One of the great tragedies in all literature is the biblical story of Saul. Saul makes Hamlet look like a Disney-character. Hamlet, at least, had good reasons for the disasters that befell him. Saul, given what he started with, should have fared better, much better.
His story begins with the announcement that, in all of Israel, none measured up to him in height, strength, goodness, or acclaim. A natural leader, a prince among peers, his extraordinary character was recognized and proclaimed by the people. The beginning of his story is the stuff of fairy-tales. And so it goes on for awhile.
But, at a point, things begin to sour. That point was the arrival on the scene of David – a younger, handsomer, more-gifted, and more- acclaimed man than he. Jealousy sets in and that envy turns Saul’s soul to poison. Looking at David, he sees only a popularity that eclipses his own, not another man’s goodness, nor indeed the need of the people for that goodness. He grows bitter, petty, cold, tries to kill David, and eventually dies by his own hand, an angry man who has fallen far from the innocence and goodness of his youth.
What happened here? How does someone who has so much going for him – goodness, talent, acclaim, power, blessing – grow into an angry, petty man who kills himself out of disappointment? How does it happen?
The late Margaret Laurence, in a brilliant, dark novel, THE STONE ANGEL, gives us a pretty good description of exactly how this happens. Her main character, Hagar Shipley, is a “Saul” of sorts. Hagar’s story begins like his: She is young, innocent, and full of potential. What’s to become of such a beautiful, bright, talented, young woman? Sadly, not much becomes of her at all. She drifts, into everything, adulthood, an unhappy marriage, and into an deep unrecognized and unspoken disappointment that eventually leaves her slovenly, frigid, bitter, and without energy or ambition. What’s as remarkable as sad is that she doesn’t see any of this herself. In her mind, she’s still the young, innocent, gracious, popular, attractive young girl she once was in high school. She doesn’t notice how small her world has become, how few real friends are around, how little she admires anything or anyone, or even how physically unkempt she has become.
Her awakening is sudden and cruel. One winter day, shabbily dressed in an old parka, she rings the doorbell of a house where she is delivering some eggs. A bright young child answers the door and Hagar overhears the child tell her mother: “That horrible, old egg-woman is at the door!” The penny drops.
Stunned, she leaves the house and finds her way to a public bathroom where she puts on all the lights and studies her own face in a mirror. What looks back is a face she doesn’t recognize, someone pathetically at odds with whom she imagines herself to be. She sees in fact the horrible, old egg-woman that the child saw at the door rather than young, gracious, attractive, big-hearted woman that she still imagines herself to be. “How can this have happened?” she asks herself. “How can we, imperceptible to ourselves, grow into someone we don’t know or like?”
In one way or other, it happens to all of us. It’s not easy to age, to come crashing down from so much of what we dreamed for ourselves, to watch the young take over and receive the popularity and acclaim that once were ours. Like Saul, we fill with a jealousy that we don’t recognize and, like Hagar, we grow ugly without knowing it. Others, of course, do notice.
It’s not that we don’t gain something as this happens. Usually we grow a lot smarter, wiser even, and often we grow into surprisingly generous people. But we’re a lot more nasty than we once were. We whine too much, feel too-sorry for ourselves, and generally curse more than bless those who have replaced us in youth, popularity, and acclaim.
And so, the great spiritual – and human – task of the second- half of life is precisely this: to give up this jealousy, this ugliness, to come back again to the love, innocence, and goodness of youth, to revirginize, to come to a “second-naivete”, to begin again to admire something.
At the beginning of the Book of Revelations, John, purporting to speak for God, has this advice for us, at least for those of us who are beyond the bloom of youth: “I’ve seen how hard you work. I recognize your generosity and all the good work you do. But I have this against you – you have less love in you now than when you were young! Go back and look from where you have fallen!”
We might want to hear that from scripture, before we overhear it from some young girl telling her mother that some bitter, ugly, old person is at the door.