More Flowers for Algernon
My thanks to Micah, my Hutchmoot Secret Santa for an awesome book. “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” really took me back to my teenage years. Many of the stories I recall reading way back then in other anthologies as “classic science fiction”. It was a real treasure to read some of them again. My favorite so far, “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes. This story of a mentally challenged man who is given an operation that triples his I.Q. only to lose it again was one of the most moving and touching stories I ever read. I just read it again and it is as moving and timeless today as when it was published in 1959.
Charlie’s struggle with growing awareness of the world around him as his intelligence grew reminded me of my own growing awareness of the brokenness of the world around me as I aged. It is a story of the loss of innocence. Like Charlie, I cherished the laughter from other kids over my lack of co-ordination growing up. I even played to that clumsiness, capitalizing on it to gain recognition. When I was a junior in high school, I transformed this slapstick schtick into a dramatic role in a play. Because of the popularity of that role, I won the election for student council president for my senior year.
After I felt a call to be a doctor, I was alarmed when my own mother began telling others that she didn’t think I could be a doctor because I might “drop somebody’s brain during surgery. He trips over his own feet.” I realized, I had become what others saw in me. I had fulfilled my own worst nightmare. We become what people see in us. How many times have we said “I will never be like that!” when seeing traits in our parents that are undesirable only to find ourselves shaking an angry finger at our own children and wondering “How did I get my father’s finger?”
Charlie, in “Flowers of Algernon” has a moment when he sees a mentally challenged boy break dishes at a cafe. He watches in horror as people laugh and make fun of the boy and the boy smiles right back, unaware he is being ridiculed. For Charlie, the horror of that moment comes when he realizes he laughed, too!
In this time of year when we celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth we see both good and bad discussions of the Nativity. The “war on Christmas” always arises and the arguments are strident and shrill. The inevitable atheist attacks on Christianity reach their highest point such as the billboard in Times Square that says “Dump the Myth” with a picture of the crucified Jesus. And yet, they say there is “no agenda”.
Every human being is born with an innate knowledge of God. Even science has discovered that the human brain is “hard wired” to believe in God. We have to teach our children to be atheists. Richard Dawkins has written an book in the last year aimed at children to tell them that belief in God is wrong and that believing in science and evolution is the elegant and beautiful thing to do. If there is no God, then why hasn’t He disappeared from our collective consciousness over the past two thousand years? We have tried and tried to remove God from our thinking; from our culture; from our world. And yet, God keeps resurfacing; showing up over and over in spite of our efforts to move to a more civilized, non superstitious, evolved level.
Could it be that like the mentally challenged Charlie, we are unaware of the effect God has on our lives until we see Him clearly? Like the boy breaking the dishes, we keep having these moments of clarity and paradigm shifting when we see through our human veil the divine. In that moment, instead of laughing, some of us are horrified; alarmed; afraid of the existence of God. What does that mean for our lives? What will we become if we accept that there is a God? We will no longer be free to be our own god; to form our own morality; to answer only to our own needs. Science answers the “how” but cannot answer the “why”. Science gave Charlie a huge increase in his intelligence but at the price of his innocence. Science might have made Charlie smart, but it was his experience with others that made Charlie wise. Ah, there is the rub. Science makes us smart. God makes us wise.
Charlie was not bitter when his mind returned once again to the state of shattered innocence. The one thing he recalled was true meaning of friendship and the significance of love. In order to spare his friends the pain of seeing him in his fallen state, his love for them drove him to leave his work and his friends and find a new life.
In my final installment of the teachings of Jesus it is fitting that his most memorable sermon should be mentioned:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
We are not blessed if we are simple minded like Charlie before his operation. We are blessed because we have seen God; we have come to know our fallen state. God’s presence in our lives has shown us the emptiness of selfishness; of arrogance; of pride. I have been God and I did not like it at all. My mother’s words about my incoordination were a cold wash of shame, but they served to remind me I am not perfect. And, only God can be perfect. I must look outside myself for God’s standard and His love to find meaning for my life. As long as I go along within my own strength, being my own god, I will stumble and fall and fail and laugh and be laughed at. But humility, meekness, mercy, peace are the gifts of living against the standard of God and not in its place.
This holiday season, see those around you. Do not laugh; do not ridicule; do not be arrogant and prideful and godlike. Rather, see your own weaknesses and revel in them; rely on God to supplant those weaknesses with new strengths that will give you an eternal perspective on the world around you.
And, then, put away the things of the past and place some flowers on the grave of Algernon. Move on in God’s strength and make the coming years and all the years after that truly Blessed!
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