“There was utter silence all around me. And now for the first time I knew what I had been doing. While I was reading, it had, once and again, seemed strange to me that the reading took so long; for the book was a small one. Now I knew that I had been reading it over and over—perhaps a dozen times. I would have read it forever, quick as I could, starting the first word again almost before the last was out of my mouth, if the judge had not stopped me.”
This passage doesn’t mean much when you haven’t read the whole book, but it’s from C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, and it is incredibly moving to me. It’s spoken by Orual, who feels she has been wronged, or wrongly understood, all of her life, and finally gets a chance to tell her side of things, which she has written into a book. She eagerly reads the book to the gods, one of whom is a great judge, knowing that now she will get justice. But she realizes as she reads it how whiny it sounds—realizes, in fact, that all her life she has been telling herself this story about what happened, and that maybe it didn’t happen that way after all: maybe, even, she has been not only wrong, but aware she was choosing to see things wrongly all that time.
This passage was moving to me for same reason any passage is moving to me: I recognized it. That’s me, reading a book to some judge, reading it over and over, hoping for some justification—and yet, deep down, dealing with this tiny worry that I’m not quite so heroic as I’ve been painting things, that maybe I saw things wrong when they happened, and that this grudge I’ve been holding is not only detrimental to me (that much is true of any grudge) but also completely unfounded.
It remains one of my biggest sins that I continue to label people. “He is the guy who did that to me ten years ago.” “She is the woman who always does this.” “She can’t take criticism.” “He is just the type that demands constant praise.” “I am the mediocre poet trying to pretend I have something to say.” I can’t stand this about myself, this repeated reading of old books.