“If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain as he is. But if you treat him as he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be. ” Johann Wolfang von Goethe, German writer and politician
This is my favorite quote. My favorite stories, both in literature and real life are stories that embody this idea. Man of La Mancha is one of these.
Man of La Mancha is the musical version of Cervantes book, Don Quixote. In the story, an aging and wealthy man “lays down the burden of sanity” and becomes a knight. His faithful servant Sancho travels with him as he fights enemies (Sancho tries to tell him it is just a windmill) and has other adventures.
Along his path, he discovers “his lady”. His lady, Aldonza, is a fiesty bar maid and prostitute. A very difficult life has toughened her, and she scoffs at Don Quixote when he calls her a lady and renames her Dulcinea. Ironically, dulce means sweet in Spanish, and Aldonza is anything but. Undeterred, he persists in his gentlemanly adoration of her. Many twists and turns of plot follow, but in the end, she begins to soften and act more like a Dulcinea.
Another literary example is in Les Miserables. Remember Jon ValJean is released from prison after nearly twenty years, for stealing a loaf of bread to keep his nephew from starving to death. Now released from prison, he is forced to carry papers that warn all that he is a dangerous ex-convict. That does not help his prospects of getting work, food and lodging. However, a kindly Catholic Bishop takes him in. Jon Valjean returns this favor by stealing the Bishop’s silver and and escaping during the night. He is quickly apprehended by the police though, and returned to the Bishop, who has an amazing response.
The Bishop can see not only the man that Valjean is, but the man he “ought to be and could be”. So he treats him as such. The Bishop tells the police that he gave the silver to Valjean and then gives him the candlesticks also. Because of his kindness, Valjean’s years of anger and bitterness from being imprisoned fall away. He uses this kindness to become a better man. As the story progresses, he is given opportunities to similarly bless others lives, and he does.
These stories are fiction, of course, but fiction often mirrors real life. It is said that Valjean was based on an actual convict who became a business owner and philanthropist. Even more importantly, these stories show us what is possible.
Though it may not feel like it at times, each one of us wields tremendous power. Power to love others, to see their potential and to treat them as if they were already the person they could be. What will you do with your power?
- Monday Mitzvahs: Open Your Mind (lesliegnelson.com)