The little toe

Fancy designer clothes, sports cars, Swiss watches, sumptuous palaces, … all this never really interested me. In fact, until recently I was not at all attracted to luxury, in any form whatsoever. On the contrary, it tended to make me uncomfortable. A few events in Michelin-starred restaurants and magnificent reception rooms organized by my engineering school, or rare stays – if we can call one night a stay – in Parisian luxury hotels with girlfriends for our birthdays; these moments, even more precious in my eyes that they were only sporadic, were my first contacts with luxury.

Simple tastes, you can say that again, in fact in my case one could squarely speak of an appetite for simplicity. Though being more regularly in contact with it, I was amazed a few years ago to notice I still didn’t develop a taste for luxury: because it must be said, just as for many of my colleagues, the many business trips paid by my employer could have got me used to the five-star hotels, flights with prestigious companies, company SUV cars in countries where the petrodollar flows like water. And yet, all this was not enough to rid me of this preference for the simple, the discreet, the non-shining. Since then, it has changed a little: my last expatriation in Qatar certainly played a role, but as we will see later, it took much less than that to really make me abandon this deeply anchored state of mind in me.

I wonder today how came about such a strong trend in my behavior. In reality, more than a preference for the simple it was a strict rejection of luxury. Out of avarice, I don’t think so, out of disregard for the material, perhaps, but above all – and that’s what literally revealed itself to me in pain, out of guilt, certainly.
I don’t know what triggered what was originally just a sneaky feeling. I do not know what was the mechanism that animated and reinforced this state of mind in me. All I know is that when any idea was popping up in my mind, associating luxury with my person, a question inevitably arose: why me?

Truth be told, it goes much further than luxury. As for me, this reflex of thought occurs in many other cases, in such a way that I came to wonder if it was not the very notion of pleasure to which my mind had become allergic. It’s a bit extreme, but at the same time the clues are too numerous to deny it. On the outside, for a long time and on a recurring basis I have been hearing my family, my friends, my colleagues saying to me: « you are too kind, be careful! », « you should think of yourself before thinking about others otherwise you will get screwed », « why is your life so complicated while you facilitate those of others? ». Without paying more attention, and this was my case, one could simply deduce: usual pattern of the deep down altruist, misunderstood by his relatives and living in an increasingly selfish world. But what is wrong with this diagnosis – in addition to the fact that some of the relatives quoted are as much or even more generous than me, is what happens inside. A few examples. I used to feel guilty when passing near a homeless person sleeping on a metro platform. (Ok, fair enough) I used to feel guilty when seeing a person left standing during a meeting because of not enough chairs planned. (Well, a little weird, that said if you sat last…) I used to feel guilty when guessing that I was about to win card game and that the other would therefore necessarily lose. (Hum? Wait, what?)

I am convinced that I am a generous person and animated by good feelings towards others, even if it sometimes involves making certain sacrifices, and to me there is no problem with that. Actually, it is also one of the founding principles of the Christian faith, « love your neighbor as yourself », « there is more pleasure in giving than in receiving », « give to the one who asks you », … However, what was problematic for me was the fact that even when nothing was expected from me, that it was simply about me and my pleasure, my comfort, or just, my well-being, something in me was blocking, something considering that I did not deserve all this.

As a rule, the things that concern me are relatively complicated. It’s as if it comforts me that not everything is easy for me. The more complicated it is and the more I struggle, the more a strange feeling of satisfaction and comfort increases in me, until it confirms me « there, it’s good, everything is fine, you are in your place ». In fact, I have long lived with the omnipresent thought of not deserving. Not to deserve what? Many things, if not all. In a similar way to what I believe to be a sham of some ecologists, who are in fact stingrays of the first order, my altruism and my simplicity are only the mask and the costume carefully conceived by a deep unlove of myself.

Wait, I do not hate myself though, far from it. Besides, another of my flaws is a well-hidden pride though rooted in my personality. This is quite paradoxical given the rest of this article, but we will come back to it later. Without hating myself, I’m in a system of thought where I can’t, or very hardly, appreciate myself, what I’m doing or saying. To be able to achieve this, I would need an approval: either an external one, by what others think of me, or an inner one, by my satisfaction in the complication. And this is the second case whose reality brutally imposed on me during an evening of a business trip in Italy. Everything was going very well since my arrival a few days earlier. Indeed, as I said above, my company knows how to put its employees in very good conditions for working abroad: rental of a high-end sedan, lunches in the local gastronomic restaurants, and mostly stay in a 4-star hotel on the shores of Lake Como. Everything is fine, but as usual I am embarrassed. I know how to pull the wool over my colleagues’ eyes, but deep down I do not feel in my place. It is in my room where, out of sight, I can give free rein to my « simplicity »: for example, use of as few wardrobes as possible even if it means keeping my suitcase half full, concealment of the remains of shower gels and shampoos so that they are not replaced by room service, and also prohibition to use heating given the little time spent in the room each day. With this, one could see a lazybones, a green, a practical guy, … But how to explain the fact of moving around your room without turning on the light on a dark night and with all the variety of furniture that such a high-standing hotel can contain? Even if I am thrifty, I will not be the one paying the bill of the room and even less the electricity bill. Even if I think about the environment, the red light of the TV’s standby mode consumes every day as much as the light bulb I would have needed for a few minutes. And even, yes, even if I am lazy and think to myself that it is not worth turning on just for the time I will do the few meters from the bed to the bathroom, the probability of bumping my little toe, at full speed against the foot of a solid oak chair, is simply much too high. And it didn’t miss.

