Conversation 7: ‘We are all here’. Episode 4.

            He stopped and looked down, perhaps absorbed in his memories. I knew he’d had two very eventful marriages and there was obviously a lot to remember. Finally, he raised his head and looked out over the city.

            “The thing is, it’s almost impossible to explain. It goes almost without saying that He was right—that nothing here is quite like how we imagine it while we’re on earth. Our questions are never quite right and our answers are no answers at all. As we were just saying, the questions that really matter are the questions about ourselves, about who we are, but even here we mostly start off on the wrong foot—especially (but not only) if we’ve been reading some philosophy.”

            “How do you mean?”

            “It’s not so difficult and I think we’ve touched on it before. It’s the ego, the ‘I’. The problem is that we just seem to take it for granted that this is a simple fact. As the philosopher said, ‘I think, therefore I am’. We may not be philosophers but each of us tends to assume that that ‘I am’ is the most basic fact there is. It’s something you just can’t get beyond or behind. Because of that it colours everything we think, do, or feel. But if we really think about what happens in love, there has to be something more basic, more powerful than the ego. ‘A god greater than I’, as the Italian poet wrote. That’s just as true for the most ordinary everyday kind of love as it is for the love we see in the saints, though they love to a much more intense degree.”

            “But, Fyodor Mikhailovich, I seem to remember that when we were talking about Christ, you said that only He could love perfectly because He was the only person in history whose life wasn’t based on egoism, whereas the rest of us can never free ourselves of it entirely.”

            “No more we can. Even here, where I am now, we’re still in the process of shedding the last illusions of egoism. Nevertheless, I didn’t say we couldn’t love at all. What I said was that our love was always going to be limited or distorted by our inveterate egoism. But we do have the example of Christ, appearing in time and showing the truth of a love utterly devoid of egoism and because of that we are able to direct our efforts in the right direction, so to speak. So, even on earth, egoism isn’t the only factor. From the very beginning of our lives we’re surrounded and fed by a love—our mother’s love—that moulds our basic response to life. And when the baby smiles back at its mother, that’s not egoism, it’s love. Remember Raphael! Everything we’ve talked about in connection with brotherhood is only possible because there’s more to us than egoism. Knowing that what you have to do in your life is not just down to what you as a single individual want to do or feel like doing but is connected to what you owe your brothers—and sisters (and I’m not forgetting about your sisters)—this too is more than egoism. And, as I said before, this is something that you don’t need to have explained to you, it’s something you feel; it’s as immediate as your feeling of your own self.”

            “Yes, but you also said that those of us in the West, at least, had forgotten this—that we only had liberty and equality, but not fraternity.”

            “Yes, and it’s true—to a great extent. I’m not saying and never said that everyone in the West was completely incapable of love. You couldn’t be human if you couldn’t love at all. In fact, as Zosima said, you’d be in hell—and it’s only in hell that the possibility of love is completely annihilated. And who knows, perhaps not even there, just reduced, so to speak, to a quadrillionth of its proper power. No. No one could go on living at all if they didn’t have some sense of being part of something greater than themselves. Remember Zosima again: everything flows. When we are thinking from within the boundaries of the ego we think of each other as self-contained units, like Leibniz’s monads, but that’s a false point of view. These boundaries are themselves part of the illusion. To be a person, a real human person, is to be much more than an ego, a self, an I.”

            “And yet, Fyodor Mikhailovich, all these characters in your novels—they’re all individuals aren’t they, each with their distinctive characters, none of them quite like any of the others?”

            “Indeed, that’s what I tried to achieve as a writer—but, at the same time, to show how none of these individuals existed alone; that they were who they were and became whoever they became only in and through how they responded to each other. Someone like Raskolnikov tried to be master of his own life and to cut all the ties that bound him to family and friends—but he couldn’t do it. It was a fantasy. As for the brothers Karamazov, as I said before, the narrator wrote a novel whose hero, as he called him, was Alyosha, but I wrote a novel about all three—even Alyosha needed the others every bit as much as they needed him. Even though he doesn’t himself know why, he’s drawn to them and is eager to get to know them. Why? Because he knows that the secret of his own life is only to be found in the life he shares with his brothers. Nowhere else. If he’s to grow in love, he quite simply has to let go of whatever ‘ego’ or ‘self’ there still is in his heart.”

            “Quite simply! It sounds rather difficult to me!”

            “It is difficult and—as I said—it’s not something that any human being can fully achieve in earthly life.”

            What Fyodor Mikhailovich was saying about letting go of the ego reminded me of various things I’d read from time to time about Buddhism. In fact, it seemed to be a commonplace of what some people call the new spirituality.

            “I’m thinking, Fyodor Mikhailovich—and forgive me if I said this before—this is all sounding rather like Buddhism. Don’t Buddhists teach that there is no ego, no self, that it’s all an illusion?”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich pressed the palms of his hands together, almost as if he was praying. He smiled.

            “I didn’t really know very much about them in my lifetime,” he said, “but I don’t think they’re completely wrong. Some would say there’s something Buddhistic about our Russian Christianity. Perhaps there is. We look to Asia as well as to the West, and Christ fulfils all human longings. But the point is that it’s not just about seeing through the illusions of the ego: it’s about becoming active in love.”

            “But who do we love and who does the loving if there’s no ego and no self?”

            A wave of warm air came up on the soft south-westerly breeze. Fyodor Mikhailovich removed his hat by the crown, shook his head, and let his hand, still holding the hat, fall to his side.

            “It’s such a beautiful day, isn’t it?” he said. 

            I waited. I was getting used to the way in which he often avoided giving a direct or immediate answer to my questions.

            He looked at me out of the corner of his eye, almost slyly.

            “Assuming you’re not just playing with words,” he said, “I’d just point out that I never said that when you let go of the ego you’re left with nothing. On the contrary, when you let go of the ego you have life, life in all its fulness, without the limits and boundaries that our rational ego places on it. When the seed bursts its shell, you could say that it dies but it doesn’t just cease to be. It has to ‘die’ in order to bring forth new life. You know that verse from John, of course, and I’m sure you know I took it as the motto for my Brothers.”

            I grunted affirmatively.

            “And remember also what He said about loving your life and losing it: the only way to find life is to lose it.”

            “But, surely, if everyone were all of a sudden to give up their egos, wouldn’t the whole of society grind to a halt? I can see that things might be better if there were a few more ego-free saints of love to help us stay optimistic, but … could everyone live like that?”

            “And you don’t think society is grinding to a halt already? Perhaps you don’t read the newspapers like I did.”

            He had a point. You couldn’t really hold up the kind of society we had now as any kind of model. Some kind of change was clearly needed—and if it wasn’t going to be in the direction of increasing love, then the prospects really were rather grim. 

2 thoughts on “Conversation 7: ‘We are all here’. Episode 4.

  1. A real person, who goes beyond illusions so as to attain conformity with the “true world”, results from overcoming selfishness (empirical finitude of ego); and love is an experience of this overcoming. Thanks for this clear insight.


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