Five people passed the beggar but only one stopped to help. The will it seems to get somewhere on time, a preoccupation with self, easily thwarted a fragile affection that stirred in each heart but bloomed in only one. Why did the fifth man stop? Why did he stop, discover, propose and act? What did the others miss that this man saw?
Tennessee Williams tells a story of someone who forgot – the story of Jacob Brodzky, a shy Russian Jew whose father owned a bookstore. The older Brodzky wanted his son to go to college. The boy, on the other hand, desired nothing but to marry Lila, his childhood sweetheart – a French girl as effusive, vital, and ambitious as he was contemplative and retiring. A couple of months after young Brodzky went to college, his father fell ill and died. The son returned home, buried his father, and married his love. Then the couple moved into the apartment above the bookstore, and Brodzky took over its management. The life of books fit him perfectly, but it cramped her. She wanted more adventure – and she found it, she thought, when she met an agent who praised her beautiful singing voice and enticed her to tour Europe with a vaudeville company. Brodzky was devastated. At their parting, he reached into his pocket and handed her the key to the front door of the bookstore.
“You had better keep this,” he told her, “because you will want it some day. Your love is not so much less than mine that you can get away from it. You will come back sometime, and I will be waiting.” She kissed him and left. To escape the pain he felt, Brodzky withdrew deep into his bookstore and took to reading as someone else might have taken to drink. He spoke little, did little, and could most times be found at the large desk near the rear of the shop, immersed in his books while he waited for his love to return.
Nearly 15 years after they parted, at Christmastime, she did return. But when Brodzky rose from the reading desk that had been his place of escape for all that time, he did not take the love of his life for more than an ordinary customer. “Do you want a book?” he asked. That he didn’t recognize her startled her. But she gained possession of herself and replied, “I want a book, but I’ve forgotten the name of it.” Then she told him a story of childhood sweethearts. A story of a newly married couple who lived in an apartment above a bookstore. A story of a young, ambitious wife who left to seek a career, who enjoyed great success but could never relinquish the key her husband gave her when they parted. She told him the story she thought would bring him to himself.
But his face showed no recognition. Gradually she realized that he had lost touch with his heart’s desire, that he no longer knew the purpose of his waiting and grieving, that now all he remembered was the waiting and grieving itself. “You remember it; you must remember it – the story of Lila and Jacob?”
After a long, bewildered pause, he said, “There is something familiar about the story, I think I have read it somewhere. It comes to me that it is something by Tolstoi.” Dropping the key, she fled the shop. And Brodzky returned to his desk, to his reading, unaware that the love he waited for had come and gone. (Signs of the Times, June, 1993, p. 11.)
When we focus on ourselves continually we often fail to see what is happening around us. We feel affection, friendships, even erotic love. But, when it comes to acting on these things they are, as C. S. Lewis put it, nothing but flowers surrounded by weeds unless there comes a gentle gardener to till the weeds and primp the garden. So, what caused that fifth man to act when four others did not? Why did Brodzky fail to grasp the one opportunity of love he thought he had always lived for? One man’s passion was compelling. The other’s was not. The former in affection reached out beyond sympathy. He did not miss love when he found it because the “gentle gardener,” Christ, had cultivated the love in his heart giving it beauty, purpose and mission. Brodzky and the four who did not stop missed an opportunity to manifest their love because they were preoccupied with the most important thing in life, themselves. The flowers of affection and friendship were choked by the weeds of self-interest. Christian love, charity as it was once called, takes the natural loves God puts in all men’s hearts and tend them, giving them purpose and, most of all, action. Charity doesn’t stop at sympathy. It carried the lame man to Christ where sympathy could only stand and watch. This is the secret of the fifth man.
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