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…
The journalist and the philosopher are both engaged in study. Journalists are trained to look at the world around them. They describe it, and they see its sins. And they become righteous.
Philosophers are trained to look at the world inside them, to forget their surroundings. They discover this world with fear and trembling. When they turn their gaze toward the world around them, they see in it the manifestation of their own sins. And they may become merciful.
A human being may wake up a philosopher and go to bed as journalist. Or vice versa. Or be journalist to some and philosophers to others. Perhaps the best combination is to be journalist to yourself and philosopher to others.
“You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”
“Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.
This is how Tolkien’s The Hobbit ends. In thanksgiving. The story of The Lord of the Rings, though, opens in ownership. “It is my own. I found it. It came to me.”
One may wonder, what would happen to the One Ring if, instead of being received as something one owns, it would be accepted as a gift over which one has no ownership?
One possible example: you “volunteer” for some activity. People come to you afterwards and thank you “for donating your time,” as if you HAVE time. But if you have time, if it is your own, you are no longer a little fellow in a wide world, but someone who own things and who, out of your mightiness, can donate them. “It is my own. I found it. It came to me.” It–time, I mean.
I once heard a story of someone who, by the time he was a teenager, knew that he would not live long because of a fatal disease. Nevertheless, he got married and, before he died in his 30s, had two children. His life knew of his condition from the beginning. He lived on “borrowed” time. But aren’t we all on borrowed time, not knowing how long or short this time will be? And if this time is borrowed and it is not ours, are we not only stewards that keep the place of the real King, the one who has gifted us this time?
Life often seems to be encompassed between these two attitudes: on the one hand, I can see myself as an owner of things that has the heart to give (or not) from these things to others; on the other hand, I can see myself as a steward, a borrower of things, who cannot give to others from my own, because there is nothing I own. Rather, in thanksgiving, I can “multiply” these borrowed gifts in using them for others–volunteering time, for example. Every attitude I have seems to take on a different color depending on where it is placed on the spectrum between the entitlement of ownership and the thanksgiving of stewardship.
A while ago, Reflection Publishing published a small but precious book,AspaziaOtel Petrescu’s With Christ in Prison. The book is about one of Mrs. Petrescu’s experiences in communist prisons in Romania, but it is also about more than this: suffering and forgiveness, personhood, and genuine life in communion with all people. In fact, if we listen attentively, I think we discover that, while seemingly describing suffering in prisons, Mrs. Otel Petrescu talksabout love.
My wife, Elena, translated the text from Romanian. I copy here a short passage from the introduction I wrote for the book.
Aspazia Oțel Petrescu’s With Christ in Prison is a testimony for how one finds one’s true freedom, how one remains a person. I refer here to only one aspect of her book for it brings with itself a beautiful concept: the fact that people are connected over centuries as in a constellation…
I rarely react to a movie the way I have when I watched A Star Is Born. This is mainly because of one notion: sanctuary.
In fact, I heard some of the actors talking about this idea, that the director created a sanctuary in their midst, and so their creativity could express freely. Beyond the love story, the problems of dealing with addiction, and the various other aspects of the movie, I think that the one thing that keeps it together is the feeling you have when you are embraced without rest, without being asked whether you qualify or not for that embrace.
There are people who give you this feeling; they are oasis of rest in a world deserted of meaning. You’re broken, you do not know where to go, you think that everyone around you judges you and writes you off as something that you do not recognize yourself to be, and then, as in a miracle, one other human being tells you that you can rest your head in his or her palm. This being does not tell you that it’s okay how you are; he doesn’t validate you. He just loves you.
You may say that the main character, played by Bradley Cooper, does this for the young singer who had given up her dream, but I think the movie is more than that. I think it holds together because of the experience of sanctuary that seems so apparent in the actors, but also in you as you watch the movie. It is an atmosphere that is genuinely created and offered by Cooper, who’s also the director of the movie, and this gives you a longing for home. Strangely enough, even if you have nothing in common with the characters on the screen, the sanctuary that takes place there tells you that you are welcome as well.
