This summer, a combination of severe depression and reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov taught me to love life.
This is probably not a sentence many other people have said, I know, but it’s true. In order for my experience to make any sense, I have to give you a crash course in The Brothers Karamazov.
It’s a robust Russian novel from 1880, that offers multiple layers of philosophical, political, psychological, and theological nuances that I have yet to understand fully. However, one primary theme shines throughout: divine love. This divine love of God consistently brings reconciliation and compels the characters to ask forgiveness of everyone and everything. One character on his deathbed asks for the forgiveness of not just his mother and his servants, but even of the plants he sees outside. He longs for all things to be set right and recognizes that the disunity in everything else is not independent of him. His hands have blood on them, but there is profound hope in the divine love that will bring all the broken pieces of the world back together.
The hero of the story is a simple 20-year-old former monk-in-training named Alyosha. He is not particularly charismatic, smart, or powerful. He is, in fact, relatively meek and simple. He lives out divine love to its fullest extent, and, for this reason, every character and every reader of the novel alike loves him.
There are many moments from the story that had a profound impact on me, but there’s one in particular that I have found myself rereading. Alyosha’s mentor at the monastery, Father Zosima, has just died. His faith is shaken and he is praying next to Zosima’s coffin as scriptures are being read aloud, and suddenly Alyosha’s mind is drawn to Jesus at the wedding of Cana. He sees a vision of Jesus providing an endless flow of wine and inviting bystanders to the wedding feast, one of whom is his Elder, Zosima. After awaking from this dream, Alyosha got up in a state of ecstasy, he went outside and began to weep and kiss the grass beneath him. He wanted to ask forgiveness for all things, as he loved the earth. In fact, “he vowed ecstatically to love it.”
That last phrase made no sense to me when I first read it. I was moved by Alyosha’s passionate experience of God; I too have experienced God in miraculous ways. But loving the world? Isn’t that the opposite of what we are supposed to do? Aren’t Christians supposed to hate this world? We learn to love our fellow men and love Christ, but this world is meant to be hated and rejected in favour of the promise of Heaven. At least, that is what I was taught growing up. I later learned that the vision of the End in the Bible is actually an earth made new and the reconciliation, but, nonetheless, the idea of loving this world, not the new one, made no sense to me.
How could I love this world? A world where our own minds are subject to chemical imbalances that hijack us. A world where children get cancer and die. A world of cruel indifference where nature cares not who lives and who dies in natural disaster.
How could I love such a world? I do not have an intellectual answer to this, but I do have an experience.
A couple weeks after reading the aforementioned passage in The Brothers Karamazov, I went for a walk around the lake near my old high school and the neighbourhoods around it. This was during the worst time in my depression. Previously, in bouts of depression, I would continue life as normal, besides the occasional missed
day of school. This time was different, and I had to take the two months off work in the summer to sort out my identity. It was in the middle of this depression that I had Alyosha’s vow to “love this world” on my mind. As I walked up the road, there was a moment where it clicked for me.
I have been given the gift of existing. The sunlight on my face is holy. The grass next to the road is holy. The pavement beneath my feet is holy. The whole world is wonderful, complex, mysterious and beautiful, but nearly all this wonder was lost in my childhood. From then on, I began to be genuinely thankful to be alive. My life didnot look like I wanted it to.
I was not the man I wanted to be. But I was alive, and that was, in itself, a joy. To be able to touch trees, talk to people and pray is a blessing. Even the experience of heartbreak is a joy, because it is only the sign of some meaningful connection that is now lost. And so, while I still have no answer as to why God allows children to have cancer, or adults to have brains which wage war against them, I do know that this life itself is to be loved.
I wholeheartedly reject the idea that Christian virtue is to hate this body and life we have been given. “God so loved the world,” and so will I.