Washing dishes and dealing with life

Soviet style apartment in St. Petersburg. Photo by lafleur.

Do you know those ugly, soviet-style apartment buildings that you can see all throughout Eastern Europe? Many of us who grew up in that part of the world have spent our childhood in those match boxes, as we called them, and we also had our joys.

Nowadays, there is one activity by which I recognize those of us who have lived in these buildings: washing dishes. The people who lived in houses, and thus in independent units that were responsible for the amount of water consumed, do not allow water to come from the faucet incessantly. They rather get some water necessary for the washing and then use it throughout the process, or just use a sponge with detergent to clean all dishes, and only then use water to rinse them. But those who lived in apartment buildings–or the majority of them–let the water run indiscriminately. This is so much so that, at times, water starts running when the process of washing dishes begins and ends running with the rinsing of the last plate or fork.

Well, you may say, to each his own–and I stand by that as well! Then, this whole discussion is in no way an intent to express moral judgments about dishwashing and water. Still, you may be well entitled to ask, “What is it to you how someone decides to spend his or her money or how someone decides to consume water?” In my avoidance of uttering any moral claim, out of fear of categorizing others and placing them into murderous boxes, I would probably be dumbfounded, unable to say anything. Of course, not paying attention to water consumption harms the environment and it is a moral affront to all the places in the world that suffer from drought, but aren’t we free agents? Can’t we decide on our own what to do in life?

Be that as it may–I prefer not to discuss such topics for the moment, or at least not here (my fear of moralizing may not work for my benefit)–the dishwashing example suggests to me that education is a very funny notion and that human nature is such that, regardless of our own claims about our moral views and behaviors, we still act the way in which it is convenient for us and the way in which life taught us. You see, in those ugly soviet-style buildings, we did not have responsibility for how much water we consumed. Every month, the building received bills for water, electricity, and gas (by the way, there are many more lightbulbs turned on in the houses of those who lived in apartment building than in those who lived in houses). These bills, summed up, were then divided by the number of people living in the apartment building, so that each would pay his or her “fair share.” I never knew exactly how much I consumed, because it was divided to all–in, let’s say, a building with 9 floors, 3 apartments per floor, that would mean the population of 27 apartments. And why should I deprive myself of the convenience of running water from the beginning to the end of the dishwashing process, especially so when my neighbor may do it as well? And if he does it and I do not, don’t I end up paying some of his share? Wouldn’t I be a fool? Why should I tell my kids to do it? Why should I teach them to turn the light off when they leave a room? Am I not preparing them for a life in which others would take advantage of them if I did so? And so we may have forgotten to turn off the water just because things were done this way around us.

In this particular case of dishwashing (and this is by no means scientific research, but rather the poor musings of someone who has many friends who used to live in that part of the world), responsibility for consuming water was produced not by moral precepts, interest in the life of another human being, or acknowledgement of the fact that we depend on each other (which I believe to be true). Responsibility for water was due to the pain one suffers for having to pay for it. Or it was due to the pain of your parents who, because they had to pay for it, reminded you always to turn off the light and to be more careful with water when you wash the dishes. This may also suggests that the step from education to action is much longer when education takes place theoretically than when education is attached to an immediate consequence on your own life. Perhaps this is a cynical view of human nature–and I am one with those from soviet style apartment buildings and with those from houses. And, after all, this is nothing more than some musings about washing dishes.

OK, you may say, but how is it that now, when people pay for what they consume, they still run the water the same way they used to do it in those ugly buildings?

Well, habit is a nasty thing.

Dostoevsky and today’s world: the value of humanities

Ruthyoel [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Dostoevsky publishes the Demons in 1871-1872. The end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21th century, with all their craziness, have not yet come to pass. There is no terrorism in his world as we understand it nowadays. Nevertheless, this is how he describes why a group of people bring havoc in a society. To the question of why there were so many murders, scandals, and outrages committed, a character of his novel answers:

“It was to promote the systematic undermining of every foundation, the systematic destruction of society and all its principles; to demoralize everyone and make hodge-podge of everything, and then, when society was on the point of collapse–sick, depressed, cynical, and sceptical, but still with a perpetual desire for some kind of guiding principle and for self-preservation–suddenly to gain control of it, raising the banner of rebellion and relying on a whole network of groups…”

Some say that there is no value in humanities, that they are no longer relevant in today’s world. But if we really want to understand this world, we may need to read the great books of humanity. And for sure, Dostoevsky.

We are all to blame…

“We’re all to blame, all of us… if only everyone could be convinced of that…”

These words are uttered by another character in Dostoevsky’s Devils, Shatov. If you are familiar with other works, such as Crime and Punishment or Brothers Karamazov, the idea that we are all responsible for the sins of others is not a novelty. Let me mention only Zosima here, or even Mitya, the eldest or the Karamazov brothers, who says, “We are all cruel, we are all monsters, we all cause suffering to people… but… I’m worse than anyone.”

You may also be familiar with one of the prayers before the Eucharist, which is said by all people participating in the sacrament together, at the same time: “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.”

All of these words, including Shatov’s, bring forth the same idea, that we all have responsibility for the suffering of the others. However, if Zosima’s and Mitya’s words seem to emphasize the responsibility that one accepts–a responsibility that precedes him–Shatov’s expression has a different flavor: “if only everyone could be convinced of that…”

Shatov utters these words after he finds out that his wife, whom he hasn’t seen in three years, is pregnant and is about to deliver a baby. With no questions, no judgments, no .accusations, he runs to find a midwife. In a moment in which he could feel that he has been wronged, he says, “We’re all to blame, all of us…” It is, I take it, a description of the human condition: we are born into this world, we participate into it, and so we must acknowledge that its scars are manifestations of our own behaviors.

Still, in the midst of this pure feeling, Shatov says, “if only everyone could be convinced of that…”

This is such a human reaction, and, at the same time, the seed of our judgment for our brethren… The desire to have the others see that they are just like you, responsible for their and your suffering, is one of the most understandable desires one could have, be it in interpersonal relations or in society.

Consider a married couple as an example for the former. You feel your spouse has harmed you, and your suffering may blind you first. But then you may still realize that you are to be blamed, for in this world of sinners “I am the first.” You see her absence or her blow as manifestations of your own lack of presence, of your own inadequacy, and so your perceived suffering is transformed in love. Still, a thought creeps into your heart, “if only she could be convinced that she also is to blame…” And this is not because you consider that she has any guilt, but rather because we are all made out of the same mud, we live in the same world, and thus we are touched by all of its impurities. And just this little thought brings your defeat… For you no longer say, “I am the first sinner, I am first responsible for all,” but rather that she is the first one, even if you don’t realize it.

Societies… When the third comes in, and so the political, Shatov’s words become even more dangerous. “If only everyone could see how they are responsible for the lives of the others…” Of course, I am responsible as well, but they must see it, too. They must see that this world depends on them. There is one step from the beauty of Shatov’s words to ugliness and death. These words are the creed of any totalitarian communist society, which comes to claim that we are all responsible and equal in that responsibility. And those who do not see it are “enemies of the people,” individuals who must be eliminated, sent to Siberia or executed in dungeons.

“We’re all to blame, all of us… if only everyone could be convinced of that…” Of course, if everyone could be convinced of that, then there would be no suffering. Shatov may not have to face a group of people dedicated to causes. Still, even so, Shatov’s words invite us to vigilance against our own hearts: the demons never leave us alone, even in moments of beauty.