It is probably true that no one knows the value of strong relational ties like those who have experienced them and lost them. And perhaps, I have to some extent. But for me, a more familiar sense is the persistent and gentle ache of not having something essential.
To be clear, the fact that I do not have strong relational ties is my own fault as much as anyone’s. It was not until just within the last few years that I even began to consider the possibility that relationships might be or even ought to be permanent. I didn’t even consider that I might know a person for the rest of my life.
The more urgent force of ambition has driven these sorts of considerations far from view. Ambition is why my wife and I moved to Dallas in 2009. And it is why we moved to Toledo in 2011. And it is why we moved to Wisconsin in 2013. That’s three moves in five years. And my wife, how grateful I am for her, has mastered the pain and strengthened her resolve and moved at my side, firmly believing that the sacrifice is worth it.
But the growing realization that we are not living as we ought has been wearing for these five years, wearing the luster off ambition’s shine. There are moments when I would trade it simply to be in my place, to know, and to be known. It has just occurred to me that refusing transience is a possible moral choice. When it comes to refusing transience, it’s hard to find a better exemplar than Mr. Peggotty of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield.
Dickens is wonderfully clear about the sort of home that Emily was abandoning when she leaves her uncle. The David Copperfield remarks about his youthful impression of the boat/house, “If it had been Aladdin’s palace, roc’s egg and all, I suppose I could not have been more charmed with the romantic idea of living in it.” (18) But it is not merely the house that draws him, but also the warmth and obvious affection which exists between this motley group of survivors. Each had lost and depended on each other in their bereavement. While surely, Mr. Peggotty had sacrificed almost entirely his own personal freedom for these dependents, it is as natural to him as breathing. He loves with almost complete lack of self regard as if these people are simply extensions of his person.
So when Emily pens the fateful letter telling of her betrayal, of the rending of these relational bonds, the reader has fully understood what is lost. Emily herself captures it well: “’When you, who love me so much better than I ever have deserved, even when my mind was innocent, see this, I shall be far away. … When I leave my dear home—my dear home— oh, my dear home!— in the morning, … it will be never to come back, unless he brings me back a lady.” (260)
I as a first time reader was prepared for tears, for the grief due this sort of event. So it was with some surprise I read: “Mr. Peggotty uttered no cry, and shed no tear, and moved no more, until he seemed to wake again, all at once, and pulled down his rough coat from its peg in a corner.” (261) When asked where he was going, Mr. Peggoty’s answer is eloquent in its concision, “I’m a going to seek my niece. I’m a going to seek my Em’ly.” (261)
Mr. Peggotty refuses transience. His character affects me as much as it does because he does what I would never have dreamed to do. He further gives up his freedom in devoting himself entirely to a singular pursuit. When Ham asks “Where?” Mr. Peggotty returns, “Anywhere! I’m a going to seek my niece through the wureld. I’m a going to find my poor niece in her shame, and bring her back. No one stop me! I tell you I’m a going to seek my niece!”
Mr. Peggotty’s refusal to allow his Em’ly to step out of his life yields a long and arduous pursuit. He travels far and wide looking for answers about her whereabouts. He keeps the candle burning in his home on the chance she might return. He sends his forgiveness through those who might give word of it to her. And at last his search finds and restores the child he has lost.
It’s a prodigal story, but not the one about the lost son, but the one about the lost sheep. Mr. Peggotty is the good shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine for his one dear lamb.
In a time when relationships can be broken by implied slights or glances laden with meaning or simply from boredom, Mr. Peggotty’s example prods us to remember that it is possible to refuse transience, and more, it is necessary for the cultivation and expression of Christian love.