In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, during one of the conversations between Alyosha and his father, Fyodor, Alyosha tells him, “You’re in such a bad mood. It must be because of what happened yesterday. Why don’t you go and lie down?” His old man replies, “Coming from you, it doesn’t make me angry at all. But if Ivan had said that to me, I’d have taken offense. It’s only with you that I have moments of goodness, because on the whole I am a wicked person.” Alyosha replies: “You’re not wicked, just a little muddled.” And he smiles.
Alyosha’s last line reminds of Dostoevsky’s general approach, that all human beings live in a fallen world, and our passing through it brings muddle on us–a familiar idea if one considers Psalm 50: “in sins (so in a broken world) my mother conceived me.” We are all muddled (Solzhenitsyn’s “the line between good and evil crosses every human heart”), and this mud is cleaned (or increased) by our rubbing against other people. For the moment, though, I would like to consider something else here (although it is still connected with what I just mentioned): the idea that we act differently with different people. Fyodor Karamazov points to the fact that the words’ influence depends on who utters them.
There are studies in communication that discuss this problem. Dostoevsky is not interested, however, in the efficiency of processes of communication or in how we may obtain desired effects when we interact verbally with other people. Rather, the emphasis is on the responsibility we have for the good of other people (and Smerdyakov tragically reminds Ivan of his responsibility at the end of the book). This is not because we make others good or bad, but rather because by our presence we may create the conditions in which they can only be good. In the text I just mentioned, Fyodor acknowledges that he can become good in relation with another human being, but outside this relation he remains in wickedness. And it is Alyosha who seems to be able to bring out the good in others.
What would be the reason? One of them is because there is no judgment in Alyosha’s attitude. If Fyodor Karamazov reacted differently to Ivan, if he had taken offense, it is because Ivan judges. Ivan is the one character in The Brothers Karamazov who relies on his reason and judges all around him. And when you are judged, you are already made part of a corrupt world, and it feels as if the only option is to remain corrupted. This works in daily life as well. A long time ago, I heard that the New York Police Department no longer knew how to eliminate crime in the New York subways. Then someone came with a novel idea: they decided to clean the stations, paint the walls, take out the trash… As a consequence, crime diminished. Evil does not feel at home in a clean place. But in judgment, evil is brought to the surface; it is shown and given being. So Fyodor Karamazov almost feels called to be wicked in the presence of Ivan. But how can one be wicked in the presence of Alyosha, who never judges anyone? Alyosha always speaks from a realm of freedom. He points to a problem. It would be as if he said, “there is dirt in the subway, so let’s clean it.” He does not judge the other because of the problem, but rather points to it. In doing this, Alyosha embraces. It is hard to be wicked when embraced–rather, as a flower, the good comes to surface. Of course, I am not saying that Alyosha is the agent. But he is sufficiently wise to allow beauty to come out.
Dostoevsky emphasizes that all human beings are just this, human beings, not good or wicked; perhaps a little mudded. And in all of them there is hope for goodness. As Fr. Roman Braga once said, each individual, even my torturer, is a candidate to holiness. Alyosha sees this; he sees the mud as well, but embraces all with love. In this love, wickedness and evil no longer feel at home.
Alyosha is present, and his presence fills the emptiness that is manifested in the brokenness of the others.