The notion that each person is solely responsible for his or her own fate, his or her own success or failures, is a tempting one, especially in a highly (indeed, some might say too highly) individualized society such as our own. But this is not only misleading, it is harmful to the very virtue for which the individual most longs; it tempts us towards censoriousness regarding others, and vanity regarding ourselves. It’s easy for us to blame others harshly for their faults: this man is greedy, this woman has a short-temper, this child is peevish. And it’s just as easy (if not easier) for us to become puffed up on account of our own (perceived) virtues: I am patient, I am hardworking, I am kind, I am not like these others.
And so it is easy for readers to blame Pinocchio overmuch for his mistakes, to regard themselves very favorably in comparison to him, rather than to see the ways and remember the times in which they have acted just as selfishly, just as carelessly, just as foolishly as Pinocchio—if not worse.
Long ago St. Augustine battled against the heresiarch Pelagius, who taught that salvation could be come by naturally and through one’s own efforts—Christ, taught Pelagius, had done no more than set for us a good example. Augustine insisted, rather, that each good act and each good thought a human being had was preceded by the action of grace. When we do good, it is because that good has been given us to do.
Interestingly, Pelagianism (as the heresiarch’s doctrine came to be called) is not only a Christian heresy. It’s central conceit is that one can, in effect, “do it on one’s own”, and that others, at best, merely provide good examples. But this is plainly false from the meanest human experience reflected upon. It is an unpleasant thought to think of where anyone of us would have been without parents, siblings, friends, or teachers who loved us,—as it is shocking to contemplate where Pinocchio would have wound up without the love of his father, Gepetto, or of the Blue Fairy. It is staggering to think about all the graces and good fortune we simply haven’t taken account of in our lives because they have gone so far before us as to be invisible, especially when we cast our glances around in judgment of others, or in the mirror to congratulate ourselves.
Our common experience of failure and the unmerited patience of the world itself with us ought to induce us to patience, sympathy, and compassion with even the most annoying, foolish, and recalcitrant person—or son, or student.
Centuries after Augustine’s controversies with Pelagius and his disciples, another Christian saint, Philip Neri, glanced out his window once while at prayer to see a convict being led to his doom. Rather than remarking to himself that the wretch was getting what he deserved, Philip thought of his own wretchedness—both that which was, and that which had miraculously been forestalled and staved off—and said to himself, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
There but for the grace of God go all of us.