I first read The Brothers Karamazov in college at a time when I wanted to be quite literary. Sure, the book promises the plot sensationalism of murder, mystery, and trial, but I was interested in the book’s debate over the existence of God.
In brief, if you haven’t read it (and I don’t blame you if you haven’t)—the Karamazov brothers are maladjusted because their father Fyodor Pavlovich is a huge jerk. He spends his life partying and pursuing women while his servant cares for his children. He tortures his adult sons with psychological cruelty, and he competes mercilessly with his son Dmitri for the love of another man’s mistress. Through his actions and inactions, he casts his shadow onto his sons’ conceptions of God.
The crux of the God debate occurs between the atheist Ivan and his younger brother Alyosha, a sweet aspiring monk. Ivan argues that God cannot be both omnipotent and benevolent, and he is quite persuasive. He tells a horrific story about a tortured child and reasons from there:
Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.
Alyosha agrees that he would never consent to such a world. Yet still, he believes in a good God.
I had read this debate and the Grand Inquisitor story in a philosophy class, and I thought reading the entire novel would provide me with even more insight. While I’m sure I benefitted from Dostoyevsky’s take on the problem of evil while I was in college, it didn’t deeply change my life or faith. I finished the book (after many weeks) only a tad more literary.
This past year, I decided to read the book again. Since I’m in my 30s now and terribly mature, surely the book would open up for me now like it hadn’t before. Unfortunately, theodicy becomes more challenging for me with each passing year as I gain more experience with human suffering. I was again approaching the book in search of some deep explanation for the imperfections in the world I see (the ones that can’t satisfactorily be blamed on free will).
When I finished the book (again, after many weeks), I wasn’t left with tons of deep new theological insights. Instead, to my surprise, I gained lasting advice on how to live.
Many scenes in the book offer helpful advice, but one scene particularly stuck with me. The youngest brother, Alyosha, seeks monkhood because he is inspired by a powerful mentor, the monk Father Zosima. Alyosha needs a new father figure, and Father Zosima is compelling enough to draw an (essentially) fatherless young man into a monastery. Fyodor and Dimitri seek Father Zosima’s help to settle their rivalry for their paramour’s affections. While Fyodor and Dimitri are too distracted by passion to benefit from Father Zosima’s advice, his words stuck with me.
When Fyodor arrives in the monastery behaving irreverently, joking and treating the monks with sarcasm and contempt, only Father Zosima is not embarrassed. He sees through Fyodor’s clownishness and cruelty into the man’s true heart. He sees that Fyodor hates himself and has built a persona around this self-hate. He sees that because Fyodor is ashamed of who he is, he abuses himself and others.
In response, Father Zosima tries to reassure him. He tells him to relax, that he doesn’t have to be embarrassed. Above all, he cautions Fyodor to stop lying. Then he gave Fyodor this advice, which I underlined several times:
The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.
The man who lies to himself. Often, we don’t notice the cocoon of false memories and false personas we weave around ourselves. Perhaps we act boisterous at a party when we feel shy and sad. We act angry when we feel ashamed. We act like experts when we feel like idiots. We act pious when we feel dirty and unworthy of love.
Isn’t that what it means to be human? Our brains are complex organs, and we can’t (yet) sort out our feelings and thoughts with scientific precision. If someone makes a cruel comment and you deny that it hurt your feelings and then go home and eat a sheet cake and drink a dozen beers—who’s to say you weren’t really just hungry and thirsty?
My college persona of “the literary type” was largely false, and here is one damning piece of evidence—my favorite part of The Brothers Karamazov was the part that most reminded me of my favorite self-help books. I recalled the above quote time and again this year. When I wanted to offer advice, it was often to “be honest, and above all, honest with yourself.”
I’ve also found encouragement to be authentic and overcome shame in books like Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. She emphasizes the importance of vulnerability, of combating toxic shame with honesty. The debris of life (others’ judgment, perfectionism, rejection) makes us ashamed, and rather than confront the shame, we lie to ourselves. We numb our feelings with drinking, status, anger, spending, and anything else we can find. We develop addictions, lose our ability to truly feel, and forget ourselves. One solution is to embrace healthy shame (which encourages us to do good) and abandon unhealthy shame (which cripples us).
The story of the Gospels is of a God who is impartial in love. He calls the rich and poor, the leaders and outcasts, the religious and nonreligious, the clean and dirty, the able and disabled. All of us are imperfect and loved. All of us are cautioned not to judge. It’s impossible for most of us to completely abandon the temptation to distract from our own shame by judging and mocking others. Yet every day we strive to embrace ourselves and others, we become healthier. We become happier. We become more like Christ.
When we are dishonest with ourselves, we distort the world. We pretend to have leaves instead of genitals. Our self-exaltation is proportional to our self-loathing. We claim to know God’s mind with scientific precision, and God becomes to us a bearded white man, a policeman, or a member of a political party. In other words, God becomes an idol.
Fyodor Pavlovitch feels like a fool, and to distract himself, he tries to make everyone around him feel foolish, too. Like George Costanza, he believes his lies.
Being honest with ourselves can mean self-love rather than self-loathing. The Brothers Karamazov illuminated this principle for me in a powerful way. Maybe I’ll read the book again in my 40s and have a deep, professorial take on the text. Until then, I’m going to try to be more honest with myself. And have compassion for others when they fail as well, knowing the strength of my own web of falsehoods.
Thus, The Brothers Karamazov was my most-quoted book of 2017. What was yours?