Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Love in Action

In Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, the Russian priest, Father Zosima, counsels one of the women who comes to see him to "avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself. ... Watch over your own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute."

Realizing that his advice is hardly uplifting, Father Zosima adds,
I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.  Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all.  Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage.  But active love is labor and fortitude...
The labor and fortitude of active love, Father Zosima realizes, are qualities that often go unrecognized, unattempted and unapplauded.  Dreamy love is full of PDA's, admired by all, showy and demonstrative. 

And, ultimately, quite brief.  It simply doesn't have the staying power because it is marked by none of the struggles that characterize active love. 

I once (quite naively, I admit) commented to a friend that I never understood why men send women flowers when they've done something "wrong."   Why not simply acknowledge a mistake and then make a conscious effort not to do it again?  Wouldn't that be a stronger testimony of love and respect, ultimately? 

His comment: "Okay, so you're saying that, instead of flowers, you want someone to actively and consciously try to be a better person on a daily basis?  Flowers are a helluva lot easier."

It's true, they are.  But they may also be vestiges of the kind of falsehood that Zosima describes.  I can convince myself that what I did wasn't really wrong if my conciliatory gift is accepted.  I'm lying to myself, of course, because what I did was actually wrong and I know it, but it's only a small lie.

But as Zosima suggests, the little lies build up.  Deceit is part of human nature--notice, he doesn't tell the woman not to lie.  He tells her to pay attention to her lies, to recognize them as lies, and then try to avoid them.

Just like his notion of active love, his conception of honesty is one of action, of constant watchfulness and effort that may or may not be successful at times.

But as Zosima tells the woman, "I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting further from your goal instead of nearer to it--at that very moment I predict that you will reach it."

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."