Monday over Coffee: The Effect of Your Being

The Effect of Your Being

“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

— George Eliot, Middlemarch

 

There are some terrific literary entries for best last lines in a book. Here are a few: 

 

  • ”After all, tomorrow is another day.” (Gone with the Wind,Margaret Mitchell);

  • “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” (A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens);

  • “‘God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world,’ whispered Anne softly.” (Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery);

  • ”But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.” (Emma, Jane Austen).

 

Alice Walker’s last line of The Color Purple is another strong candidate as is Yann Martel’s last sentence from Life of Pi. But my vote goes to Middlemarch. Mary Ann Evans writing under the pen name, George Eliot, describes at the end of her novel the life of her heroine, Dorothea Brooke, like this:

 

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

 

Middlemarch, published in installments in 1871 and 1872, is the story of provincial life in a settled English community facing the threats and possibilities of changing times. Evans/Eliot threads in and out of a series of compelling, intersecting stories and relationships, advancing themes concerning idealism and self-interest, religion and hypocrisy, politics and education, and perhaps most centrally—the status of women and the nature of marriage. Dorothea, the book’s main protagonist, is idealistic, kind, intelligent, and full of noble aspiration, but her life, while salutary in most every respect, doesn’t play out as she had hoped. Yet this last line leaves the reader not only with beautiful consolation, but a suspicion that the story, in its conclusion, has landed upon one of life’s most resonant and enduring truths.

 

The movie, A Hidden Life, written and directed by Terrance Malick is based on the true, but relatively unknown story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who refused to fight for the Third Reich. Drafted to serve, Jägerstätter declines. Despite hostile pressure from neighbors, political and religious leaders in his village, and vindictive German officials, Franz, leaning on his deep faith, remains steadfast. When offered non-combatant duty if he’ll only swear an oath to Hitler, he continues to refuse. He’s soon shipped away, imprisoned in the harshest of conditions. Beaten and abused, eventually a trial is held, and he’s found guilty of treason. The judge who sentences him to death tells him, “Do you imagine that anything you do will change the course of this war? That anyone outside this court will ever hear of you? No one will be changed. The world will go on as before. You'll vanish.” However, when Franz departs the room, the judge—now alone—sits down in the chair Jägerstätter has vacated and gazes down to his hands on his knees as if trying to imagine what it might be like to be such a person. At the conclusion of the film, these words appear:

 

“…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” 

 

As a minister, I’ve eulogized some remarkable souls. I can’t say that any of them were famous though a few did some quite heroic things. Most of them simply led good lives contributing incrementally to the growing good of the world. Generous of spirit, they gave without seeking recognition and left things better than they came to them. In fact, I’m persuaded that things are not so ill with you and me today as they might have been, is half owing to their faithful, quiet, even hidden lives. I can’t recall where all of them now rest, but when I gaze down at my hands upon my knees in prayer, I hope to be such a person.


Amen.


—Greg Funderburk


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