The rain was pouring in torrents as I traversed the backroads in my little Mitsubishi from my Hungarian town to my son’s high school in the next town. I had just stopped for a turn when I saw in my rearview mirror a car coming behind me very fast—and it did not look like it was going to stop.
It didn’t. It plowed into me. Shaken but unhurt, I quickly got out of my car, and three men scrambled out of the car that had just rear-ended me. They were shouting and gesticulating and pointing to car parts all over the road. They seemed to think it was funny. They were speaking Hungarian—of course—and I did my best to communicate. They indicated that the fenders and headlights and whatever else was lying in the road belonged to their car, not mine.
Sure enough, my car looked intact. Well, and it was raining cicák és kutyák. i I was getting very wet and decided we didn’t need to call the police. I didn’t even get their names or ask for their insurance. They were still laughing as I drove off. I wasn’t sure what they found so amusing. I mentally shook my head as I went on, thankful nothing worse had happened. I picked up my son at school and drove home. The car functioned just fine.
But when I later told my husband the story, he gave me a quizzical look and went straight to the back of the car and tried to open the trunk lid. It would not open.
Of course, it would be the first thing he would think of—and the last thing that would have occurred to me. If it looks okay, it must be, was my faulty reasoning. I felt a little foolish.
My husband was kind to his blameworthy wife, but he didn’t see much humor as he paid to have our car repaired.
Appearances can be deceiving.
I’ve been deceived on more than one occasion. Walking down the street of a French town on a frigidly cold day, my husband pointed ahead to a dark spot on the sidewalk. “That might be ice,” he said. “It just looks wet,” I countered. But when we came to the dark spot, I completely lost my footing and landed hard on my backside. I had an instant, searing headache.
He helped me up and we had to find the nearest shelter where I could sit down—gingerly—and wait till the headache subsided. I felt a little foolish.
I should have listened to him.
Why do we trust appearances rather than what might be wisdom?
I know that you always get names and insurance information in any kind of car wreck. I know—usually—to be cautious on seeing a “wet spot” on a frigidly cold winter day. I know these things.
Judging by appearances can be costly and, sometimes, calamitous.
In a curious and inventive plot twist, Norwegian novelist Isak Dinesen illustrates in her short story, “Babette’s Feast,” how the deception of appearances can mask the greatness of simplicity as well as blind simplistic, unbelieving eyes to greatness.
Two pious sisters, living on a Norwegian fjord, are members of a small and strict sect, and at the death of their father, become the beloved leaders of the humble, aging group.
Remarkably, they are visited in turn by a distinguished Norwegian general, a noted French singer, and a Parisian cook.
The general is intrigued by the beauty of these simple sisters and their humble way of life. But it does not fit with his idea of greatness. He turns his back, returns to his life of renown and splendor—and comes to realize, with the years, his mistake. The singer is enchanted by the voice of the one sister as he overhears her singing in church. He sets his sights on making her “a prima donna of the opera who will lay Paris at her feet.” But he misjudges her conception of bringing glory to God, and goes back to Paris, disappointed and dejected.
The cook, Babette, fleeing the French Revolution and in need of a home, stays on with the sisters and learns to prepare their severely simple, homely meals which they teach her to make.
In time Babette wins the Paris lottery—ten thousand francs—and asks the sisters a favor. She has never, in twelve years, she reminds them, asked of them a favor. She would like to prepare a meal for them and their little group. Awed and fearful that with her great winnings, she will now leave their stringent life and go back to Paris, they reluctantly grant her request.
Loads of goods and strange ingredients begin arriving across the fjord from Paris via the Norwegian capital. As Babette becomes more and more intent on the meal and its trappings, the sisters become less and less sure they have done the right thing. They make the rounds to each of their flock and beg forgiveness for leading them into a great wrong. Their idea of a guest meal is “a very plain supper with a cup of coffee.”
“We won’t take any notice of what we eat,” their parishioners assure the sisters. “We won’t say a thing.”
True to their word, the simple people eat the elaborate feast and drink the exquisite wines, and never seem to notice and never make a comment.
After the meal and the guests have left, Babette assures the sisters that she is not going back to Paris—she is too poor. Poor! They protest—the ten thousand francs!
But Babette reveals to them that she had been the chef of the Café Anglais in Paris. She has spent her ten thousand francs on the meal—because that is what a meal for twelve persons would cost at the Café Anglais.
They are stunned. She has been preparing their bread and ale soup and dried cod for years. This famous cook!
Appearances can be deceiving.
The general had ignored true greatness, to his loss. The opera singer did not delve into the noble singer’s heart for God’s glory or he may have made a different approach. The parishioners and the two sisters missed a deeper joy by not acknowledging with gratefulness God’s gracious gifts.
Only Babette—neither a deceiver nor deceived, but a humble servant—waited until the moment when she could live up to her true calling as an artist. ii
Car wrecks and icy spots are one thing. But what about other appearances that I misjudge?
I’d like to blame my ancestor, Eve, who took a long, admiring gaze at the beautiful, tantalizing fruit of the forbidden tree—forbidden in no uncertain terms—and went ahead and grasped the lovely fruit and ate it, giving some to her husband, who likewise ate. It looked so delightful—what could possibly be wrong with eating it? The appearance seemed more reasonable than the command.
She was deceived. She was foolish. She missed her true calling by her disobedience.
I inherited her tendency.
I know it is better to trust—to act on—God’s commands than to trust and act on my own judgment of appearances. Whose view of the situation is infallible? Whose is fallible?
The wrong answer can be catastrophic.
It could even lead to missing my true calling.
i Hungarian for "cats and dogs"
ii "Babette's Feast" by Isak Dinesen, 1958. The complete story has many more nuances. It has also been made into a delightful, award-winning movie with English subtitles, 1987. For more enjoyment, don't read the Wikipedia account first!