Persons and individuals; taking all in one’s heart through forgiveness

There are no individuals in Dostoevsky’s work, but we often encounter situations in which characters treat others as individuals. I actually think that the beauty of Dostoevsky’s writings stems also from the fact that he explores our failure to treat others as persons. The difference between “persons” and “individuals” is often discussed in Orthodox Christianity, and Dostoevsky is of course influenced by it. So what does this difference mean? 

Photo taken by Andrei, who has a relationship with Mishu

Let’s say that individuals are always replaceable, in the same way in which we replace pieces of furniture. At times, people treat animals as individuals. Suppose my cat Mishu dies. If my relationship with him was the relationship I have with a cat, any cat, then I did not treat him as a person and I can replace him with any other cat who will engage in “cat-activities.” So I can continue my life of a cat-owner with some other cat. 

If I treat humans as individuals, then I look at the function that they perform. It does not matter how I relate to them personally because I can replace them with others who can perform the same function. In a workplace, for example, people are usually treated as individuals, not as persons. We have an institution in which every human being functions according to the job description of that individual. If any one individual no longer functions properly according to what the institution wants, the employer replaces him or her with someone else. 

Persons, however, are never replaceable; we cannot replicate the experience with any person. I can never replace the relationship I have with my children, spouse, or parents. If someone remarries, that person does not replace his or her previous spouse, but builds a new relationship. We all, in our personhood, are irreplaceable, unique in our relationships. But this is not an individual uniqueness, but rather one shaped by our relationships with others, with all others. My unicity is given by my way of taking all others to my heart. There is a wonderful line at the end of The Brothers Karamazov: “I take you all to my heart, and I ask you all to take me to yours.” After all, throughout the book, Dostoevsky reminds us that, for good or bad, we all remain in each other’s hearts when we interact in this life. We are in this together, and our well-being depends on the others’ well-being (I just heard a very interesting talk by Hans Bernhard Schmid on how we find this idea even in Aristotle). We touch one another, especially when we look at each other as persons. But we touch us even when we treat others as individuals–we convince them that they are less than what they are. Ilyusha’s fall, his becoming bad, is influenced by how others treat him. And Alyosha’s ability to look at him as to a worthy person even while the little boy bites Alyosha’s finger may contribute to the boy’s spiritual recovery. Through this, their entire little community is healed. The influence we have on other people brings upon us a huge responsibility. 

We are co-creators of the world in which we live. We complain so much about our environment, about how the world is, but we often forget that we are part of it, that the world we criticize is never outside of us, but it is part of us, and we are part of it. It makes us who we are, and we make it what it is.

At the end of The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha tells the boys who have come to Ilyusha’s funeral, “no matter how wicked we become–which, God grant, we may never be–when we recall how we buried Ilyusha, how we loved him in these last days, and how we talked together by this stone with such closeness and affection, then even the cruelest and most cynical amongst us–if such there be–will not dare to mock the kindness and goodness of this moment! Moreover, that memory alone, perhaps, will restrain that person from some great wickedness, and he will think about it and will say, ‘Yes, I was good then, I was brave and honorable.'”

What we experience in life touches us; we are so responsible for the life of the young ones. The way we treat them creates the world in which they will live. This is not a dark responsibility that crushes us, that paralyzes us because of its great weight; it is a responsibility of light, one that tells us that we can be truly human beings only in love, in taking others in our hearts. Ilyusha is alive in the midst of these boys who came to his tomb. Ilyusha dies for good–as all people do–only when he is completely forgotten. He dies only when the goodness which his little life occasioned is completely lost in the life of the others. 

Today is Forgiveness Sunday. At the end of the vespers service, people in the church ask forgiveness from one another. Some may have never seen each other before; others may have harmed each other during their lives. All of them, equally, come before all others, before the entire world, and acknowledge their responsibility for the brokenness they experience. Doing so, they promise all to take them back into their hearts and humbly ask from the others to take them back into theirs. It is the beginning of the process of regaining personhood. 


For those of you who know Romanian, here is a poem by Zorica Latcu, recited by Fr. Teofil Paraianu: “Te port in suflet.

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