, what is there to be grateful for if I don’t have someone to say, ‘thank you’ to? Thank you to my husband for the endless times as he serves me selflessly and generously. Thank you to medical scientists and doctors who show compassion within their expertise. Thank you to my daughters and their spouses for their support and love. Thank you to my many friends who show me extraordinary kindness and love. But unless there is a cosmic creator whose thumbprint is behind all the small and great wonders of existence then the thankfulness loses its mystery, awe and lifegiving power. I feel more alive when I am thanking God. God is eternal and somehow my thankfulness is linked to eternity and therefore takes on a more powerful life-giving meaning:
In everything give thanks; for this God’s will for you.
– 1 Thessalonians 5:18
1. Giving ‘thanks in everything’ is not the same as ‘there is a reason for everything.’ I should blog about this sometime.
2. There is a better way to be better without having a gun held to your head every minute of your life or to have metastatic cancer. I should blog about this sometime.