“The Pursuit of Goals of the Unruly Ego”

Jane Austen’s classic novel Emma had a birthday; she turned 200 a year ago.

A writer for Britain’s The Guardian described the original novel:

Its heroine is a self-deluded young woman with the leisure and power to meddle in the lives of her neighbours. The narrative was radically experimental because it was designed to share her delusions. The novel bent narration through the distorting lens of its protagonist’s miemma-book-covernd.

Emma, has undergone updating by author Alexander McCall Smith. A deliciously clever reincarnation of that “self-deluded young woman” inhabits the pages of this modern retelling.

While I haven’t compared the two books side-by-side, I will say that in both cases the story has a moral.

Almost an imperative, since [SPOILER ALERT] the novel ends with these words:  “You do it too.”

Almost biblical, the ending sets readers on a mission to recognize in themselves the impulse to control other people and manage situations, trying to make improvements in other people’s lives.

And like Emma, we who would do likewise would also expect both to congratulate ourselves for our successes and to receive thanks from those who benefit from our meddling.

Sharing Emma’s delusions

It takes a process occurring over time to “make that sudden imaginative leap that lies at the heart of our moral lives:  to see, for even a brief moment, the world as it is seen by the other person.”

So states author, McCall Smith when summarizing the lesson learned by Emma that summer.

Walk a mile in my shoes.

“It is this understanding that lies behind all kindness to others, all attempts to ameliorate the situation of those who suffer, all those acts of charity by which we make our lives something more that the pursuit of goals of the unruly ego.”

Alexander McCall Smith referred to Emma’s moral insight as “something that may happen to all of us, if it happens at all, at very different stages of our lives.”

Mirror, mirror on the wall. Do I see myself at all?

As a protagonist, my unruly ego has led me to pursue goals that have hindered my happiness, just as Emma’s actions hindered hers.

Only seeing through the distorted lens of my own preferences and prejudice poses problems.

(Yes, I know I’m alliterating:)

Though I cannot pinpoint a time, or only one incident that turned my steering wheel in another direction, knowing that I can change––that I have changed––encourages me to keep learning.

Good stories take us somewhere.

McCall Smith’s words, “If it happens at all…” is where all good stories lead us.

Readers follow to the end to see whether or not characters change.

In Emma’s case, she had to learn to forgive, reminding herself “that she had done worse herself.”

Maybe that simple reminder restates what the Bible says, what Jesus said:  Forgive us our debts/our trespasses AS we forgive our debtors/those who trespass against us.

Either way, debts or trespasses, as means in the same way.

The unruly ego might argue otherwise.


P.S. Alexander McCall Smith has written the series, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, one of my favorites.

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