I recognized these last words from The Brothers Karamazov. In that novel we meet a character called Markel, a teenager who’s dying of consumption and has a kind of mystical experience that culminates in asking the birds to forgive him and declaring that we could all be in paradise today if we really wanted to be. He tells his family that the way to experience this is to realize that we each have to acknowledge our guilt to everyone, accept that we are guilty for everything, and even see ourselves as more guilty than anyone else. Later, after a misspent youth, his younger brother becomes a monk and, as the saintly Elder Zosima, emerges as the spokesman for Dostoevsky’s own spiritual vision. Zosima repeats Markel’s words many times in his teaching and his favourite disciple, Alyosha Karamazov, hears them ringing in his ears when he too has some kind of mystical vision.
Still, there was something about it that didn’t quite feel right. Thinking back to the outcome of my last series of counselling sessions, I’d learned – or thought I’d learned – that guilt was something I had to let go of, that it was guilt that was tying me to the past, making it impossible for me to move on from various bad scenarios and stopping me from committing to real time relationships in the present. I’d been able to follow what Fyodor Mikhailovich had been saying about the need for people who really had done bad things, the torturers and murders, to accept the reality of what they’d done. But this seemed to be something else. As Markel’s own mother said to him, he hadn’t done anything really bad in his life, so how could he be the guiltiest of all. None of us are perfect, of course, but how does thinking of ourselves as ‘guilty’ help?
“This has always puzzled me, Fyodor Mikhailovich” I had to say. “Why ‘guilty’? Isn’t guilt something we need less of? Isn’t it guilt that’s to blame for most of our neuroses?”
“I suppose that what your modern psychologists tell you, is it?”
“Well, yes. Aren’t they right? Doesn’t feeling guilty stop us living life to the full? Isn’t guilt the enemy of love?”
“Do you think it is?”
“I’m not sure. I think it can be … I’ve read about … I’ve known neurotic types who’ve been almost literally crippled by guilt to the point at which you want to shout at them and say ‘Snap out of it! Just get out there and live! Sin a bit!’”
“Sinning would do them good, would it?” Fyodor Mikhailovich asked quizzically.
“Well, you know what I mean …”
“I think I do,” he answered, sadly. “You mean that if you don’t like the way you’re feeling about yourself, just go take it out on somebody else and don’t worry too much about who you hurt along the way. Is that it?”
“I don’t quite mean that … in fact I didn’t mean that at all. I just mean something more like: accept who you are and get on with being yourself.”
“Even when the rest of the world is suffering?”
“Well, no, of course not, but don’t you have to get yourself sorted out before you try sorting out anyone else?”
I don’t know whether Fyodor Mikhailovich actually shook his head at this point or if it just felt like it.
“Your Western individualism really is incorrigible,” he said. “You’ve had war after war, you’ve had famines and mass unemployment, you’re destroying the beautiful and mysterious planet you inherited, the rich grow richer and the poor poorer and all you can think of is being yourself! You seem to think it’s a crime to do what somebody else tells you to do or needs you to do if it means not doing what you want to do yourself!”
I felt he was misinterpreting what I had meant.
“No, that’s not what I mean. All I’m saying is that we need to take responsibility for others, sure, agreed; but we can only really do this when we can see for ourselves that it’s the right thing to do and not because someone else is telling us. Why does guilt have to come into it”?
“Because you are guilty!”
“But why should I feel guilty? I’ve never killed, robbed, or invaded anybody else’s country, or anything like that. I mean, I don’t think I’m perfect, but on the whole I haven’t intentionally done anything to harm anybody else.”
“I didn’t say ‘feel guilty’. I said you are guilty—there’s a difference. I don’t want you to feel guilty, just acknowledge that you are.”
“I don’t see how you I could be guilty without feeling guilty, but I don’t want to play with words. So, please tell me what exactly I am guilty of?”
“I can’t tell you that, but you tell me: is everyone in your world happy? Are they all enjoying life to the full? Do they all have enough to eat, even in your own country? Can they live without being afraid that a stranger or neighbour will strike them down? Are children free from the cruelties and predations of adults?”
