Years ago, my husband and I fixed up a very close friend with another less close friend. They fell in love, it was great. But within a few years, he got sick. She stood by him through it all. Then he died. It was awful. And it was very, very hard on our friend.
It was a sad situation for many reasons. As the years passed, one thing continued to bother me: I felt we had put a beloved friend on the path to sorrow. It had been inadvertent and well-intentioned, but still, we had brought all this pain into our good friend’s life.
I mentioned this to my husband, and he said something that completely changed my thinking. He said, “Yes, it was very hard on her. But think how much better it was for him.”
This thought, obvious as it is, had never occurred to me. I realized—how often I make this error. I was acting as though my friend were the main character of this story! That she was the one who really mattered. And I saw that I make this mistake all the time. I’m the most main character of course, and then the people closest to me, and so on…with some people just appearing as extras or in walk-on roles.
But that’s not true. Everyone is a main character. And everyone is a supporting character. And as I started thinking about this, I realized that some of my favorite happiness passages concerned exactly this shift: someone re-interpreting a situation, by understanding how different circumstances would seem if someone else were placed in the starring role.
Each has haunted me, but only now do I see what theme links them together. Here are two of my favorite examples.
Reading writer Flannery O’Connor’s letters in The Habit of Being led me to the extraordinary 1951 book, A Memoir of Mary Ann, a memoir about a little girl, Mary Ann, who lived with a gruesome tumor on her face before dying of cancer, written by the nuns with whom she lived for several years in a free cancer-treatment home.
Near the end of Mary Ann’s life, a five-month-old baby, Stephanie, was brought to the cancer home. Stephanie’s parents were crushed at the thought of leaving their baby there.
The nuns relate that for years, Mary Ann had longed for a baby to take care of. When Stephanie arrived, Mary Ann said shyly to the baby’s mother, “I didn’t pray for a baby to be sick, but I prayed that if a baby was sick, it would come here.”
Later, the mother wrote the nuns, “I had accepted the hurt [my child’s affliction] brought me, but I had not accepted the fact that I had to give her up. My husband was suffering too and my attitude…was not helping much. Mary Ann’s words opened my understanding. Stephanie was needed…this child [Mary Ann] with the bandaged face and a heart full of love needed her…God had given me a good husband, six beautiful children. This last child was probably the most special of them all, destined for something I knew nothing about.”
Here’s an example from children’s literature. In Rick Riordan’s novel, The Sea of Monsters, the hero of the story, thirteen-year-old Percy Jackson (who happens to be the son of the sea god Poseidon and a mortal woman), has taken Tyson, a huge, awkward boy, under his wing. They go to high school together, but Percy isn’t exactly sure why he’s bothering to protect Tyson and drag him along on his Olympian adventures.
He keeps Tyson with him, though, and at the end of the book, Percy learns that Tyson is his half-brother: Tyson is also a son of Poseidon, and he’s a Cyclops.
Tyson says to Percy, “Poseidon did take care for me after all…I prayed to Daddy for help…He sent me a brother.”
Ah! we see. Percy thought that Tyson was tagging along with him, but in fact, Percy was a supporting character in Tyson’s adventure, and the vehicle of a father’s love and protection.
We’re all main characters, and we’re all supporting characters.