You know this progressive pain that starts from a tiny place (bitten tongue, phalanx crushed by a hammer, or, more rarely, dislocated shoulder) and that radiates slowly in your body as if it were all your limbs that were hurting. In general, there automatically follows a flood of insults that your mouth will irrepressibly, shout, churn, or whisper depending on the time of day and the profiles of the people around you. In my case it was a slight whisper, imperceptible to the guests of the neighboring rooms, but heavily loaded with the coarsest words I know. The intense pain, which was that of a fracture according to the doctor I saw later, made me hate this chair, firstly, and especially hate myself, in a second phase.

I don’t know if because of the dazzling ache that crossed my foot we could speak of a flash of clarity, but one thing is certain, it is that an awareness began to operate in me from this moment. I saw myself, still in the dark, holding my foot, almost having tears in the eyes – from pain or anger or both, getting angry against a chair when the problem was myself: the chair was where it should be, me not. I was in the dark, I was advancing in the dark, that night especially but also every other day of my life. I did not allow myself the light. What for? I still cannot answer this question today, but it was an undeniable fact in any case and my toe was both the witness and the victim of that.

Jesus Christ said, « I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but he will have the light of life. » It took me quite some time to understand that in my case, the darkness is mainly those that I imposed on myself and for most of my existence. This incident of the broken little toe had allowed me to realize that « the light was off », it still had to be turned on. This is precisely what my faith in Jesus helped me to do. Today I gradually manage to get rid of my darkness thanks to him, as I let his saving light drive it away, as I learned to accept to be loved by a God who more than once proved to me and to so many others his infallible love. It has nothing to do with the approval that I was looking for in complications or with others appreciation, and the effect is oh so much more authentic. Knowing that I’m loved by God unconditionally and even despite all my actions, words or thoughts, which in theory should disqualify me from this love, transforms the previously inconceivable idea of loving myself into an obvious one: him loving me despite everything he sees in me through his perfect knowledge, shows me that I should not seek to deserve his love or that of anyone, but rather that I deserve to be loved by anyone, and it starts with myself. Here it is no longer about that muted pride that, like an ersatz of love, helped me to endure the lack of love by making me consider myself better than others through disguised means: to be the kindest in the eyes of all, to pass for the humblest, to appear the most generous. No, it’s called living through the eyes of others. It can help to endure, but not to fill the gap. The lack, I managed to fill it with Jesus Christ and his limitless love.

As Blaise Pascal said: « There was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.” In the end, I who was apparently lacking in love for myself, I am now overflowing. And unlike narcissists or simple egocentrics, this surplus of love did not lead me to focus on myself, it rather turns my gaze towards others, towards my neighbor. It is true that it first contributed to me, finally allowing myself complete well-being, comfort, pleasure and even luxury, which I once excluded from my life. But this powerful remedy has had even more beneficial side effects than simply healing my love of myself. Indeed, above I quoted one of the founding principles of the Christian faith: « love your neighbor as yourself ». This biblical principle, like most others, is based on Love. And it is even doubly relying on it because it is divided into two parts: a first turn towards others, « love your neighbor », and a second centered on oneself, « like yourself ». This is the power of the love of Jesus Christ, the one who cannot leave indifferent, which itself does not change but that changes everything it touches. It does not only come to touch us, splash us, it floods us, to the extent that we have only one option left to us: first to let us fill, that is to say to love ourselves because he loves us, then to overflow all around us like a river in flood, that is to say to love others and even the world around us – the living or not living beings of the nature created by the hand of God as well as the many and varied creations of man. Much more precious than luxury, I have gained something of inestimable value, the Love that changes us and with which we can change the world.

The 3 princes

Once upon a time, in a kingdom at peace but with a more than unpredictable future, a king was feeling his time had arrived and was worried about the succession to the throne.
Indeed, having three sons, seemingly identical triplets but with radically different personalities, he was forced to choose which of the princes would be able to defend the kingdom in front of the adversities looming on the horizon. Such an important choice had to be objective, but the idea of choosing according to his fatherly preferences was tempting. Each of them of course had his own qualities and defects, but, like any parent, the king had in his heart an order of preference.

