Do we deserve love? Some thoughts from Dostoevsky’s The Karamazov Brothers

Photo by Alin Mesaros Photography

At the beginning of Book 6 of Dostoevsky’s The Karamazov Brothers, where Father Zosima’s younger brother is on the verge of dying, he all of a sudden has a change of heart and begins to love everyone around him. “My dear kind friends […], what have I done to deserve your love, why should you love someone like me, and how is it I didn’t recognize, didn’t appreciate that love before?” (page 360 in the Oxford World’ s Classics edition).

Many times we say that we love people because of something. We think that the movie scenes in which a man tells his lover why he loves her are so romantic, and we may even desire to hear similar things. Here is actually my favorite scene 🙂

Yet, the question in The Karamazov Brothers is completely different: why do I deserve to be loved? What makes me so that other people love me? Dostoevsky suggests that there are no reasons whatsoever for which someone would love us. And there are no reasons because we do not deserve this love.

You may say that this sounds really bad: if we say that we do not deserve love, we would imply that we are nothing, that we are nobodies. But perhaps this is the answer. I am a nobody, but a mighty nobody. I am a nobody, but I receive love, and this is quite impressive. Dostoevsky sees that love is a gift that we receive from other people, and gifts are not deserved, but rather freely given. I may get a paycheck because I did something and I deserve it; I may get a penalty in football (soccer, I mean) because I injured someone, and I deserve the penalty. But I do not deserve love; love is always a gift.

I would think that, if we moved love from the category of deserved things to the category of things freely given, life would become a little more beautiful. We would then realize that we are surrounded by gifts. In Fr. Zosima’s case, he always acknowledges that the love he receives comes from above. He has been embraced always (the force is strong with this one), regardless of what he has done in his youth and regardless of what he does every day. Mary of Egypt (can one think of Fr. Zosima without thinking of Mary of Egypt?) begins to cry when she is before the gates of the church, unable to go in and beholding the image of the Mother of God, because she  acknowledges the embrace that she already experiences even if she does not deserve it. She has done nothing for it; she has not yet spent her life in the desert, but she is already embraced.

But Dostoevsky does not show only vertical love, from the Divine. He also gives her the horizontal level: Alyosha Karamazov is someone who always embraces other people regardless of whether they deserve it or not. Embracing them, he gives them gifts without asking for anything in return. This may be the secret of life for Dostoevsky. In giving love as a gift, we are working toward the beauty of the creation; we remake the beauty of the world; we work in synergy with the divinity. In Alyosha’s world, everything is beautiful because he loves everyone without expecting anything in return. He loves by giving. He is already a gift to the others, so Fr. Zosima sends him in the world to take care of his brothers because they need love as a gift. Both Mitya and Ivan experience emptiness–they are in the danger of believing that they cannot receive any love because they do not deserve it. When you acknowledge that you do not deserve any love, you are in a great danger because you may believe that you will no longer get it. So you need someone, an Alyosha, to remind you that you belong already to the beauty of this life and that the beauty of this life cannot be accomplished without you. In this sense, we are nobodies, but we are mighty nobodies We are nobodies, but we are mighty nobodies because we receive love from everywhere around us.


About Tavi's Corner

Blogging on ancient philosophy, communist persecution in Romania (including deportation to Siberia), and Orthodox Christianity. I've translated books from Romanian to English, and I also write about them from time to time.
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