Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Michael Henchard and A Dog That Kills Chickens

I just chased a stray dog out of my chicken and goose run. It killed my beautiful hybrid rooster from good laying stock and chased all of the hens out over or under the fences onto the street and into the ditch in front of the house. They’ll slowly make their way back as they get hungry, I hope.
I had a hard time chasing off the dog. I felt sorry for it. It was hungry. I considered feeding it, but if you do that, then you own it--and if you own a dog that kills chickens, you can’t keep chickens. So I had to yell at it and chase it away. I think the dog could tell that my yells were half hearted. It showed no signs of being afraid of me. It just looked sad and trotted off. The dog was just being itself, a lot like Michael Henchard.
The main character in The Mayor of Casterbridge acts proudly according to his volcanic impulses, snap judgements, "oppressive generosity," and "mechanical righteousness." Michael Henchard is a lonely man. He wants friendship and family, but not as much as he wants the universe to function according to his own lurching internal rhythm. He will not be changed. He will not have it. He will not stand for it. He is himself and everyone else must conform to him, or they do not exist at all--as far as mechanical righteousness will allow. He is a man who reminds me of that stray dog. Just doing what he does. I pity him.
And yet, no matter how noble a sentiment pity is, a dog that kills chickens must be driven off. And so a man who is not changed by others but always and only insists on their conformity to him, such a man, no matter how much he longs to love and be loved, in the end drives away and withers all who might love him. We pity him, but we also stay away.
Certainly the judgement that falls on Michael Henchard is just. He merely reaps what he sows. But judgement does not end there. We who pity the Henchards in our lives feel a judgement too, nagging within our heart: If only I could, if only I had, if only I were…. But I am not. We wish we could be more. We wish our pity, even full love, could be enough to change him or her, and that perhaps if we could endure just a little bit more, it would be enough to do the trick: to train the dog not to kill chickens any more.
One of the few ditties I remember from childhood goes like this: “If ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’ were pots and pans there’d be no work for tinkers.” Part of knowing myself is knowing my limits. In Christ, my ability to absorb the foolishness, idiocy, or even cruelty of others certainly grows. But only Christ Himself can absorb it all. The time comes, sometimes, when I have to say enough, I have to move away, I have to let my heart silently break as I am unable to reconcile the realities of my existence. Like a dog that kills chickens.

1 comment:

Jan Bear said...

Thanks. This is a truth that a lot of Christians aren't willing to face. Some Christians seem committed to the proposition that if we pretend that the dog doesn't kill chickens, we don't have to sacrifice our moral purity by driving it away. The problem is, that leaves the chickens at the mercy of the dog. That inconvenient fact gets lost in their compassion for the dog.

Anyway, again, thanks for that.