I think we’ve all had that moment where we read/listen/watch something and find that somehow, miraculously, there’s a line or image or melody that makes some mystery make sense with an all-but-audible though satisfying click of a puzzle piece locking into place. At the risk of constantly seeming to bounce off other bloggers’ topics (Michael Renner,* again…), I can’t help but write a few words about a scene from The Little Prince.
If you’ve read the book you know the one. The prince, after landing in the desert, makes a few sociological observations, asks advice from a flower, fails to make friends with a series of echoes, has an embarrassing encounter with more flowers (a surprisingly common issue) and finishes a disturbing, fateful first conversation with a particular golden reptile before meeting a critter who’ll come to change his life.
“Who are you?” asked the little prince and added, “You are very pretty to look at.”
“I am a fox,” the fox said.
At this point in the story, the prince is lonely and quite shaken from his time in the desert. He’s far from home, concerned about his baobabs, knows his best friend and companion (a now-infamous rose) lied to him, just climbed a rather tall series of mountains and is a tad bewildered by the nonsensical customs of human adults and so, with his wonderful and usual directness, replies “Come and play with me…I am so unhappy.”
And thus starts a kind of love.***
Over the course of their small time together, the fox apprentices the prince in the art of relationships. Friendship, to him, comes down to a matter of “taming” each other, a long and tenuous process where (out of a hundred thousand similar foxes) one fox becomes dear and (from a giant mass of lumbering, deadly humans) one small boy can take on the proportions of an entire world. Once tamed, the fox says, the formerly useless colour of wheat will remind him of the prince’s hair.
The process is a tedious one where the prince has to learn to sit closer and closer to the fox each day without saying anything (because words are a source of misunderstandings), show up at the same hour every afternoon and come to earn the right to know the fox as the one, best and only-only fox in the whole world. No other will ever be as remotely close to being so real.
* * *
Entering adulthood in the Canadian Catholic community is likely to give one some pretty particular expectations of what it means to make and be friends. Compared to the wider and postmodern-influenced youth culture, traits like vulnerability, community and relational depth are not only encouraged but fiercely guarded. It’s not uncommon for church youth groups to (successfully) make safe spaces for youth to share some pretty deep, dark stuff and for university student movements to build a culture of constant self-disclosure not just in terms of your spiritual life but the trickier, emotional one too. As opposed to the image of the cool, detached, twenty-something cultural consumer, the young Catholic (and North American Christians in general) is encouraged to engage him-or-herself with the world, to be vulnerable enough to risk getting hurt.
This was my world from the age of 15-23, a social reality tantalizing enough to make any sociologist salivate. A nation-wide circle of friends, a very real, sub-cultural community formed where even if you didn’t know a particular person in the next major town you could bet your devotion-of-the-month you knew someone who did. And when you did meet them, nobody would bat an eye when you asked them for their story, their conversion moment, their temptations, their touchier struggles and intimate details about their prayer life. For the most part, it just wasn’t an issue. If people are wary about how transparent Facebook makes our lives, it’s nothing compared to pop-Christian expectations of insta-vulnerability.
I can imagine it irked some people to find that vulnerability was expected of them, that it was part of the basis on which the great wheels of the sub-culture churned. But full disclosure: I loved it.
Brief tangent: for a number of reasons, I decided a few years ago that I was going to leave Canada and get some experience abroad. I’ve lived in a couple of different countries since then (usually in East Europe) and’ve spent the majority of my time in the former Soviet Union.
To make a long story short: making friends in Ukraine and Russia is a different ball game (without even referring to the present crisis). The rules and expectations are different, and you can only go so long surviving on the grace-period usually granted to foreigners who don’t know the ins and outs. Don’t get me wrong: in general, Eastern Slavs are incredibly friendly and will go out of their way to be hospitable with a strength that puts Western Christians to shame. Once their outer-wall comes down (which is often easier than it looks) there are unexpected, sometimes overwhelming amounts of warmth and effort coming from their end.
Which was wonderful and made me feel spoiled in more was than one. But as time went on and I, being well-trained in young Catholic ways of socialization, got down to the business of getting real, I found a very different response than expected. Rather than insta-openness about matters deep and vital, my friends were a little puzzled and, maybe, a tad offended by my assumptions that they would just unzip their aortas and let a relative newcomer peruse the intimacies of their heart.
I was confused and, well, a little hurt because I’d almost forgotten that, in the greater part of the world, intimacy has to be earned. It was dawning on me for a while but it wasn’t until re-reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s masterpiece that I was reminded that, in the course of respecting the human person, sometimes I have to edge a little bit closer each day, speak quietly, come at the same hour in the afternoon and let myself be tamed.
* * *
So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near–
“Ah,” said the fox, “I shall cry.”
“It is your own fault,” said the little prince. “I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you . . .”
“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.
“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.
“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.
“Then it has done you no good at all!”
“It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.”
* * *
And, well, because I can.
*I have to disagree here with Michael – he places The Little Prince as a Good Book to help prepare for the Great Books. I have to differ as this little text might qualify as a Great Book itself. Despite the brilliance of the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter, The Little Prince is hands-down more consistently awesome than The Brothers Karamazov.**
**It does help, though, that Prince is only about 100 pages to Karamazov‘s approximate 10,000.
***It’s gotta be said, though, that the prince doesn’t seem to have much of a need for relationships at all, flowers excepted. He leaves home and meets dozens of people without much of a thought to build any kind of long-term friendship with anyone (granted, accountants and drunkards may not be the most appealing demographic to pre-pubescent space travellers). Even when people start growing attached to him he seems confused and doesn’t understand why they don’t want him to leave. This, combined with the aforementioned directness, has led some people to wonder if the prince occupies a space on the autism spectrum. Either that or, well, he’s an alien.
Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.