(John Everett Millais – Blind Girl)1
In 1856, the British artist John Everett Millais painted The Blind Girl, a captivating image of two young sisters in a rain-drenched field. Their clothes are threadbare, and the youngest has no cloak; she sidles next to her sister, sharing her covering. They clasp hands tightly and unconsciously, as if they are conjoined. The oldest holds a concertina – like a little accordion – indicating how they make their living.
Millais had an uncanny knack for rendering textures with preternatural crispness, and he shows that ability here. Everything is bright, dewy, sharp and swelling, as if magnified through a raindrop. Glossy crows scan the dense fields for stranded, water-logged earthworms. And the perfectly post-storm sky – bright in the front and dark behind – throbs with a surreal but familiar contrast: the laden clouds hang shoulder-to shoulder with revelatory sun. The result is a gleaming rainbow.
The older of Millais’s sisters, however, closes her eyes amidst this grandeur, and we know from Millais’s title why. In the sensory richness of this storm-washed world, she must favor sound and touch. She fingers wet grass with her right hand and holds her face aloft, ear to the wind. Her world is a rich one, too, but she cannot see the colors. She cannot know the sights right in front of her face.
A son of privilege with working-class sympathies, Millais wanted his upper-class audience to feel pity and faint guilt before this picture. Imagine being a poor child on your own, he seems to say. Imagine such an uncertain and weather-worn life. Imagine being soaked to the bone, with nowhere to go. And imagine being deprived – through lamentable blindness – even of nature’s splendor.
Millais’s image is improbable and sentimental, but it’s also convicting. Few of us reading this have ever lived hand-to-mouth under a vast, unseeing sky. Few of us, as children, were totally bereft of adult protection. Few of us ever wore rags.
And yet, we complain.
We complain and complain and complain. Oh, how the heart of God aches to hear us grumble!
In my milieu of north Seattle, people sit in lounges and coffee shops, in high-performance winter coats and expensive shoes, sipping five-dollar lattes and complaining. With like-minded friends, we smugly bash ideological “enemies,” fashioning ourselves as righteous. We count ourselves emotional martyrs for having to endure the clear odiousness of certain people in our workplaces or families. We complain about our upper-middle-class salaries, about clueless employers and ineffective city governments. The Christians among us complain about their “backward” and dwindling churches. We covet what our “peers” have, and think we “deserve” it, too. Some of us own boats, vacation homes and second or third cars, and yet we call ourselves “poor!” We obsess over perceived slights to our dignity, and relish when our opponents fall into misfortune.
Twenty-first century America is the richest culture that has ever existed. The vast majority of Americans live like the royalty of centuries past – no, even more comfortably than royalty, and with many more luxuries besides! Most of us have climate-controlled dwellings, “horseless carriages,” and even fantastical, glowing entertainments on demand. We have multiple pairs of shoes and high-calorie diets. We have access to thousands of almost “magical” medicines.
And yet we moan and protest, thinking we’re not getting what we’re owed.
When I find myself wishing for what I do not have and bring my desires to the Lord, more often than not He points me back to my present. He shows me that my great destiny, and everything needed for it, is right in front of my face. If I think I am short of means, God shows me my plenty, and I am embarrassed. If I think I am misunderstood or mistreated, God opens my eyes to the love around me – and also to my own mistakes! If I think I know best, God shows me dimensions I had not comprehended. If I think I am denied opportunity, God shows me the opportunity waiting in my lap.
One of the great tricks of the enemy is to make us blind to the gifts that are right in front of our faces. We complain of lacks even as we sit on piles of treasure of stunning beauty and worth.
Millais’s blind girl, deprived of so much, knew the treasure in a blade of grass and a brisk autumn wind. In this season, may we, too, bask in gratitude for our own, lavish treasures, granted by a Father who always gives bread instead of stones.
Even if the bread is hard to chew.
Because for us, who live like royalty, our very troubles are a kindness, overseen by gentle angels. Our Father aims to make us holy, and He will destabilize us – graciously, carefully – toward this end.
Those ideological enemies, those “backward” family members, those “odious” co-workers? God gave them to us for a reason. Those distant “peers” whose benefits we covet? God gave those to us, too. What about those workplace opponents, those clueless bureaucrats, those damnable elected officials? They, also, are gifts from God. We should bow our heads in gratitude for them, for they will make us like Christ.
Indeed, they are the very image of Christ.
So in this season, I will try to remember:
Though I dwell in fear and sickness, and strife in a struggling place,
Lord, may I tremble in thankfulness for the gifts right in front of my face.
Editor’s note: We will not be posting during the week of Thanksgiving.