A Good Turn (by Andrew J. Zwerneman)

A Good Turn (by Andrew J. Zwerneman)

At the start of the modern world, Thomas Hobbes laid down a grim premise. There is no ultimate good, he claimed; there is only an ultimate evil. At their core, humans are not, Hobbes thought, motivated by the love of what is good; they are motivated by the fear of death, of war, and the threat each of us poses to the other.

 

Hobbes was not right in how he described nature, but his description sounds familiar: our culture, after all, reels from strikes against goodness and from the alarming rise of fear and division. If there is nothing essentially good about what is, about who we are, about our origins and our destiny, then life begins to appear as Hobbes described it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Worse yet, if there is no ultimate good, or no divine purpose to our lives, then human lives, having lost their sanctity, appear expendable, human history seems forgettable, and human loves, far from transcendent, tend toward what is base, selfish, and fleeting.

 

Many have lost their bearings concerning what is good. The loss is a major precondition for how society today ill-treats the weakest among us, how American and Western history are forgotten, and how transcendent loves increasingly give way to ideology, division, and the urge to dominate.

 

At the same time, we have not stopped being human. Nor is it that we can somehow get around our responsibility for one another. Unless we simply concede the loss, it is incumbent on us to recover our bearings. By “us” I include our students; and because of their need, our calling as teachers brings great responsibility. Our students are the occasion for us to find our bearings and to lead according to a restored sense of direction and purpose. So much rides on how we take up this responsibility.

 

There is no one solution to the problem regarding goodness and its loss, nor precisely how to recover our bearings. Whatever we do, however, the recovery it must be within this modern world. Among other things, the historical context of our predicament requires that we tap successful responses to that predicament. In other words, among our educational priorities, we need to attend to classic modern works by great souls who have heroically worked through the crisis of the modern world and who rediscovered the meaning of our common humanity as the response to the loss of meaning and purpose we see all around us.

 

I am suggesting a turn to works such as Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Gorecki’s Third Symphony or Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, Chagall’s White Crucifixion, Flannery O’Connor’s Parker’s Back, Mestrovic’s Pieta, or Terrence Malick’s films, The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life, and A Hidden Life. In distinctly modern motifs, each of these twentieth or twenty-first century works moves us to feel what we ought to feel and see what we ought to see. Situated within the modern crisis, each of these works situates us in the world we have been given by leading us beyond the crisis to where our lives are illuminated, our sources of true freedom.

 

Dostoyevsky holds a pre-eminent place among these modern heroes. Take, for example, his memorable character in The Brothers Karamazov, Father Zossima. This wise old man spends much of his brief time on earth tending to those who suffer. Their suffering is layered: it is not just that they suffer some want; they do not know how to respond to their suffering nor to the suffering of others. His flock are the lost, the ones who have lost their bearings as so many have in this modern world we inhabit. The crisis that he meets is the crisis of the poor, each of whom suffers from want and from a poverty of response. The one kind of poverty they experience may be material, physical, intellectual, or spiritual. The other is always relational.

 

The sympathetic Zossima tenderly observes each person he encounters, then directs that person to something restoratively good. The good is always within reach and is, in each case, already evident in the life of the suffering person. In other words, Zossima gets inside each life, offers a recognizable language there to address the sufferer, and illuminates how both the suffering and the language are already united to something that transcends them. The encouragement he gives illuminates the person’s life. The direction he counsels each person to take is always relational. In sum, each encounter with Zossima reveals the suffering person’s goodness and that person’s unique ability to respond to others.

 

For example, there is the peasant woman who has lost her three-year old son—worse yet, the last among all four of the young children she has lost. Zossima knows that she will continue to bear this burden as only a mother would who has suffered such loss. Yet, he knows too that she is married and that her husband needs her, especially since he resorts to drinking when she is gone. So Father Zossima reminds her of the husband’s suffering and that she alone can take responsibility for him as his wife. She must return home.

 

Yet, her return is more than a duty: it is an ability to respond and to do so despite what she lacks. Her God is good. Her marriage is a real good and as such is capable of restoring both spouses. To neglect the marriage, he says, is sinful; to attend to it is to allow goodness to restore husband and wife. There is no clear plan presumed that could fill up the emptiness left by the loss of her children, but the way she can respond to her suffering is not only and not ultimately to mourn, but to love; and in this case, it is to love her poor husband whose good rests in a significant way on her response to his suffering, freely given out of her own poor situation.

