I have just finished Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, a feat indeed while caring for twin babies. I started reading it when they were infants, at night between feedings. So nearly a year later, I have completed my journey with Tolstoy and his troop and it has been as satisfying as literature can be, when it is written by a master. Years ago, I would have identified with the passionate, impetuous heroine, but now, my sympathy lies chiefly with Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin (a character based on Tolstoy himself). Here's why: Levin struggles with his faith.
At the end of the novel, Levin is immersed in spiritual warfare and is "miserably divided against himself". He experiences "fearful moments of horror". Doubt is consistent, "growing weaker or stronger from time to time, but never leaving". Levin was so near suicide, at times, that he "was afraid to go out with his gun for fear of shooting himself".
Now, Levin is an intelligent man, a landowner, a thinker. He is compassionate and values the lives of the peasants living on his estate (the political goings-on between Russian gentry and peasant folk is a subplot in the novel). As a thinker, he knows philosophy and science, "the indestructibility of matter, the law of the conservation of energy, evolution". He knows theory's place and these are "very well for intellectual purposes". It is daily life that has him stumped; how to live is the question.
Levin realizes that "reasoning had brought him to doubt". When he acted, when he held himself to task and kept himself busy whether with the peasants or managing his household or keeping his bees, he was content. It was the thinking that caused him to suffer.
Levin remembers how once, when he prayed, he felt holy. He, an unbeliever. This happened during his son's tumultuous birth. At that moment he prostrated himself and prayed, he believed. And yet, he could not extend that moment to "fit into the rest of his life".
He comes to a point when he can no longer tolerate his state of mind:
And he briefly went through, mentally, the whole course of his ideas during the last two years, the beginning of which was the clear confronting of death at the sight of his dear brother hopelessly ill.
Then, for the first time, grasping that for every man, and himself too, there was nothing in store but suffering, death, and forgetfulness, he had made up his mind that life was impossible like that, and that he must either interpret life so that it would not present itself to him as the evil jest of some devil, or shoot himself.
It is not until a conversation with a peasant by the name of Fyodor that he has his ah -ha moment. They converse about two landowners, one "only thinks of filling his belly" but the other "lives for his soul". And Levin, desperate for spiritual advice, latches onto the idea of living for the soul, but he doesn't know how to do it.
And then he realizes that he was "living rightly, but thinking wrongly". He had been, by his belief system and moral character, already living for his soul by loving. And loving thy neighbor is not a rational thing. Reason tends to support survival of the fittest and the satisfaction of desires; it is the antithesis of love. So Levin learned that you couldn't reach love by reason, you must reach it by action, which he was already doing.
I was captivated by the statement "living rightly, but thinking wrongly" because that is exactly what I do. I do the arduous soulwork of mothering while thinking that I am useless because I do not bring in enough money, or have not yet reached a reputable status, or am too old to be a mother of such young children. Thinking wrongly is using reasoning to squash one's spirit. Here are some other more prominent examples:
- Science tells us the Big Bang and Evolution may very well be the reasons for existence. There is no God, therefore ultimately I am uncared for and left to my own meager devices. I will suffer, die and be nothing.
- Life is an intricate network of processes that can be shut down like a computer; once it is over, it is over. The afterlife is the invention of fear and religion is the opium of the masses.
- I am lonely, unloved, and uncared for because of <insert anecdotal evidence>.
These are examples of reasoning, a process by which statements are made and then backed up by either fact, theory, statistical or anecdotal evidence. Reasoning is ordinarily a useful skill when it comes to certain scenarios, like choosing a car, for instance. In other more philosophical, existential matters, it can sour pretty quickly.
Levin erupts into tears when he admits his belief in God. He declares himself a changed man. He supposes that the reality he knew before would now be different; that he would not feel hostile to or irritated by people. But this isn't true. Life continues to be life for Levin with all of its conflicts, disappointments, and hostilities. He then reasons that his spiritual transformation was only a "mood". But Levin knows intuitively that this is not the case. Tolstoy compares life's vicissitudes and irritations to the bees that Levin cares for, how they "lasted only so long as he was among them" and "his spiritual peace was untouched within him".
I don't think I have yet experienced the profound realization regarding the existence of God that Levin experienced; I think these are reserved for non-believers and although I've had my moments of doubt and darkness, I don't believe I have ever fit the label of non-believer. What I have realized, however, is that leaping into the irrational, be it through poetry, or prayer, or practicing loving kindness, or just "loving thy neighbor" helps control or realign thinking wrongfully.
The problem now is to remember this.