I’m about to conclude Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. It is an excellent novel, in which I’ve been drawn into the world of a an English butler named Stevens. Stevens serves a prestigious estate called the Darlington House. The novel is first person from the perspective of Stevens, as he takes a “motoring tour” into the English countryside to visit an old friend. During his trip, he reflects on his professional life, specifically, on the question of whether or not he has become a “great” butler. If you enjoy personal, introspective books that are driven by characters, you will like.
The major theme of the book is one that affected me at an emotional level. Stevens is an “old England” butler who values “Dignity” above all other virtues. His interpretation of dignity comes close to Stoicism, but would more more fairly be called an ascetic commitment to duty over and above one’s feelings. I’ll let you discover through reading the novel the ways this plays out. I feel great sympathy and even admiration for Stevens. His rock steadiness and loyalty to his employer are qualities that I believe my generation grossly undervalues. I often find myself wondering whether “authentic self expression” is the great experience that it is often held up to be. Too often I have witnessed it used merely as license to justify a flimsy, amoral and even cruel existence. In my generational context, Stevens appears almost supernaturally in control of himself.
The virtue of self control is extolled in Scripture. It’s a fruit of the Holy Spirit and evidence of wisdom that comes from God. There’s not much evidence that Christ values saying and doing exactly what you are thinking or feeling. Authenticity and honesty are commended, but so is sticking to a promise even to your hurt. We are told further in the Bible to not allow anger to dictate our speech or actions. Over again in Scripture there is infinitely more value placed on controlling our minds, tongues, and deeds than on expressing what is going on inside.
Even as I type that, however, I feel almost repulsed. The notion of walking around in life continually acting in contradiction to feeling seems a half-life, a facade. And I don’t think that’s the kind of self control that God desires. The internalization of emotion that Stevens has mastered in his career as a butler is not necessarily what Christ wants for his church. We are right to admire and not censure those who are able to carry out their duties in the face of impeding emotions or circumstances. But self deception is also possible. We cannot content ourselves with external obedience while our hearts scream in unfaithfulness. It matters infinitely what we do in our minds and feel in our hearts. God loves a pure imagination, a cheerful giver, a thankful heart, and a humble spirit.
Humans are holistic creatures. What goes on inside of us can never be fully divorced from the life we live to others. The regenerating power of the Holy Spirit gives to us not only the power to remain loyal despite our feelings, but to renew our minds so that we live holistically holy. Let us remain steadfast in our weakness, hopeful to the day when our inside and outside will always match perfectly that melody of the Maker.