 

For another example, take the novel’s protagonist, Alyosha. There is much we can note about what Father Zossima teaches the youngest of the Karamazov brothers, but one brief encounter will do. At his greatest moment of personal crisis, Alyosha has a dream of the wedding feast first recounted in John’s Gospel. The good Father, who, at this point of the novel has already died, appears in the dream and is celebrating with the other guests at the feast. Alyosha is surprised to find his mentor there and to be there himself. Father Zossima knows Alyosha is troubled and encourages his young disciple: all that either one of them had to do in order to find his place at the feast was to do one good thing, one act of kindness. So, it is, he says, with everyone–and, the elder adds, there are many being called to the feast, even now.

 

The moral economy in this dream is breathtaking. It is made possible by the same generosity exhibited in the unexpected provision of wine made available when the supply ran dry: good wine—or, better said, the best wine—and in great abundance. By that generosity, the joy of all the guests was visited. By that same generosity, many now are called to the wedding banquet.

 

Zossima’s God is good. Each creature, each person, is good. Each kindness a person does is good. Again, the economy here is astonishing. The human gift is responded to with a gift divine. One poor turn toward the good opens up an eternal banquet of goodness for the one who gives. At the same time, there is no real parity here, no true quid pro quo. This is not an exchange of merit and reward. The response to human kindness is overflowing, overwhelming, and beyond human powers either to calculate or even to fully anticipate.

 

When Alyosha awakens from the dream, the experience has changed him. The evidence of change lies in his first move—to rush outdoors and look to the heavens and to the earth and to physically embrace what he can—the irreplaceable ground that gives him a place to be in the good order of things. The attempt is genuine if not quite up to grasping the superabundant goodness he has glimpsed. No human arms can grasp the good entirely, though the attempt to embrace it seems exactly the right response.

 

We recall again, Hobbes. He either cannot or will not contemplate an ultimate good. Alyosha does but cannot measure or enfold it. The one modern man turns away from goodness, the other turns toward it as best he can.

 

The key here is that Alyosha has glimpsed the good and can now move by its abundant light. Now he sees. Now he is able to respond—to serve his family and the village boys placed in his charge. Restored to the goodness of everything, Alyosha is able to see and to foster the good of those for whom he is responsible; and, as when he embraced the ground, so now, when he responds to what he has dreamt by embracing just a small handful of others, Alyosha opens his two arms to all that is good.

 

The mystery of the good situates Alyosha in between two poles of goodness. In one sense, the good that he glimpses is prior to any human response and is the permanent, necessary condition of all love. In another sense, the good is his responsibility. No one can love in Alyosha’s place. No response to others can replace his response. Others need him. Their good depends on Alyosha. This is also true in the other case we have been discussing: Only the peasant woman can love her husband as she can. His good depends on her provision for it.

 

The freedom that Alyosha and the peasant woman experience does not ultimately consist in the absence of suffering. It rests, rather, in their response to suffering; it rests in the gift of self, given generously and freely to others who suffer. In either of the two cases, the person is the good whose goodness transcends the person in his or her relation to another.

 

The relational transcendence here works in either of its directions: Transcendence happens either by the sacrificial gift of self or by being the occasion for such generosity. Thus, while it is true to say that the good of others is dependent on Alyosha’s love and the peasant woman’s, it is equally true to say that who Alyosha and the peasant woman are depends on the others and on how each of the two responds to them. In other words, their humanity is revealed in between two experiences: glimpsing the superabundant goodness to which they have been invited and responding to the suffering of those to whom they are called.

 

A feature of our shared human condition is that we suffer: that is true in all times. Among the distinctive features of modern existence, however, is that we often face suffering without the clarity of relational bearings that our predecessors possessed in times of greater cultural stability. Then again, no less a feature of our times are the heroes among us—heroes, such as Dostoyevsky, who glimpse the reality of goodness here in this modern world and who, by their works, illuminate our condition anew, allow us to glimpse that goodness, and move us in the right direction—toward each other.


Andrew J. Zwerneman is co-founder and president of Cana Academy. His latest book,

HISTORY FORGOTTEN AND REMEMBERED, is available here.

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