Through a Lens Darkly
King Lear in Lent
Lear is blind to the dishonesty of his elder daughters; the film's most tragic irony is the obviousness of their sycophancy to all but Lear himself. Far too accustomed to the flowery insincerity that is heaped upon him at every turn, he is so stung at Cordelia's unvarnished (even blunt) expressions of affection that he quickly deprives himself of the only two people who would willingly place his needs before their own. Despite Kent's attempts to defend her from the king's rising madness—"Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least; nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound reverbs no hollowness"—Lear's violent reaction manifests the constant stroking of his ego to which he has grown so accustomed. Rather than growing wise in his old age, he has grown softer and more self-indulgent; he would rather be flattered than hear the truth.
None of us would knowingly place ourselves in a position as extreme as Lear's, embracing or banishing one's family on the strength (or weakness) of their fawning. Yet in a subtle way, we are all susceptible to Lear's fatal weakness, often giving more weight to the opinions and suggestions of those who praise us than to those whose words are designed to help us grow, but may sting a bit, as well. Demanding protestations of love as a prerequisite for acceptance, and measuring out the size of our rewards in conjunction with their avowals is far more common than we would care to admit, and who among us can honestly say that we bear criticism as well as we relish praise?
It is an undeniable human fact that we are more comfortable around those who honor and extol our achievements (real or imagined) than we are with those who speak as bluntly and unflatteringly as they deem necessary. Yet the truth is often painful, and an unwillingness to welcome criticism along with praise is the surest way to spiritual stagnation. If we are unwilling to recognize that flattery and comfort are useless tools in the quest for self-perfect, we may find ourselves unable to act upon the truth when it is presented to us by those who place our needs before their own.
And so, as Lent draws to a close, let us embrace this yearly reminder to distance ourselves from those "vices of pleasantness plague us." It's time for us to realize that we could all do with a few more Cordelias.
Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. He blogs at Crisis Magazine, where he also contributes feature articles on a variety of topics.