The Main Character

Every story has a main character – the protagonist – around whom the story unfolds and revolves. It is his or her thoughts and experiences that drive the narrative. All others characters, though they may be important, are really only important insofar as they relate to the central character.

In many respects, that is the nature of our lives. We are the main character in our own story, and regardless of how important another person may be, we tend to relate to them based on our concerns and not as they are in themselves . Even when a loved one dies, it is our own grief that is central to us. This is all quite natural. After all the only eyes I have to see the world are my own.

It strikes me however that Jesus is the one human being who lived and died and yet placed himself as peripheral to his story. He is the only genuinely non-self-centred person in human history. All that he said and did was for others and in response to the Father. He didn’t defend himself. He didn’t glorify himself. He didn’t look down on himself (which is but a distorted kind of self-centredness). He was entirely unselfconscious and consequently was entirely free to give and to receive.

In so many ways the invitation to Christian discipleship is an invitation to self-displacement, to a radical de-centering of self as the protagonist of our life stories. The paradox of the Christian faith is that life is found in losing it, strength found in weakness, gain is found in giving up pursuit of it.

I must confess that this is incredibly difficult in practice, regardless of how lovely it sounds in theory. Well I suppose the saying is true, everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die. Yet Christianity is exactly about death – about living as though already dead, which is what Jesus himself said we are to do.

I haven’t attained this level of self – displacement yet. Maybe I never will. But occasionally, when I pause the never ending stream of thoughts and emotions of how I feel, what I think, why this one is wrong, what I want, etc., occasionally I am able to catch a glimpse of what it is to live as a side character in God’s story instead of as the protagonist of my own.

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The First Time I ate dinner with a multi-millionaire

I don’t recall exactly what I ate, though I know I opted for the chicken instead of the fish.  And I cannot recall the details of the conversations we held. I was far too nervous for any of that, and besides, it has been twenty-five years since I stepped on that elevator and ascended to the top floor of the bank building and entered an exclusive club to dine with a millionaire.

I received the invitation because I, along with several other people, were recipients of a scholarship designated for minorities in a particular field.  The scholarship was substantial – more than enough to cover room and board for the year with some left to spare. The requirements were not as substantial – maintain a certain G.P.A. (which, if I recall correctly, was lower than I thought it should be). The sponsors of the scholarship wanted every year to meet the recipients, to dine with the beneficiaries of his largesse and to see on whom his money was being spent.

The hosts were hospitable. The wife especially had that indescribable quality that so many southern women of a certain age and of certain means possess – that ability to be self-possessed and gracious no matter what the subject of conversation, the level of the person with whom she was speaking, or even the extent of the social awkwardness of her guests. Such women, either through long experience or practical training, are the type that make excellent wives to high flying business executives and politicians.

I remember her quite well because of something that happened that nearly flapped her unflappable demeanour. Something that embarrassed me though I was not the cause.

As I remember, we were engaged in the kind of mindless small talk that seems to dominate these meetings – this chicken is very tasty, I’m not a fan of asparagus – that kind of thing.  Our hostess commented that one or another thing on her plate was very nice. Then, to my shock and amazement, one of the scholarship recipients, a young woman older than myself, a sophomore to my freshman status (and even more awkward than I was) boldly asked her, ‘Can I have some of it?’  The eyes of our hostess widened a bit, but she quickly recovered. ‘Sure,’ she said, and she adopted the unmistakable pose of someone poised to call the waiter to table when suddenly, unexpectedly, my fellow scholar thrust her fork and knife into the woman’s plate, cleaving off a healthy portion of the (I believe) fish, and shoving it with gusto into her mouth.

Now let the reader recall, we were there, all of us, as young minority (read Black) recipients of an academic award dining at an exclusive club with the White multi-millionaire sponsor along with his wife, whose eyes were blinking now in rapid succession as she endeavoured to find a way to respond. My thoughts raced as quickly as my hostesses eyes were blinking. In truth I wanted to give the young lady the stare of death and ask if she’d lost her mind, but that would only serve to make matters worse by drawing attention to her egregious breech of not only social etiquette, but common decency and respect.

So we sat there in what seemed like hours of awkward silence as the young lady unashamedly chewed the food like some kind of cow grazing by the roadside oblivious to the consternation she’d caused. ‘Oh, it is good,’ she remarked as our hostess continued to blink and wear an impregnable Mona Lisa smile. I continued to stare, she and I together caught in a web of social awkwardness and breached dinner table etiquette.

The moment passed somehow and I and our hostess somehow managed together to salvage the conversation and steer a clear course away from the rocky shoals of further social embarrassment. I am not quite sure how the evening ended, but I do recall that our hostess didn’t touch the food on her plate again.