How Helping Them Could End Up Saving You
I have no idea why, but when anything gets too popular, I lose interest. Hip Hop was cool until it went mainstream. I ignored The Hunger Games, have never watched Eastenders, and haven’t seen Barbie (but I have seen Oppenheimer—I’m not always consistent). And so when I found Anthony Doerr’s globally-popular Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See in a charity store, I bought the book next to it instead—his lesser-known first novel About Grace.
Critics judged About Grace to be beautifully written yet far too long, and I’d agree. But in places it is luminous, and one scene has stayed with me since I read it. (Spoilers ahead.)
About Grace tells the story of David Winkler, who longs to find his estranged daughter, Grace. In time he realises only one person can help him—a man named Herman Sheeler. But there’s a hitch. David once skipped town with Herman’s wife, Grace was the result of the affair, and the last time they spoke, Herman warned David never to make contact with them again.
Decades pass before David gets the opportunity (and builds the bravery) to write to Herman. He apologizes for what he did, then begs for information about Grace. “I have a hole in my life because I know so little about my daughter,” he says. “Probably I don’t deserve peace, but you could give me some.” We wait to see if Herman responds.
Few dilemmas are more universal than how to treat someone who’s wronged us. Putting ourselves back in the path of harm isn’t wise, and getting revenge, even passively, has its own ramifications. A third option is explored in an obscure Old Testament story. An unnamed king wakes to find an enemy army surrounding his city, but by day’s end a stroke of divine intervention has landed them into his hands. The king asks the prophet Elisha how he should make them pay. “Should I kill them?” he wonders. No, Elisha says—do something more radical: sit them down, feed them a meal, buy them some drinks, and send them home.
As a result of this act of grace, the enemies don’t attack the king again. Jesus put this radical approach into a famous phrase: ‘Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you’.
To David Winkler’s surprise, Herman Sheeler replies to his letter, invites him to his home and cooks him a meal. As they’re about to eat, Herman bows his head and closes his eyes. “Lord Jesus, thank you for your goodness and bounty, and for watching over me and David here all these years.” He helps David reconnect with his daughter, and meet the grandson she’s born him. In a lovely twist, David even ends up saving Herman’s life.
And maybe that’s why the scene has stayed with me ever since I read it:
Sometimes an act of grace to someone who’s wronged us can save not just their life, but ours.
First aired on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Breakfast Show