This is the printer-friendly layout. Click here to find the online format.
Eric Scheske on Universal Responsibility
One of the most beautiful chapters in literature is the “Thoughts and Teachings of the Elder Zossima” in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It recounts the last day and words of Fr. Zossima, the revered Elder of Alyosha Karamazov’s monastery, who speaks to those gathered at his bedside and asks them, through anecdote and counsel, to lead a life of virtue and love.
The love he asks them to have is a fervent and tangible love that stems from a deep sense of the intimate link between each person and every living thing. “Every one of us is responsible for all men and for everything on earth, not only responsible through universal responsibility of mankind, but responsible personally—every man for all people and for each individual man who lives on earth.”
At one point, he mentions a dying youth who asked the birds to forgive him:
That may sound absurd, but when you think of it, it makes sense. For everything is like the ocean, all things flow and are indirectly linked together, and if you push here, something will move at the other end of the world. . . . Understand that everything is like the ocean. Then, consumed by eternal love, you will pray to the birds, too. In a state of fervor you will pray to them to forgive you your sins. If you push here, something somewhere will move; if you strike here, something somewhere will wince; if you sin here, something somewhere will suffer.
These are startling observations. Everything we do has an effect on someone or something? Our isolated thoughts and actions are not isolated? We have no completely private lives? We may be responsible to others even for the things we do in private? This idea startles us because it clashes harshly against one of the most esteemed gods of modernity, the god of privacy, a god who walks hand-in-hand with the equally esteemed god of power.
Power & Privacy
In our society, the accumulation of power has been the presumed good toward which all human endeavor properly aims. It is power that brings us autonomy, that frees us from dependence. Its pursuit has contributed greatly to man’s remarkable achievements in areas like medicine, architecture, technology, physics, economics, and biology, but it has also separated us from each other.
Because our society has been concerned first and foremost with the pursuit of power, the possession of power itself became a prima facie good. It is not surprising, therefore, that privacy, too, would become highly valued because privacy gives man the power to choose what he will do with the power he has gained. The man with private time and space, the man who is free from the scrutiny and judgment of others, can pursue the things that interest him and do the things he enjoys.
Privacy obtained god-like status in the US Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), which struck down a state law prohibiting married couples from using contraception. In Griswold, the Court held that various constitutional guarantees create “penumbral rights of privacy” on the same level as the right of free speech, perhaps even higher, as evidenced by Justice Douglas’s words that the “right of privacy [is] older than the Bill of Rights,” and by the Supreme Court’s use of the right of privacy to sanction the slaughter of millions of unborn children just eight years later in Roe v. Wade.
With the help of the Supreme Court, the right of privacy became about as close to an absolute value as modern culture was willing to accept, exceeding even the right of free speech. No one can yell “fire” in a movie theater in the name of free speech, but any woman can kill her unborn baby in the name of privacy.
By elevating privacy to such a level, each person is guaranteed power, especially within the sanctity of his home. In each person’s home, he is the master. There, if nowhere else, he has almost complete control over his life.
Privacy’s elevation to an absolute is having at least two disturbing effects. First, it has resulted in the hoarding of private time. Private time is prized above all else. Time for (and with) others is despised and depleted, and there is a general disdain for community activity, whether it be working in a local service club, spending time with an elderly neighbor, or joining a bowling league. We insist on “keeping our options open,” which means to keep our schedule private.
Second, our private cubicles of power—the space behind locked doors—have become temples, sacred areas that must be protected at all costs, no matter what is taking place behind them. Because we worship power and the privacy that gives power, we have convinced ourselves that what happens in private must be protected at all costs, and we have embraced the fiction that what happens in private is irrelevant to everyone else.
But, of course, it is relevant. If a person indulges the diabolic imagination—repeatedly entertaining the darkest fantasies—those imaginations will eventually become real, often with a devastating flash that burns into another’s life. The rapist or child molester is often no more than a man who first let his imagination explore the depths of depravity in private.
And here the modern god of privacy visibly crashes against the existential awareness of Dostoyevsky and Fr. Zossima. Privacy, in the sense of a thorough isolation that is irrelevant to others, doesn’t really exist at all. If you push here, even if in the privacy of your bedroom, something will move elsewhere, even if you can’t see it. And if you push hard enough (if the sin is grave enough), something will move where you can see it.
The subtle sins quietly reverberate throughout creation, disrupting in ways we don’t see, in the mystical sense described by Fr. Zossima. The subtle sins can also accumulate in our souls until they begin to corrupt our personalities, which, in turn, noticeably affect those around us.
The man who enjoys pornography, for instance, does not necessarily turn into a child molester or rapist or even a lecher, but his conversation tends to turn salacious and tempt others to think as he does. And perhaps most troubling, the subtle sins have the potential of growing into grave sins, like the pornography-loving man who acts on the deformed desires that pornography hatches in his soul and inflicts serious harm on another person.
All Things Reverberate
All things we do in private are indirectly linked together with everything else in the world, and if any one of us pushes here, something will move at the other end of the world, whether or not we see it. This includes the bad things, but it also includes the good things. The bedside prayer invites grace into a sin-soaked world, and the recipients of the grace may be completely unknown to you.
A quiet reading from The Philokalia or The Imitation of Christ could issue in an act of love, just as the viewing of pornography can issue in a violent rape. An isolated and non-publicized random act of kindness to a stranger might reverberate for days as the stranger carries that little mark of love with him and presents it (often unknowingly) to all he meets, just as a road-raged gesture in morning traffic is often unwittingly carried by the other driver in the form of an anger that affects everyone around him.
We simply don’t know what our isolated or private acts can mean, what they can do, whom they might touch. But they will mean something, do something, and touch something. And when this is understood, we, like Fr. Zossima’s dying youth, will ask even the birds to forgive us our sins, but, at the same time, resolve to avoid sins for the sake of those birds, and for all others our private sins might affect, even if the sins take place where they can’t see them.
Eric Scheske works as an attorney in Sturgis, Michigan, where he attends Holy Angels Catholic Church. In addition to Touchstone, his articles have appeared in New Oxford Review, Culture Wars, Lay Witness, The Catholic Faith, and Gilbert!