The first, the prince who loved the hard facts, just like his father. He was gifted with his hands to build all kinds of things. From a piece of wood, he was able to shape a weapon, a tool or even a child’s toy. He was definitely a down-to-earth, sometimes cold, for him the strength of man lied in his hands and, if well used, with it he could overcome anything.
The second, the prince in love with nature, like his late mother. He was a hearty eater, knowing how to make the most delicious dishes from the fruits of the land. He was an optimist of all hours, a little naive, who believed in the power of nature and its indulgence, knowing how to respect and tame it, one could receive from it anything that man needs to live.
The third, the prince passionate about words and of whom the king did not know what to do. He did not get either from his mother or his father, his love of the beautiful poems that he spent days writing, and that he would then read in the streets of the city. He was a dreamer, a little lazy, he contented himself with taking life as it came, as long as he could share his poetry with others.

How to decide? Was he supposed to know, what his kingdom was going to need in the future and which of his sons would be the best to provide it to his people?
He finally found the solution: a trial requiring wisdom, perseverance and devotion to the kingdom. In the attic of the castle were three large abandoned rooms of identical sizes. Each prince would be given a room and a week to completely fill it with something that would be essential for the kingdom in times of crisis.
The first prince began to fill his room with logs. With the help of his many fellows: lumberjacks, cabinetmakers, carpenters, blacksmiths, he set about the massive cutting of wood in the forest and its transport to the castle.
The second prince began to fill his room with bags of wheat. Supported by his farming friends, millers and traders, he embarked on a major campaign of collection of most of the wheat available in the kingdom in exchange of the various products harvested on the royal lands.
And lastly, the third prince, as usual, continued to go for walks by the water, to tell his poems to passers-by, and to daydream for hours. But his room was remaining empty.

The end of the week approaching, and the hours going by, the void of the castle’s gloomy rooms gave way to an impressive pile of wood and wheat. The king saw with pride and excitement his sons scrambling to overcome this titanic trial and to obtain their right to ascend to the throne. But this was not true for the third prince and his room, which was still as empty as in the beginning of the trial. For the king it was sure, he could not count on this son to succeed him. All the week he could observe him spending idle afternoons in the castle’s gardens to observe in detail the fauna and flora, meddling in the street children’s games until the evening, or listening to the numerous endless memories of the oldest servant in the castle. Yet, not a hair had entered his room.

Finally, the « D-Day » had come. Until the last hour of the night, men and women worked hard to help the princes in their heavy task. But the time for the verdict had arrived and the king would have to give his final decision.
He opened the first prince’s room and found himself face to face with a wall of logs. The prince explained, for him, the strength of man was indeed in his hands but, still, he had to be healthy to use them: the winters being harsher and harsher in the kingdom, it would take wood to heat oneself and in large quantities. The king was conquered, but since he had to be objective and meticulous, he pressed one of the logs, and it went deep, completely dislocating the first pile. With disappointment the king announced his failure to his favorite: he had chosen a useful item, of course, but had not been able to fill the room as requested.
The king then passed to the second room, a bag of wheat fell to his feet as soon as the door opened. The second prince justified his choice: remembering that the last harvests had been meager and his feasts far less successful, he found his solution, people with full bellies meant a kingdom that was doing well. The king was proud of his son’s choice and work, but again he wanted to be sure of it before deciding. He was no longer very fit but found enough energy to remove a few bags and make his way to the ceiling of the room. Once he went down, he announced to the surprise of his second son that he had also failed: indeed his room contained an essential element but it was not full, due to the space left empty between the bags and the ceiling over the whole room.

In view of the situation and his attentive observation of the last prince, the king was already about to decide between the two others with a sword duel or a horse race. Still, he entered in the last room, unsurprisingly, empty and dark, just like his expression was. But without saying a word, the third prince entered in the windowless room where you couldn’t even see what he was up to in there. When suddenly a faint glow appeared and grew until it illuminated the whole room. The prince, whose childish smile was now visible, approached his father to put an end to the confusion his face was betraying. He clarified his decision. According to him, whatever difficulties the kingdom would face, it would need light. The light that makes children’s eyes shine, the light that warms the hearts of all, especially when they feel empty and useless, the light that is everywhere around us and in us, the light which, above all, must be shared. As a king, constantly maintaining this light in the realm would be his top priority, from that everything else would follow. The king, amazed and moved by his son’s words, had to admit that obviously the room once bathed in a thick darkness was now filled with the light projected by a simple oil lamp. He finally had a winner and he had found his successor.

And so, became the poet prince king, to everyone’s surprise but for everyone’s happiness – and for many years. With the help of his brothers, he guaranteed his kingdom peace and prosperity, a kingdom now called the Land of Light.

This article was inspired by a story heard on Jean-Louis Gaillard’s radio show « 365 Histoires ». I could not find the original story, so I allowed myself to tell it with my own words. If you want to find other stories like this, you can access the audio versions on this website for free and translated in many different languages, as well as the videos on this YouTube channel (in French only).