The main character is a broken individual, one with addictions, who ends up tragically. This is the beauty of it: it does not matter where you are in life. You can always be an oasis for someone else. In fact, every moment of our existence calls upon us to be such people. And we can fail being so even if we believe we accept the others. One of the scenes that I love is when Lady Gaga’s character tells Bradley Cooper’s character that “it is okay.” It is the first time she visits him at the rehab. He had lost control over drinking and embarrassed her in one of the most important moments of her career. He cries, expressing remorse. “It’s okay,” she says. “You don’t embarrass me.” Still, it gives the impression of an empty okay. What you feel at that moment is that a broken individual, one who cries and who feels as the last man on earth, is the one who has already embraced the person who is supposed to forgive him. “It’s okay, it’s not your fault,” she says. And it sounds as if she accepts him. Even if he’s accepted, there’s no sanctuary for him. This is because it’s not about “it’s okay.” Things are not okay. The world is broken. After all, nobody is asking whether things are okay or not. They all just yearned for love, the creator of sanctuaries.
“I hope you’re still with me When I’m not quite myself And I pray that you’ll lift me When you know I need help.”
Words from one of Lady Gaga’s songs for this movie.
“White flowers sing at the gate of the heart. Whoever has lived divine love will understand me and will be happy for my happiness. (…) Man is not saved in the monastery only. (…) The helplessness of human nature pains me, but love makes me happy” (Valeriu Gafencu)
These words were written 71 years ago by Valeriu Gafencu, on the new year’s night, in a communist prison in Romania, where starvation and terror were daily ingredients of life.
Alice Herz Sommer, Holocaust survivor: “Every day in life is beautiful. Every day.” “I knew that even in these very difficult situations there are beautiful moments. […] Even the bad is beautiful, I would say. Even the bad is beautiful… It has to be.”
I have heard this question numerous times now for the past three weeks or so : when I go to the bank, when an acquaintance wants to make small talk, or when there is really nothing else to say. Regardless of when I hear it, it startles me every time. What do you mean, being ready for Christmas? Yes, I am ready: I’m in a state of expectation every day… And still… no, I’m not… my manger is not ready… The expectation is only a thirst, but experienced as if there is no water anyway. How can He then be born?…
I respond by returning the question: are you ready for Christmas?
“Well, since it’s coming anyway, I guess let it be.”
“Oh, yes, this time I started early. Everything is prepared. I got everything online.”
“No, I’m not. I have so many things to do, gifts to buy… Maybe next year!”
Run, Forrest, Run!
Am I ready for Christmas?
Socrates, in Plato’s Apology: “You too must be of good hope as regards death, gentlemen of the jury, and keep this one truth in mind, that a good man cannot be harmed either in life or in death…”
Even Plato says that you must first get ready; only then are you not harmed either in life or in death. So run, Forrest, run! Towards yourself.
P.S. Today: four years since I started this blog. Thank you!
The eve of St. Nicholas. For Romanian children and probably for children coming from other traditions as well, this means that they have to prepare their boots and place them at the window. St. Nicholas, the one who brings gifts in secret, will pass by and leave something there: perhaps a coin of chocolate, perhaps an orange, or maybe just a piece of bread.
In my childhood, St. Nicholas’ night was filled with magic. We used to get oranges, which were unseen throughout the year in communist Romania (I have heard many people from those parts of the world saying that Christmas smells like oranges), so we were sure that St. Nicholas really brought them from some place far away. But we also used to get a little wooden stick, a “joarda,” so that our parents could use them if we were not good. Of course, they never did. In…
Eugenia and Gheorghe Hasu. Photo from Ioana Hasu’s collection, used with permission.
Let me tell you a story. After fighting as a soldier for his own country, a young man returns home. There is nothing special about him; he did what was required of him, like many others who lived through or died in WWII. He was wounded and decorated–again, like many others. When he comes back home, he wants to establish a family, so he goes from village to village thinking that he may fall in love. And he does. One of his friends recounts, “he chose as wife a 16 years old girl, small, who just entered the traditional winter meetings. She was happy, so happy that she forgot to cry when the wedding chariot took her to his place.”
It is a love story: the two young people build together a life, they have a first child, and…
It is Holy Week for Orthodox Christians–a week of indescribable beauty. A week of sadness, but also of incredible joy. For the entire week, every day, every hour, and every minute are governed by the Sunday of the Resurrection. Betrayal, despair, weakness, cross, but Resurrection! In fact, betrayal, despair, weakness, cross, and Resurrection!
Fr. George Calciu, in his sixth homily to the youth:
I speak to you about death as your single possibility to be victorious. For without resurrection both life and death become nonsense, absurd. The love of God, however, is the guarantee of our resurrection; and the Resurrection is the foundation of our faith in God and in Jesus Christ, His Son. It is the sublime and glorious occasion of a vital affirmation, an invitation to an amnesty of the past, as one French journalist has said; it is an invitation to a commitment in the future.