Sunday, May 17, 2020

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008


"One word of truth will outweigh the whole world"

So once said Alexander Solzhenitsyn , Russian dissident, Nobel Prize laureate in Literature, exhile to US for 16 years, hero in his native Russia. He is perhaps most well known for The Gulag Archipelago, his account of the Soviet prison system in which he lived for many years. While I am not a Solzhenitsyn scholar, of course, I am in the ranks of a great many who find him an inspiration and modern prophet.

I read some of his Oak and Calf, a sort of literary bio. Among the more remarkable accounts therein is his record of how he preserved his writing during the years when his work was forbidden. He literally memorized — if my memory serves — entire books. He also would write in tiny print and save the rolled MS in cannisters which were then buried.

I often wished I had taken time to travel to his American home in Vermont in the ’80’s though it’s doubtful I could have met him. And, of course, he had his detractors in recent years — you can find a dissenting view here.

But on any account his life is remarkable: from a young soldier on the front lines in WWII to political prisoner to father (one of his sons is Ignat Solzhenitsyn, conductor and composer in Philadephia) to dissident author, Nobel laureate, exhile, a Soviet non-person, modern prophet, American resident, returning hero to his beloved homeland in 1994.

He seemd like the aged sage that would always be here — and so he is for some time to come if we will have the sense to remember the kind of thundering and wise things he said. I have excerpted below some of his statements from the famous speech he gave at Harvard on June 8, 1978 . It was not what Harvard wanted to hear, but they, and we, need to take to heart what he said.

I was sad to hear of his passing. Ironically I have been reading his novel Cancer Ward not knowing he had died. My friend, Steve Blakemore, posted about his death on his excellent Third Millenium faith email which you can join here . He quoted from Solzhenistsyn’s 1978 Harvard Speech and I enjoyed re-looking at it. I hope you will have time to savor — and receive a helpful jolt — from the comments excerpted below.

It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations. Mere freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and it even adds a number of new ones. . .

We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life.

After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor and by intolerable music.

If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die.
It is not possible that assessment of the President’s performance be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline.

People also have the right not to know, and it is a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.

Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic disease of the 20th century and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press. In-depth analysis of a problem is anathema to the press.
Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.

Socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death.

Very well known representatives of your society, such as George Kennan, say: we cannot apply moral criteria to politics. Thus we mix good and evil, right and wrong and make space for the absolute triumph of absolute Evil in the world. On the contrary, only moral criteria can help the West…. There are no other criteria.

On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility.
Such a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil…was evidently born primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent to human nature; the world belongs to mankind and all the defects of life are caused by wrong social systems which must be corrected.
Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror.

I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed….[However, yours is the opposite error, so I would say],whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

On Javert, Breaking Rules, Love, and the Easy Burden


Les Misérables (1998) - Final Scene - YouTube

Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.(Mt. 11:29)

In Rafael Yglesias' screen play of Victor Hugo's timeless Les Miserables, Javert, the soul-less villain, finally captured the convict Valjean for good and has a gun to his head.

“It's a pity that rules don't allow me to be merciful,” Javert says. “I've tried to live my life without breaking a single rule.”

The line is thunder to the human heart. We imagine the keeping of rules is a good thing and the breaking of them is bad. We are right, and suffer the pride or shame that goes with either.

And yet Javert, it seems, had made rightness his highest goal. Separate from God, rightness builds its own prison, an echo-chamber of moral superiority that, in the end, can justify almost anything. Javert had devoted his life to rightness and in the end his life was forfeit at his own hand: he self-destructed in suicide. Javert found himself in a vortex from which not even Valjean's mercy could save.

And how else could life end for us if we make our supreme goal – the idol to which we daily bow – “living without breaking a rule?” Rules beget rules and crush the soul. Mercy cannot breath, and eventually dies.

A dear friend once said this to me in a different way. Listening to my struggle through tears and meandering, he said, “Sounds like you are in a valley.”

"Yes," I replied. "But what are we doing looking at all of this stuff, misunderstandings, stubbornesses, ideals all but crushed. What is this!?”

“We are in the laundry room, sorting.”

I liked the analogy, helpful instead of condemning. I wanted to say something about diapers and their messes, for that was the kind of 'laundry' at hand.

“I think you are fighting a phantom,” he continued. “I think the answer will be found when you quit straining. I think the answer is gentle, and you've not tried that much. How 'bout gentle?”

