A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Part 1, I Love Mankind...It's People I Can't Stand

One of the richest chapters in Dostoevsky's The Brother's Karamazov is Chapter 4, of Book Two, in Part 1, entitled "A Lady of Little Faith."

In the chapter a lady of "little faith" is in conversation with the spiritual elder Zosima. Zosima is the mentor of Alyosha, the youngest of the Karamazov brothers and the protagonist of the story. In the spiritual drama of the story, Zosima is the spiritual counterweight to Ivan Karamazov's atheism as Alyosha tries to find his way forward. In this early chapter of the book, "A Lady of Little Faith," we get our first glimpse of Zosima's spiritual worldview.

There are so many wonderful spiritual insights in this chapter I want to take them up slowly, one by one, like collecting beach glass on a shore.

The first observation is how the Lady of Little Faith, a wealthy Russian woman who came to petition the elder to bless and heal her daughter, describes her spiritual predicament.

Specifically, the lady struggles to love people. Well, not exactly. The lady loves people in the abstract, loves people in general. It's specific, particular people she has trouble loving. Hearing her struggles, the elder responds by telling of a man he once knew:
He was an old man, and unquestioningly intelligent. He spoke just as frankly as you, humorously, but with a sorrowful humor. "I love mankind," he said, "but am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams," he said, "I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me," he said. "On the other hand, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole."
Goodness gracious, how true is that? We love people in general and in the abstract, but we struggle to love actual, physical human beings in our lives.

There's a great comic from Peanuts where Linus shares this struggle from The Brother's Karamazov:

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply