What 'Much Ado' teaches us about the benefit of the doubt



Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves. ~ Dogberry, Much Ado 5.1.225

If comedies end in weddings and tragedies end in funerals, Much Ado About Nothing stops by the morgue on its way to the chapel, giving readers and viewers that dose of real life that is a mix of the two. No one gets all comedy. No one lives a total tragedy. As is true with any good work of fiction, Shakespeare has written to entertain us with an exaggerated form of our own realities, with things I can relate to and scenarios that show the discomfort of my own nature. And like Hamlet’s famous line from the play named for him—the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. My conscience is caught by Much Ado. 

Claudio has returned from war and fallen in love with the beautiful Hero. Everything has been set for them to be married, and Claudio is intent on breaking with his fellow soldiers and risking the ridicule of being concerned with feminine things, setting himself up for potential heartache and humility, because everyone in Messina knows women can’t be faithful.  He’s in love, and I can cheer for him because he is man enough to admit it, unlike his friend Benedick who only mockingly longs to be "so converted and see with these eyes”—to fall head-over-heels as Claudio apparently has. Benedick will fall in love, but only when he is tricked into believing that Beatrice, the object of his turmoiled affection, is first in love with him. 

But before the wedding of Claudio and Hero, there is a deception. Claudio is led to believe his bride-to-be has already been untrue, and his instinct is to protect his own pride.  His first response to this gossip is not to question its source, to question Hero, or to believe what he knows of her character and conduct. His response is to believe a lie—to believe what he’s heard and thinks he’s seen.  

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In an interview with On Being host Krista Tippett, psychologist Daniel Kahnemen tells about having dinner with his wife and some friends. At home afterwards, as they were getting ready for bed and discussing their evening, Kahneman’s wife said something strange.  She was admiring one of the guests because, as she said, "He doesn’t undress the maid himself.” This shocked her husband, both because of his manly pride and because it was out of character for his wife to say such a thing. Turns out, his first hearing of her was wrong, and after a little investigation he realized she had actually said, "He doesn’t underestimate himself." 

Throughout Much Ado, intentions are misinterpreted, words are twisted, information is gained by eavesdropping, and Claudio becomes a perfect illustration of the folly of jumping to conclusions, as Kahneman was first tempted to do. I am easily deceived when led by my pride, and I too often fail to admit that I may have come to my conclusions through my own misinterpretations. This is what bandwagons were made for, and I jump too quickly to ride along with the flow of whomever may entice me with their version of what is true. 

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In her book On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior says that “If justice is making right, then seeing people rightly is a form of justice.” Claudio has a history with Hero, but to a man more concerned with his image than with the truth, history means nothing. He publicly shames the innocent Hero on their wedding day to save his own fragile pride, and the shallowness of Claudio’s love, his quick leap to his deceiver’s conclusion, is truly an injustice that only leads to more deception.  

Scripture is full of this kind of deceit, from the serpent to Tamar to Judas Iscariot. What the Bible tells me about human nature is that we are all capable of grand deceptions, and of being tricked by grand deceivers. What Shakespeare tells me, what all good literature shows, is that God is right. Though my senses and perceptions can deceive me, and though I tend to believe what I want to believe and hear what I want to hear, a little investigation goes a long way towards learning the truth. So does a little history, a remembrance of the past. 

Swooning of Hero in the Church  by Alfred Elmore

Swooning of Hero in the Church by Alfred Elmore

Claudio has seen Hero on her balcony in the embrace of another man. He is an eyewitness, and we want no better proof than that of a firsthand account. Claudio’s greatest fear—that women truly can’t be faithful and that he is a fool who falls in love—seems to be confirmed by what his eyes have seen. His public shaming and false accusations of Hero (a sharp contrast to the honorable way Joseph sought to deal with Mary) leads her to fake her own death, but not even her death by heartache can prompt Claudio to reconsider his accusations against her. What he saw mixed just enough truth with deception to convince him that Hero was not faithful, in the same way the serpent mingled truth with a lie to manipulate Eve in the garden.

Had Eve truly weighed what she knew of God’s character and benevolence, she would have reconsidered the serpent's deceptive “Has God indeed said...”, or so I like to think. And had Claudio remembered his history with Hero and not been clouded by his fears, by the “much ado about nothing” in the rumors and traps, he would have dug a little deeper and found the truth of her love and faithfulness. James says we are led away by our own desires and enticed (James 1:14), and Claudio’s desire is first and foremost to protect himself.

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The greatest lesson for me in Much Ado About Nothing is that I cannot view the world through my fears and expect to see it clearly. All the possibilities—the mishaps and the dangers and deceptions of the world—have to be outweighed by my belief in a good God who is working in all things and who loved me first. When it comes to the people in my life, I have to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe all things, as 1 Corinthians 13 outlines. Otherwise, I am doomed to live on my misinterpretations of others and my fear of potential evil. 

We can question Shakespeare’s intent but his plays are clearly full of biblical elements, and good literature shows us the truth, goodness, and beauty of even a fallen world. Characters like Dogberry, with his continual malapropisms and innocently backwards sentences, reveal the truth to those who think they are wise. Hero’s life seems to end in her tragic death, but she reappears for a wedding. Deceivers are punished. Mourning turns to celebration. Love allows us to view everything in a new light. From beginning to end, the story is a range of human emotions and reactions. My conscience is pricked by my own distrust and self-protection, but my hope is stirred by the final revelation of truth, by reconciliation, by a wedding.  

The best stories always end in a wedding and a feast. One day we will feast on truth, delight in goodness, and never find an end to beauty, and all of our misinterpretations will ether be set right or completely forgotten in the folds of eternity. In the meantime, may our consciences be caught by stories old and new.

Commit to narrowness

When you choose anything, you reject everything else.” G.K. Chesterton

The digital economy has created an endless buffet, and it’s easy to overeat. When confronted with infinity, is it okay to blink?” Seth Godin

I’ve been buying the same toothpaste and laundry soap for years. I buy it from one of those membership programs where you have to order a certain amount each month and if you skip an order they’ll automatically ship you some items you’ve preselected. My preselected order has always been vitamins and toothpaste and laundry soap.

The nice thing is I really do like the products. They’re natural and effective and it’s easy. I order online, or if I forget, the box magically comes to my door anyway. The not nice thing is that the shipping has gotten expensive and my vitamin needs have changed. I canceled our membership a couple months ago and now I am in need of toothpaste and I’ll have to go to the store; there are 46 different tubes of toothpaste to choose from at the store. I will be overwhelmed. I won’t know how to prioritize: save time, save money, save the planet, save our health, save our teeth from the effects of our habits?

This is freedom.

A few months ago someone was discussing the many options their family was considering for schooling their children this coming year. They live in a bigger city with more choices, but I could still sympathize with their quandary—time, money, benefits, etc. I realized during our conversation that five years ago we severely limited our choices in this area. We chose one very specific option for homeschool—because you don’t just choose between public, private, or homeschool; you choose one broad category and a hundred other options cascade from that. We got involved with a community that thrives on commitment to one another. If we pull out and choose another course, our community suffers because, though we are replaceable, we homeschool together with a group of like-minded people and the dynamics change with every shift in involvement. We are free and responsible for our own children’s education, but we are interdependent within that freedom.

Making this very specific choice has allowed me to trash and unsubscribe from the multiple homeschool catalogs, conferences, curriculum publishers, and magazines that provoke parents to question their choices. Prior to our decision, every summer was spent poring over websites and catalogs to plan The Best Course for the following year, chasing the greener grass and smarter schedule. I enjoyed some aspects of this planning, but my attic holds boxes of books that, if their marketing was correct, should’ve produced National Merit Scholars who radically love Jesus and Shakespeare and art history.

Did we make the best choice for our kids? Are we missing something? Are there gaps and holes and regrets? Yes. Yes. Yes and yes and yes.

We made a choice and then a commitment, and that’s what is important. My husband and I prayed over our decision, made mental pro/con lists, and counted the costs of this choice as best we could. There were unknowns, but calculating potential risks and worrying about the million other things we are not choosing by making this one choice will only leave the one choice unmade. Sometimes you just have to make a decision and commit to it.

Everything is imperfect. Every imperfect thing teaches us contentment.

The commitment to imperfections and problems may be the most important part. There will be issues with any choice—even following Jesus, which we would say is the best decision a person can make, will bring problems. But our decision to commit and to proceed confidently within our limitations is the real deciding factor, not the fact that our choices will bring problems.