I didn't know what to say and then the conversation was abruptly interrupted.

And so I have often wondered: “Gentle. What does that mean?”

The Canadian teacher and psychologist, Jordan Peterson, gives a clue in one of his life rules: “Learn to treat yourself like someone for whom you are responsible and for whom you care a great deal.”

Really?! “Care for a great deal?” I care for myself well enough, especially my bodily wants. But can I be tender with myself? Can I forgive? Can I begin to ignore, and eventually quit the negative, perversely addictive self-talk? I think Peterson has it right. If I cared for someone else a great deal, how would I treat them? The answer gives guidance for how I should treat myself.

And so, how does this come around to Javert? Javert was his own cruel task-master. There was no room for love, only rules. He could not show mercy to himself, nor, in turn, to others. He self-flaggelated, and in it all a creature emerged whose only goal was to avoid breaking rules.

This is like Lewis's deep remark about selflessness. “We have it backwards” – my paraphrase. “The emphasis must not be on avoiding selfishness but on showing love, learning to demonstrate care and consideration for the needs of others.” Merely avoiding selfishness, like Javert's avoidance of rule-breaking, defines our life by a negative. It is a trajectory of despair. Love could not save him because he was bound to rules.

How we need this lesson. Do I care about others, or do I care about being right? We can live both of course. But we will find, I think, we are most right when we lay aside a singular focus on rightness and consider those around us. In this, love sets us free and we find the gentle way, learning to be free of striving, learning to be gentle with ourselves so we can, in turn, be gentle with others. How I long to learn this good way, this easy way to carry burdens, this letting go of the need to be right.

God is with us, and Jesus calls us, so beautifully, to His easy burden. That's the one I receive today, with gladness. And I want to be together on that journey with my wife and family, and with all who share this wonderful gift of life.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Rumination on a Misunderstanding


Last year I all-but-unavoidably overhead the following conversation in a restaurant. It is paraphrased – I wasn't that rude. And I have made up the names. I had no idea who these people are and wasn't about to ask, though I was deeply touched. Here's my best memory of the conversation:


“Amy has been a good friend for over 20 years. Now she seems distant.” Monica's voice was thoughtful and concerned, almost tired. At a glance she looked to be late 30's, perhaps a Mom, and busy with life. She seemed not to care if anyone overheard. I was eating alone and listening was hard to avoid.

Her friend, whom I will call Dawn, replied: “Well, you ignored her when you were in town last fall.”

“Ignored her?!” Dawn looked up as Monica reacted. “I told her I had no free time and felt really bad about it!”

“Well, she called after you left and we chatted,” Dawn replied. “I told her you had visited Valdez with Vallery. She was silent and seemed hurt. I think she really needed to see you.”

“What do you mean I went to Valdez?! I did no such thing!” I glanced between bites and could see Monica had gone from thoughtful to slightly angry.

Dawn continued, “Well, you left the house early one day and said you'd have to spend the night at Valdez with Vallery. I thought nothing of it because we both had so much going on.”

Monica's voiced was pained and sharp. “Valdez?! I went to Vallery's to finish that tax project she was buried with! No way did I have time to go to Valdez!”

Dawn was silent before replying.“Sounds like I made a bad mistake. I must have heard “Vallery” and thought “Valdez” and then joined the two in my mind, thinking no further. I didn't mean to.” It seemed there were some tears and more silence. I didn't dare look.

“I think you need to make a phone call.” Monica was angry. I wondered how this would play out.

To my happy surprise Dawn replied quietly. “You are right. I made a passing comment and didn't even know it was wrong. Amy thinks you enjoyed Valdez but had no time to visit her. The simplest misunderstanding damaged a friendship.”

I pretended not to hear but knew this was a sacred moment, the kind that heals and makes whole if we let it.

Dawn's sincere regret softened Monica's reply. “Thank you, friend. I wondered if something was wrong but did not know what to do. Maybe we should go see her together.”

I continued eating with head down but treasured the truth in my heart. How often an unintentionally errant word can divide. It is for us to be both slow to speak, and slow to indignation when we suffer a perceived affront. Misunderstandings abound, the result of human frailties we all share in abundance. And when we find ourselves at fault, we need the grace of wisdom and action to bring healing and truth.

Monica and Dawn found the way through honest discussion and a desire to heal. I pray the lesson is not lost on this eaves-dropping friend.