Saturday, June 8, 2013

Lessons from The Brothers

Finally, finally, finally I have finished Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov!

After several months and special permission to renew the book for a sixth or seventh time from the local library--it is finished!  Hooray!

Contrary to this initial impression, I actually did enjoy the book.  It's just that it wasn't the kind of book I am accustomed to reading.  It is a narrative, this is true, but it's also a tremendous work of philosophy.  If it wasn't for my consulting with spark notes, I'm sure I wouldn't have understood the nuanced layers of meaning behind the characters' dialogue and actions.

This classical work of literature is whopping in its size and its themes.  All the big questions of life seem to be in there.  Is there a God?  If so, why is there suffering?  Why are we free...and is freedom even good for us?  Is there life after death?  And if this life is all that there is, then isn't anything morally permissible?  Who truly acquits or condemns a person: a jury or one's conscience?  

Understandably, given the vast scope of philosophical questions addressed within the book, it's difficult for me to pick just one particular theme I would like to highlight.  But here goes nothing... 

The theme that touched me the most through this book is the concept that we are all responsible for all.  

This idea originates in the elder monk, Zosima, who functions as the mentor and spiritual guide for Alyosha, the youngest of the three Karamazov brothers.  Here is what Zosima says:

"There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan's pride and murmuring against God."

At first, this idea of being responsible for all--including sharing the guilt of another's wrongdoing--seems unjust.  How can I be guilty if another person commits a murder, if I am not even present for the act or help perpetrate it?

As the novel unfolds, however, you begin to see that a crime does not have only one criminal.

The oldest Karamazov brother, Dimitri, is a passionate, intemperate man driven by his desire for a proud woman named Grushenka.  Unfortunately for him, his father also lusts after this same woman.  When his father is found murdered one night, all evidence points to Dimitri as the murderer.

While one of the major questions of the book is whether Dimitri has actually committed this act (a question I will not answer!), it is evident that--if he is the criminal--he has not acted alone.

Take, for instance, the father himself.  Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov is a brute of a man.  He is entirely selfish, unabashedly unchaste, and regularly intoxicated.  He more or less abandoned his three sons when they were children.  Dimitri's little interaction with him as an adult was to try to secure his proper inheritance, which he was certain his father had swindled him of.  With a deceased mother and this character of a father, what kind of upbringing and direction could Dimitri have received?

Then there is the woman of interest.  Grushenka consciously plays the father and son against each other, aware of their passions and fiery tempers.  She does so merely for the attention and for her own amusement, never considering the feelings of those involved and the deadly consequences her game may produce.

Ivan Karamazov is the middle brother and, while it seems at first glance that he is entirely removed from the murder case, it develops that it might be he who is most culpable.  While Ivan did not brandish any weapon, his religious skepticism and rejection of God provided the mental reasoning the murderer needed to rationalize his dark deed.  

Ivan, in his very intellectual manner, looks at the suffering in the world (specifically, the suffering of innocent children) and deduces that, either there must be no God at all or, if there is a God, He must be terribly cruel.  If God does not exist, then there is no immortality and, thus, in this life "everything is permissible"--even patricide.

It is the youngest Karamazov brother, Aloysha, who takes Zosima's message to heart.  Throughout the novel, there is example after example of Aloysha being "of all and for all."  

While Ivan coldly isolates himself from others and stonily rejects the idea of a God who permits children to suffer, Aloysha--moved by his faith--reaches out to help the child directly before him in need of love.  And in this way, Aloysha becomes the hands and face of Christ present in the world.  Ivan's response to suffering is isolation; Aloysha's response is to love.  

It is this offering of love, as well as the gift of forgiveness, that demonstrates that this "of all and for all" works in both directions.  I play my part in the sinfulness of others, but I can also cooperate in helping others to do what is right and just.

I suppose you could say that the damnation of one soul is the result of many hands, as is the salvation of one soul.  

It calls to my mind the scene in Matthew 25 when, at the Last Judgment, Christ questions: when I was hungry, did you feed me?  When I was thirsty, did you give me drink?  In other words, how did you love and serve the people immediately around you?  How were you the face and hands of Christ to them?

And who is more immediately around us than our own family members?  Perhaps this is why Dostoevsky used a family unit for his central characters.  It is very easy to judge others, and how much more so when the subject involved is a relative.  

We look at our siblings, parents, grandparents, in-laws, children, cousins, aunts & uncles and think: "Can you believe he or she did that?"  "Did you hear what's going on with him or her?"  "How can he or she support that?"  "What was he or she thinking?"

She's getting a divorce...he's moving in with his girlfriend...she stopped speaking to her parents...he's got himself into drugs...she dropped out of school...

But then we have to stop to ask ourselves: what did I do to help this family member of mine?  Did I try to offer some advice?  Was I fully present, to listen and to love?  Did I show love by refusing to condone a wrongful action?  Was I willing to forgive?  What kind of example have I provided?

In other words, what is my responsibility in this sin or wrongdoing that is happening?  Because--to the extent we didn't love--we are indeed responsible.

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