In my advancing years, I have begun reading a few of the old classics. That I did not start earlier is one of my many regrets in this short life, but memories of the tortuous reading of Silas Marner in high school kept me from serious reading for decades (although I did re-read the book in later years and found it enjoyable). Maybe it was the demand that we students decompose and analyze every paragraph that caused me to never see the story itself. But that is my history; I’m better now. My thoughts today touch on The Scarlet Letter, a book I recently enjoyed. Whereas I had anticipated a 17th-century tale of lust and debauchery, cloaked in Puritan verbiage, I instead discovered a story of guilt, shame, and prejudice. The adulteress proved the victim, with society the aggressor; she faced her world alone, standing as the symbol of what lay in the souls of others. The telling of the story demonstrates it is not the acts of the adulteress we fear; it is the fear of ourselves. That message became clear. Nathaniel Hawthorne had it right in authoring this masterpiece; we judge and punish others for the sins we fear in our hearts, and also delight in sharing and enjoying our self-defined superiority.
The poor heroine—married as a teenager to an older man she did not love, sent to America alone where she waited two years for him, and seduced by the man whom she most trusted: her minister. Do we condemn her for her act? No, we punish her because we fear the act committed by her might in future be committed by someone we love or by ourselves—and we don’t want to envision such an event. Yet, we soon forget the issue, even forgiving the individuals involved. But the individuals can never forgive themselves. People who commit acts unacceptable to society suffer for life, even when the community and friends forgive or forget. It becomes a burden to the grave. The Scarlet Letter is a timeless story for the ages, telling a story of fear, forgiveness, and love.
What came as a surprise to me was the book’s emphasis on how the acts of adults affect the children. The child born out of wedlock in The Scarlet Letter faced issues separate from the parents, yet such issues are rarely addressed or understood. We tend to focus on the person who committed an act and fail to recognize the impact on others, and also the long-term impact on the one who committed the act. The act stands alone in our memories and we fail to see the larger view.
In reflecting on the story, I look for where I’ve seen this prejudice and judgment in my life. And I was crestfallen that my world is awash in such. Gossip, judgment, presumptions and the unspoken desire to see others fail are components that overwhelm our inner selves, depriving us often from the ability to sort through to meaningful thoughts. Without a conscious approach to rid our hearts of prejudice, we succumb to the easier path in life: finding faults in others instead of seeking higher standards for ourselves. Am I to judge the young man who assaulted a young girl and served his prison time? Am I to look down on the teenage girl who gave birth out of wedlock, when the history of her upbringing made that a high possibility? Do I condemn the man who spends excessively on items for his indulgence instead of saving some for emergencies? Why should the politician who changes her mind on a topic be the object of my contempt, knowing that I, also, change my mind on issues when new information surfaces?
Those words remind me of the Biblical similarity in Matthew 7: 1-5, wherein Jesus is said to reprimand the crowd on judging others, but that misses my point. My journey through life is not to correct others, but to have compassion for others in their struggles. When I see flaws in others, I must also respect there are flaws within me as well, whether I overcome such flaws or not. We each wear our own scarlet letters in our hearts, seen or unseen. My challenge is to avoid a rush to judgment on the acts of others, and also on my own. I will do better. I must.