“No, of course there are all sorts of terrible things happening in the world, but I don’t see what I can do about them; I mean, I try to do my bit, to be responsible, to help a neighbour when asked, to support charities, to recycle, but I can’t deal with all of the problems out there, nobody can, no government can. We just have to do the few things we each of us can do and accept our limits. Otherwise we’d go mad!”
“Are you sure? I wonder. But let’s assume what you say is true. Nevertheless, are you happy? Have you always been happy? Does your presence bring happiness and joy to others?”
Fyodor Mikhailovich’s questions hurt. I was getting on with my life in a fairly adequate way. I wasn’t a bad person, not too bad, anyway. And from time to time I remembered to try to be better. As to happiness … Of course, there were many things in my life that I enjoyed. Family. Friends. Books. Music. Food. The gym. The hills. Not necessarily in that order. I could go on. The whole range of middle-aged middle-class interests. You could probably write the rest yourself. But had I ever really escaped – entirely escaped – that residual solitude that Dostoevsky had described at the end of A Gentle Spirit? Could I really say I was happy, happy at the very core of my being, or was my happiness only ever a momentary respite, a distraction, from the vision of an empty world and a dead sun? But I hadn’t asked for a therapy session and wasn’t prepared to go down that road, so I tried to lead the conversation away from myself and back to the eternal questions.
“Not always, I have to admit, but I’m not usually quarrelsome or unpleasant. I’m just ordinary, a mix, you could say. But what are you trying to say?”
“Don’t you see? Don’t you remember Markel – we could be in paradise today if we opened our eyes and saw the world as it really is! That’s what you – what most of us – are guilty of: closing our eyes to all the beauty, all the wonder, all the happiness that could be ours, that God wants to be ours; guilty of living in the world as if it was a prison-house or a gambling hall or even as if it was just ‘ordinary’ and not the paradise that it is. We’re all guilty of making the world less than it is and, even worse, stopping others from seeing it too. And, please, observe that it’s not a matter of trying to love the unlovable, which always fails, but of seeing that all people, if you see them as they really are, are lovable – and, once you see that, loving is not so hard, the heart does it on its own.”
I had to think this through. It sounded wonderful, but what difference would it really make to the world if I suddenly started looking at it through rose-coloured spectacles?
“Well, I’m sure it would be nice to live like that but surely it’s not enough to stop someone living just a couple of blocks away from abusing their child, let alone prevent wars, famines, or global warming—I’m supposing you know about that?—is it?”
Fyodor Mikhailovich’s tone was gentle, but he was unrelenting.
“It’s not about ‘nice’. It’s not what your age calls a lifestyle choice. It’s about acknowledging the truth, which, as we’ve established, means being able to see beyond the facts. Of course, if what you mean is that you have to start where you are and not with some impossible utopian ideal, I entirely agree. But you don’t start with yourself. You start with others. With the world you see and the people you see around you. And it’s not up to you where that leads. I know you don’t like the word guilt, but just think of the many times you’ve passed someone in the street without particularly bothering about them, when you’ve not returned a smile—a child’s smile perhaps—let alone the times when someone looked to you for help and you brushed them aside or turned your back on them, pretending you just didn’t see. How can you know where that momentary refusal to show love led? How can you know all the consequences flowing from even the smallest act of omission? Wouldn’t you be justified in spending a lifetime trying to track down just one of those you’ve failed to love as you might and making amends? Just one. And how many are there that you might have helped and didn’t? And remember, ‘In as much as you did it to one of the least of these …’ We are each other’s’ keepers: that’s who we are, and if we aren’t that—who or what could we possibly be?”
“So being guilty is taking responsibility for each other?”
“Aren’t you listening! Who are you to take responsibility for someone else when you have failed to listen to love’s call—again and again and again! It’s not about you becoming a moral hero, it’s not about how you’d like to be or how you’d like the world to be, it’s about seeing the truth—that you owe a debt you’ll never be able to repay in full, you owe everything you have and are to the world, to your brothers and sisters, you belong to them and they to you. ‘We are members one of another’.”
I was both puzzled and hurt. I didn’t see that what I was saying in any way involved turning my back on others, though I did start to feel that there was something missing in the way I’d put my side of the argument.