I am currently reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with my soon-to-be 13 year-old daughter. It is such a joy most of the time, as Austen is such a master at characterization. I say, most of the time because there are moments when reading her is just painful. Painful because when she goes on and on about Mr. Collins (the obnoxious protegée of Lady Catherine de Bourg) one finds oneself about to scream with frustration! Mr. Collins is so completely narcissistic, self-absorbed, socially retarded, and downright selfish, that his lengthy monologues are almost too much to bear. He is beyond human endurance.
But there is another character who tries human patience almost as much. Mrs. Bennett. Mrs. Bennett is nearly as narcissistic, self-absorbed, and socially retarded as Mr. Collins. Her only saving grace is that she does have 5 daughters who demand her attention. But Mrs. Bennett is almost worse than Collins in that she humiliates, embarrasses and nearly sabotages the prospects of those 5 daughters in her efforts to find them suitable husbands. What makes Mrs. Bennett’s behavior sometimes even more painful than Collins’ is that her actions have an uncanny ability to hit close to home. I know that most teenagers (and even adolescents) are sometimes embarrassed by their parents. This is a natural and important part of the separation that must come for healthy independence. But how often, inadvertently, and maybe even intentionally, do I embarrass my teen/adult children by behavior that simply lacks discretion? As parents, I think that we can easily mistake a teen’s particular vulnerability as immaturity, and not regard it properly. By failing to be discreet with our teen’s areas of sensitivity or vulnerability we can easily become like
Mrs. Bennett. I know I have failed at times in this area, and Mrs. Bennett teaches me what not to be.
Another area where Mrs. Bennett’s behavior is particularly instructive, is her insatiable need to boast about her daughters looks, prospects, impending engagements, and so forth. She does this regularly while putting other girls down in comparing their hopes and expectations to her superior daughters. Austen is a master at exposing what is such a common foible of the mother heart. As mothers, our tendency is to compare our children to other children. Even if we aren’t so foolish as to
verbalize those feelings in social situations (as the clueless Mrs. Bennett often does), harboring those feelings can become a destructive force. If our children are academically or artistically gifted, then our comparisons lead to pride. If our children are not academically or physically gifted, then our comparisons can lead to envy. Not good, either way.
We humans laud beauty, intelligence, athletic ability, education, artistic skill, charm, and graciousness. We hold persons who have these attributes in high esteem. We often forget that these qualities and abilities are the fruit of other’s investment, time, and sacrifice. We often forget that we are all products of those who have loved us, sacrificed for us, driven us to countless orthodontic appointments, paid for violin lessons, attended myriad sporting events and so forth. The academic is the product of the teaching, skill, and investment of many teachers through every stage of their intellectual development. The successful athlete reflects the tutoring, training, and coaching of many individuals. Failing to nurture a recognition of this very obvious fact in our children, can create narcissistic, self-absorbed youngsters that believe the world revolves around them. This can lead to our children thinking much more highly of themselves than they ought to think.
When our children do well, when their successes please us, if they ace the SAT, score a winning goal, or land a leading role, we would do well, unlike the foolish Mrs. Bennett, to reflect upon and remember all those who helped to make that success possible. Cultivating the ability to see that we are who we are, because of what we’ve been given is foundational to having a grateful, humble, and joyful perspective on life. Reading books like Pride and Prejudice together, affords us opportunities to wrestle with our baser instincts, ponder them with our children, to see ourselves for what we truly are, and to help ourselves and our children grow in favor with God and man.