I heard about someone burning a boiled egg once. I laughed. I questioned how this was even possible. But no longer. I too can now lay claim to this incredible feat of ridiculousness. But, just to be clear, it wasn’t my fault. No. Not this time. On this occasion, the blame lay squarely at the feet of Jodi Picoult.
From the opening pages of ‘Small Great Things’, I was hooked. I’ve read a number of Picoult books before but I think this one may well be my favourite. As well as a storyline that allowed you to see through the eyes of each of the main characters, it opened up the idea of ‘fairness’ and what we understand this to mean. I suspect that, like the characters in the book, we all see ourselves as fair but, when we watch life through the eyes of others, our ‘fair’ may no longer seem quite so thoughtful and considered.
On the day that the boiled egg was burned, I was getting lunch ready, making dinner preparations for later and desperately trying to finish ‘Small Great Things’ (see… it couldn’t possibly have been my fault 😉), all before we went to the cinema to see ‘Early Man’. During the film we laughed and were highly entertained as we watched characters utterly terrified of others they didn’t really know or who were different to them, I couldn’t help but think how there were many similarities to the Picoult novel I had been reading and indeed, to life itself.
But, there is a key difference. As we watch a film or read a novel, we are invited to see life as the character sees it. To gain a level of understanding about how they tick. It helps us to see life from a wide angle and, as a result, this enables us to be fairer in our approach. I really wish that at any given moment, on any given day, I could turn on a ‘Picoult filter’ to allow me to see things through the eyes of those around me – to appreciate why they see things the way they do and, I suppose, if I’m being honest, to understand what they really think, what truly motivates them. To see if they are someone we should trust, whose words and actions are an accurate reflection of who they truly are or, if they are someone skilled at playing a part.
Each day of our lives, we have choices to make regarding what we say and how we conduct ourselves, no matter what our thoughts may be. We don’t agree fully with every other person we meet, life ain’t like that (I’ve probably (substitute with ‘know I have’) mentioned this before), but as I read ‘Small Great Things’, our responsibility to each other as members of the human race really hit home to me. Placed in situations where we feel strongly about what is happening or who we are dealing with, how do we react? In Picoult’s novel, we see injustice exposed and motives explained. We come to understand the opinions people have and why they have them, but we also have to deal with the question which I believe Picoult so cleverly poses throughout the novel’s pages: in the face of views that are different to ours, how do we choose to act? Do we make people our enemies, simply because we have been led to believe they are in some way or other different to us? Do we choose to mistreat others because they aren’t ‘the same’ as us? And more importantly, are we even aware that we are doing it?
Throughout the novel, we see injustice and prejudice. We see a search for truth, we see the results of anger and we see regret. Above all, I think we see very clearly that our words and actions have consequences and that is the difficult part. In anger or frustration, so often we feel that we are justified in mistreating others but, the hard question is, by deliberately setting out to make a point to others, no matter how justified we may feel our actions to be, by turning on them, are we not just the same as those we believe we are defending?
Picoult leads us to challenge our own prejudices – even the ones we haven’t always realised we’ve been holding. And for me, that was hard. What if our response isn’t justified? What if we’ve got it wrong? What if our reactions change the lives of another, and not in a good way? All because we were motivated by something we believed.
As I considered the ideas in the novel and indeed ‘Early Man’, the issue I couldn’t help but notice, was that as characters in both began to see that they’d got it wrong, how they had conducted themselves in the face of difference and anger determined how they were able to move on with their lives.
Treating everyone fairly is hard and yet, that’s what we’re called to do.
1 John 3 verse 11 tells us: “For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” We aren’t given a choice in the matter and that’s an incredible call. None of us deserve the grace God has for each of us and so, as we go about our daily lives, we need to make sure that grace and love motivate our words and actions, no matter how we feel.
Over the weekend, I was drawn to the words of Colossians 3: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” If we allow these qualities to be what determines how we conduct ourselves, what a difference we could create. Picoult demonstrated, through her words, how cruel this world can be and the hatred and prejudice that can motivate people to hurt others, simply because we feel we are justified in doing so. But Colossians reminds us that if we trust God, it is love that should determine our actions. Even when we don’t feel that way. Even when it’s the last thing we want to do. And that’s hard.
But we don’t have to do this alone. Jeremiah 33 verse 3 reminds us of the invitation and promise that has been offered: ‘Call to me and I will answer.’ And Isaiah 41 verse 10 encourages us not to lose heart: ‘So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.’ When we reach out in love, we don’t do it in our own strength; we couldn’t. And maybe we wrestle with situations and try to make sense of them, but the verse from Isaiah reminds us not to be ‘dismayed.’ Trusting in our own ability and strength, we will lose heart, but looking to God, we pray that He will guide our words and actions, no matter how we feel.
To paraphrase a well – known quotation, it’s better to do small things with great love than to do great things with small (little) love. We can easily look around and condemn others for their words or actions but, maybe they look at us and do the same, because we each have a different outlook. Unfortunately, without the ‘Picoult filter’, that happens. You might believe it’ll never be you and scoff at the very thought but, as ‘Small Great Things’ made all too clear, though we might never think it possible, anyone can burn a boiled egg. Anyone can allow prejudice to develop into hate.
But what we do when we realise the slightly odd smell is coming from the dry pan with the browning eggshell? I didn’t just leave the egg to burn on – removing the egg from the heat, cooling it and taking off the shell revealed some damage, but there was still hope and, when the damaged part was dealt with, the egg was able to go on and serve its purpose in feeding a hungry, boiled-egg mad child.
As ‘Small Great Things’ made so very clear to me, sometimes we do things on purpose that we regret and sometimes we have regrets because of thoughts and feelings we have allowed to develop, without even realising it. But that doesn’t have to be the end. Once we realise there is a ‘something’, we can choose to ignore it or we can make a change and in so doing, turn a situation around.
One of the book’s parts opens with the quotation: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Sometimes, it’s not how dry the pan has got or how damaged the egg has become, it’s about realising the egg was burning, facing it head on and doing what we can to make a change. In life, it’s about looking around, seeing where change is needed and doing all we can to bring that about, making sure that whatever we do to try and change, we do it with great love.