This is the place we have to settle. In rejecting everything else, we are free to pour into our one choice, freed by our limitations to funnel our energy into this one decision. Marrying one man makes all other men off limits, and we are free to pour our energy into that one covenantal relationship. Living in one place takes all other places off the list, but we are free to be a visitor in the world with a refuge to return to. The side benefits are that healthy marriages produce healthy people who have healthy relationships with others; peaceful homes house peaceful families who welcome friends and strangers into that peace. Having children, having a job, keeping a schedule…all these give framework to a life that will not hold up if we have unlimited freedom.

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We are on the last lap of our homeschool, with only one child and four years of high school left. I will have to make other choices with my time. The schedule will change, will flex and tighten with the seasons, but the need for limitations is still there. I have to look at busyness differently in this season because I am not a mother of small, needy children; not the mom who schedules playdates and nap times, who posts chore charts and daily lesson plans. I am the mom who is shifting from the primary voice in her children’s lives, to an ear, an eye. My prayers now are that my children narrow their own way and limit themselves to the wide expanse of kingdom God gives them dominion in.

Choose your limitations and commit to your decisions. Opt out. Unsubscribe. Narrow and refine until your freedom feels like it will hold up your life.

Time and the Peonies

Aside from family birthdays and anniversaries, I am terrible at keeping track of dates. I do calculations to figure out the year we moved, the last time we traveled, the year we planted that apple tree or when my husband had surgery on his shoulder. But I remember the year I started blogging: 2012, January, at a coffee shop in Cottage Grove, Oregon. It’s so random, but I remember the birth of this space as if it were another child. The way I form regrets and should-haves around my writing is very much like my reflections on parenting, and I have to purpose to not look back too much. I have great kids, despite my failures. I’ve written some words I’m happy with, despite my short-comings. And both of those things are impossible without God’s help.

This blog has always been a place for me to work out what I think. Strange, I know, to do this “publicly”, but I could easily be a hermit in the woods who forgets what human voice is like, even my own; writing my thoughts helps me speak, and doing either of those things publicly keeps me "close to the earth” and human, humus, like soil. I can almost embrace the fact that embarrassment, or the potential for embarrassment, is good for me. I can almost let go of my pride. 

(I have never liked the word “blog” or the terms blogging or blogger. There has to be something better, more beautiful, more reflective of what’s happening here than a mash-up of “web” and “log”. Logs are boring calculations of time spent, and I’d rather think this space is a collection of narratives, released and redeemed from the inner stories I tell myself. You have ideas; let’s create a new term!)

Tonight we’ll have people over to eat a simple meal with us and discuss ideas around what it means to be created in the image of God. We did this in January and intended to do it each month of the year, but it’s always hard to put things on the calendar. It’s easier to think about it as a future, far-off thing we might do someday when we have the time and the house is ready and the kids are occupied. Our future-selves are always less busy and more hospitable. This way of tracking time doesn’t work and my present-self knows this, so I am filling in the dates on an already full calendar because my mind forgets what my spirit knows: time stretches to fit every good thing and we can choose to have the time. 

We can also choose how we think about time. Twice in the last week I’ve admonished people who were grumbling about some future thing they had to do, something they were dreading. You’re not doing it now, so stop ruining the moment with your grumbling about the future. In certain seasons, that feeling of dread has come to me first thing in the morning, as my eyes adjust to a fresh 24 hours and my mind flicks through a rolodex of to-dos. It’s not the way to wake-up. Revelatory for me has been grasping the concept that if I faithfully do the things I must do, there will be time to do the things I want to do, without guilt. My husband doesn’t understand this struggle I have with guilt—I can’t sit down to read or write in the middle of the day because people are working hard out there in the world—but it’s always been there. I’m glad he doesn’t understand; it means he thinks it’s silly to have guilt over those things, and that’s the validation I need. I am silly. 

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The peony gives all its gifts and leaves nothing behind but greenery. Every bud blooms, every petal is enjoyed, until they fall to the ground outside or fall all at once in a sudden flouse to the table, dropping whole flowers in one descent from the vase. Even the way they land on my old, scarred up table is beautiful. I can’t describe my love for the peony but I bury my face in the dark pink ones, breathe deeply, and debate whether to bring them all inside or leave a few outside. This is my biggest concern today.

I wish peonies grew all year but they don’t, and this fact of time and seasons and quotidian rhythm prompts me to enjoy the heck out of them right now.  Right now, as I throw out an imperfect “log” about time in this space on the “web”—the space I neglect because people are working hard out there in the world and the to-do lists are fluttering in the wind.

Work.

And flutter.

And flouse.

The peonies won’t last forever.