SummarySometimes small changes yield great happiness. Dr. Kalpakgian considers what literary characters can teach about finding the missing element in our lives.
Throughout human experience in all the various stages of man’s life, people often sense some missing element. A child feels something is missing when he has no friends or playmates.
The elderly suffer loneliness when they receive no letters, phone calls, or visitors.
A young marriageable woman feels unfulfilled and hopes for the gift of love, marriage, and children. Bachelors hope to meet the right woman to give purpose, meaning, and direction to their lives.
Throughout the human condition all persons at some point sense that something is missing, that some deep desire of the heart has not been fulfilled.
In the Grimm folktale “Tom Thumb” a married couple sits in the evening and reflects on a missing piece of their life. The countryman remarks, “How dull it is without any children about us; our house is so quiet, and other people’s houses so noisy and merry!” His wife agrees: “Yes . . . if we could only have one, and that one ever so little, no bigger than my thumb, how happy I should be! It would, indeed, be having our heart’s desire.”
A happy, contented couple finds marriage incomplete without children. In Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” the youngest of the six sisters yearns to leave the palace that she inhabits in the depths of the sea to enter the human world that promises a greater form of happiness and love than the tranquil security of life in the sea: “But she very soon found herself thinking once more of the world above her: she could not forget the handsome prince and her own sorrow at not having, like him, an immortal soul.”
In Natalie Fenollera’s bestseller The Awakening of Miss Prim, Emma Gionvanacci, a widow of eight years, explains her remarriage as a discovery of something missing in her life.
When a gentleman who has comforted and befriended Emma with kind favors during this time of loneliness moves to a new location, she discovers she is in love:
“I hadn’t seen him for weeks. Then one day I woke and realized that something was missing from my life, something seemingly tiny but actually hugely important. The coffees, chats, the walks, the pleasant afternoon outings were missing. It sounds silly but, as you grow older, it’s the little things that matter.”
A simple, peaceful life is inadequate without the companionship of delightful company and occasions to enjoy with convivial people.
In the novel Miss Prim’s employer confronts her with the question, “Is there a black hole in that young life of yours? Something you have to live with but would like to be rid of?”
Reluctantly she admits there is something missing in her life when she finally confesses: perhaps she does need a husband even though she first held the opinion that “I’m totally opposed to marriage . . . . I consider it a useless institution and one in decline.” Miss Prim’s doctoral degree in sociology, expertise in medieval Russian art, and knowledge of library science do not fill the hole in her life.
St. Augustine’s Confessions also portrays a distinguished professor of rhetoric enjoying fame, wealth, pleasure, and honors but sensing something missing in his life: “Yet I walked through the shadows and on slippery ways, and I searched for you outside me and did not find the God of my heart.
I had come to the depths of the sea, and I had no confidence or hope of discovering the truth.” Augustine’s great classical learning and prominent title of professor of rhetoric failed to provide spiritual nourishment and peace of soul for a restless heart— a state of mind he described when he wrote “our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you.”
One can have all the glamour and possessions of worldly success, yet sense a void in one’s life.
Augustine’s quest for the missing piece in his life compares to Dante’s journey in The Divine Comedy, one that begins with his wandering “in a dark wilderness” in the middle of his life because “I first left the way of truth behind.”
In Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas the young prince finds himself in a Happy Valley protected from the corrupt influences of the outside world, a life of luxury, comfort, and pleasure designed for the gratification of the five senses where “revelry and merriment was the business of every hour from the dawn of morning to the close of even.”
Yet the young prince finds himself miserable, lonely, and listless in the Happy Valley, complaining, “When I see the kids and lambs chasing one another, I fancy I should be happy if I had something to pursue . . . give me something to desire.”
The missing element in Rasselas’ life is a noble purpose and worthy goal to occupy his time and awaken his desires to overcome the oppression of monotony and idleness that have lulled him into a state of inertia.
This missing element in a person’s life makes a person change direction, reconsider his priorities, and think about the future in a new light. The continuation of the status quo does not promise to fulfill the deepest desires of the heart.
The knowledge that something is missing is a call to make some important change in one’s life in terms of thinking, acting, seeking, or praying.
The missing piece, however, is not buried or hidden in some remote place, but is half-hidden and half-revealed like the purloined letter in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, camouflaged with other books and papers on the desk.
Like the game of hide and seek adults play with children, those hiding want to be discovered by those doing the seeking.
In Blaise Pascal’s famous statement from Pensees (Meditations), “You would not seek me if you had not found me.” The missing piece is there calling, waiting, and hinting.
Those who seek find because the semi-hidden is waiting to be detected and hoping to be noticed.
The countryman and his wife who felt the void in their life soon rejoiced at the birth of Tom Thumb. The Little Mermaid assumed a human shape, entered the human world, and won an immortal soul.
The longing and yearning for the missing element is a real desire and a true wish intended to lead the person to some great happiness that requires, first, the intention, the effort, and the willingness to do all in one’s power to change one’s life, travel in a new direction, or reject some false idea. Emma and Miss Prim find what they are seeking, but it is not far from them.
Miss Prim’s employer clarifies the point of Poe’s story:
“Well, in the story, the missing piece or purloined letter is there, in the room with you, right in front of you, but you can’t see it, you’re not aware of its presence.”
As Emma recalls, she fell in love when she suddenly missed the man who regularly took her to coffee, went on pleasant walks with her, and joined her in delightful conversations.
After St. Augustine’s life of intellectual wandering, carnal pleasure, and spiritual restlessness, he conquered the sin of lust, rejected the superstition of astrology, and refuted Manichaeism because they were not the missing piece in his life.
After his conversion to the Catholic Faith, he marveled at the nearness of the hand of God’s Providence, acknowledging God as “most deeply hidden and most nearly present” throughout his entire life.
Through his mother Monica and his many devout friends who converted to the Catholic Faith, Augustine’s finding of God perfectly illustrates Pascal’s statement: God had revealed Himself enough so that Augustine was seeking Him whom he already partially knew in his quest for wisdom.
Dante too found God because God first sought Him, and Dante discovered Beatrice in Heaven because she first interceded for him when she saw him lost in the dark wood. She sent Virgil to guide him to Paradise: “Go then, and with the beauty of your words, and any skill you have to set him free, help him, that I may be consoled.
I am the blessed Beatrice who bid you go; love makes me speak.” Rasselas’ melancholy in the Happy Valley at the emptiness of his existence moved him to escape and seek another “choice of life,” a higher form of happiness that transcended Epicurean pleasure and superficial amusement and a nobler version of fulfillment based on a pursuit of knowledge and the possession of truth.
Missing pieces are not too hard or too easy to find. They are there waiting for the person to see them as the true answer.
Once they are discovered, these missing pieces make all the difference, changing people’s lives from dull to lively, from sad to joyful, from ignorant to wise, and from listless to zealous.
As Miss Prim learns, no one can complete the puzzle unless the missing piece is found:
“They feel that something won’t work, or maybe that absolutely nothing will work, until they find, or, better still, are allowed to find the missing piece.” (italics mine)
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