In Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamozov, Alyosha remembers the final speech of the Starets Zosima. One small part of that remembrance is a reflection on freedom. What does it mean to be free–or what has our culture taught us it means?
Keeping in mind that this novel was written in 1880 Russia, the comments about the human condition still ring true. For example, the Starets says that freedom according to the “world” is the right to satisfy one’s needs, and the right to multiply those needs. That is, our culture teaches us that every person has the right to do what she wants–so long as it doesn’t too severely limit someone else’s right to do what he wants. (Of course, not even this is quite right; for, like in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, some animals are more equal than others. If you have the resources to sue your neighbour or you are politically connected in a way your neighbour isn’t, then you are more equal. But this is a different matter altogether). The world teaches us that we are basically free and encourages us everywhere to satisfy our needs.
But there is a funny thing about needs. They continue to multiply. People engender in themselves, according to the Starets, “a multitude of pointless and foolish desires, habits, and incongruous stratagems. Their lives are motivated only by mutual envy, sensuality and ostentation.” Even the effort invested in serving the causes of “brotherly love and human harmony,” or save trees or bunny rabbits or the polar icecap are very often (but not always) just an attempt to satisfy another need. Needs multiply as you satisfy them. A hungry man needs only his next meal. A satisfied man needs a cigarette.
We become accustomed to satisfying the needs that we say we have. Satisfying them becomes habit, and habit looks a great deal like slavery. Is a slave free? Just because I can stop a behaviour “if I wanted to,” does not make me free because I am a slave to my desire–I don’t want to stop.
Christian asceticism is about freedom. It is training in saying no. It is the beginning of freedom. Someone who has developed the habit of saying no to himself can easily say yes to his neighbor. The ascetic is free to love; the needy, at best, merely negotiates.
Honestly, I am very uncomfortable writing these words. I am no ascetic. I have only played around the edges of self-denial. These words function as a mirror to me, revealing my self-induced neediness. I don’t think there is much I can do about it, except confess it. I can’t transform myself–I know, I’ve tried.
I can, however, look into the Face of my Father, like a child caught with her hand in the jelly jar, with jelly smeared all over her face and hair. I can say I’m sorry. I can ask for help. I can at least do a little; I can say no to myself in some small ways, knowing profoundly how little I really deny myself.
One thing is certain. I do not want to run and hide. I do not want to deny my selfishness–the bit of it that I am aware of. I want–I really, really need–to entrust myself to my loving Father who will pick me up from my messy jelly puddle, scrub me clean (even though it sometimes hurts a little getting the jelly out of my hair), and patiently teach me how to eat only a little jelly with my toast.