Love in Action Is a Harsh and Dreadful Thing

“I must make you one confession,” Ivan began. “I could never understand how one can love one’s neighbors. It’s just one’s neighbors, to my mind, that one can’t love, though one might love those at a distance.” ~The Brothers Karamazov

In Book 2, Chapter IV of The Brothers Karamazov, there is a passage about the terrible beauty of service-oriented love which may never be reciprocated. I can’t help feeling this is an especially relevant passage for our time.

By way of context: The Karamazov brothers have gone to a monastery to meet the elder known as Zossima for his help in resolving a family dispute. Before the meeting can occur in full, Zossima visits with various women who have come to his monastery in search of wisdom, prayer, and blessing. Chapter IV focuses on one woman specifically, a mother whose name is not given at first but who is later identified as Madame Hohlakov. She addresses Zossima and thanks him profusely for his prayers, which she believes led to the improvement of her daughter Lise’s health. But then she confesses that for all her gratitude, she feels internal agony: she doubts her faith; she desires to “prove” it. Zossima replies, “But there’s no proving it, though you can be convinced of it.”

Here’s how the next part of the passage goes:

“How?” [asks Madame Hohlakov]

[Zossima answers:] “By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self‐forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul. This has been tried. This is certain.”

“In active love? There’s another question—and such a question! You see, I so love humanity that—would you believe it?—I often dream of forsaking all that I have, leaving Lise, and becoming a sister of mercy. I close my eyes and think and dream, and at that moment I feel full of strength to overcome all obstacles. No wounds, no festering sores could at that moment frighten me. I would bind them up and wash them with my own hands. I would nurse the afflicted. I would be ready to kiss such wounds.”

All well and good, right? Madame Hohlakov is filled with admirable compassion, which many of us, to some degree, can relate to. When we see human suffering, or hear about some tragedy through the omnipresent media channels in our lives, we don’t generally react with cold indifference. Our compassion is stirred. But how deeply, and for how long? Many of us, perhaps, would feel an urge to help in some way, whether by donating money or volunteering our time (or most of all, sharing a post on social media). The more passionate among us might even go to extremes to do mercy ministry, which is what Madame Hohlakov evidently dreams of.

But then she raises a profound question, a question that is the same for us all:

“But could I endure such a life for long?” the lady went on fervently, almost frantically. “That’s the chief question—that’s my most agonizing question. I shut my eyes and ask myself, ‘Would you persevere long on that path? And if the patient whose wounds you are washing did not meet you with gratitude, but worried you with his whims, without valuing or remarking your charitable services, began abusing you and rudely commanding you, and complaining to the superior authorities of you (which often happens when people are in great suffering)—what then? Would you persevere in your love, or not?’ And do you know, I came with horror to the conclusion that, if anything could dissipate my love to humanity, it would be ingratitude. In short, I am a hired servant, I expect my payment at once—that is, praise, and the repayment of love with love. Otherwise I am incapable of loving any one.”

Here Madame Hohlakov shows remarkable self-awareness, for she knows that beneath her noble vision of serving others out of the goodness of her heart, her love is nevertheless thin and fleeting: ingratitude would shatter it. That is not true love any more than it is true love to volunteer at the local soup kitchen so you can post pictures on Instagram. (This isn’t to say you should never volunteer if you feel the slightest temptation to publicize your efforts, only that it is very difficult indeed to do so with total purity of motives.)

Zossima does not shame Madame Hohlakov for her confession. He cites a story of a man who loved humanity in the abstract, yet grew irritated whenever he was forced to endure the company of actual individuals. He quotes the man thus:

“’As soon as any one is near me, his personality disturbs my self‐complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty‐four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.’ ”

It is easy, in other words, to feel compassion and love in an idealized sense. I have great compassion for the people of Ukraine who suffer invasion and deprivation. At times I feel so deeply that I imagine what it would be like to go and volunteer there. And yet I grow angry to the point of restlessness with my acquaintances and family members in the next town over who make some disagreeable remark about COVID, abortion, or a host of other social and political issues.

Professor Alan Jacobs describes this phenomenon, albeit in a different context, in his book How to Think. Partly owing to the partisan hatred and bickering of social media, we are all prone to feeling animosity towards the “Repugnant Cultural Other”, or RCO, the person whose views we find despicable because we believe their words and actions are destroying the community we live in. Although in one breath we subscribe to the lofty ideal of loving and respecting people of all stripes, in practice we find it utterly draining—especially when using “technologies of communication” that “allow us to neglect the common humanity we share with the people we now find inhabiting our world” (Jacobs, page 82).

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt would probably agree with that assessment. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Haidt documented (among other things) the effects of technology on our ability to get along. He believes the past decade of life in our democracy has been uniquely stupid, and concludes that the toxic conflicts we see all around us won’t be improving anytime soon. What then can we do? Is love of the Repugnant Cultural Other possible or even desirable these days? Or, as Madame Hohlakov wonders in her dialogue with Zossima: “Must one despair?”

Zossima’s response is simple and incisive: Try your best but—and this is so important—beware of the hidden motive of showing or expressing love merely to gain approval. This motive is subtle, pernicious, and totally unable to support long-lasting affection:

“Do what you can, and it will be reckoned unto you. Much is done already in you since you can so deeply and sincerely know yourself. If you have been talking to me so sincerely, simply to gain approbation for your frankness, as you did from me just now, then of course you will not attain to anything in the achievement of real love; it will all get no further than dreams, and your whole life will slip away like a phantom. In that case you will naturally cease to think of the future life too, and will of yourself grow calmer after a fashion in the end.”

Madame Hohlakov now admits that she feels crushed, for she realizes with sudden clarity that it was her motive all along to convince Zossima of her sincerity. This again is a remarkable confession; and Zossima again replies soberly and gently, observing the crucial difference between “love in actions” versus “love in dreams”—a difference which is so vital to recognize in a time when billions of smartphone users are daily bombarded with incentives to publish as many of their words and actions as possible, often for the exact performative reasons Zossima warns against. More from the dialogue:

“Are you speaking the truth? Well, now, after such a confession, I believe that you are sincere and good at heart. If you do not attain happiness, always remember that you are on the right road, and try not to leave it. Above all, avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself. Watch over your own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute. Avoid being scornful, both to others and to yourself. What seems to you bad within you will grow purer from the very fact of your observing it in yourself. Avoid fear, too, though fear is only the consequence of every sort of falsehood. Never be frightened at your own faint‐heartedness in attaining love. Don’t be frightened overmuch even at your evil actions. I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labor and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it—at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you.” (Emphasis mine.)

All You Need Is Love” is not only a popular song that sent a message of pacifism in troubled times, it is a popular adage which has been attached to all sorts of assertions about human rights. I am not convinced we fully grasp its implications. Or perhaps I am not convinced that the adage itself was ever intended to encapsulate the costly “love in action” described by Zossima. The words are more akin to “love in dreams”, more conducive to filtered Instagram videos of people saying something admirable because they know they are being watched. It cannot encompass, much less motivate, the kind of love that endures away from the public eye and in the face of fierce resistance: the kind of love that persists and forgives even when met with ingratitude, rejection, and scorn. “Love in action” is harsh; it demands profound strength and self-effacement. Certainly it is an endangered species in the digital realm, if not entirely extinct. Yet isn’t that precisely the kind of love we need now, when our divisions are clearer than ever?

Isn’t it the type of love we will always need?

Image Source: Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Clarion Review