Raskolnikov, John B., and Jesus: Thoughts on a Life
A man sooner or later discovers that he is the master-gardener of his soul, the director of his life. – James Allen
He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. – Friedrich Nietzsche
I’ve been reading Crime & Punishment, a psychological novel about murder. I’ve been listening to the S-town podcast, a story of a small town murder that becomes a meditation on time, genius, and place. Both of those are cursory overviews of works much better than my flippant attempt to summarize them.
What both have in common, and in common with this season, is the exploration of a life. In a season of awakening, with gentler climate and general propensity toward growth, a season highlighting a famous death and resurrection, I’ve been reading a book and listening to a podcast that both present endings (death) and ask for reflection on life and its purpose. There’s a nice resonance to that.
Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov makes a distinction between ordinary and extraordinary lives. He believes the rare, extraordinary person is above the law because the fulfillment of his ideas or purpose (“perhaps salutary for the whole of mankind”) excuses it. He refers to Kepler, Newton, Lycurgus, Solon, Muhammad, Napoleon. In the end (or actually very near the beginning of the novel), he is thinking of himself, and acts upon his theory, murdering a money-lender with the idea that her sacrifice is excused and necessary in the arc of his progression. He is haunted by his reasoning and spends much of the novel circling inside his own mind.
S-town’s John B. writes a radio station asking them to investigate a small-town Alabama murder that he believes is being swept under the rug. He sees this unreported murder as another act of local corruption, another testament to the world’s impending decline. John B. is a genius and a bit of a character. He writes obsessively about climate change. He writes about about a life well-lived, but opines little: it is nothing but a calculation of the total number of meaningful, utile hours in life once work, sleep, and family obligations are subtracted. His life, as all lives are, is tied to the passage of time. He dwells in this space, concerned for the future.
You already know about the third life ensphering my brain: the life of Christ. Earlier today Olea wrote about Holy Saturday and the chronology of the season, that yesterday Christ was crucified, that today his body lies in the tomb, that tomorrow He will rise. That we need this time of waiting, this time of in-between, this liminal space pre-Resurrection (where, presumably, many did not realize He would rise) to appreciate the gift. I love the idea of this waiting period. Of a day (that undoubtedly felt longer than a day) of grief and unknowing. As a lover of God but a doubter of Mormonism, I inhabit this unknowing. Lord I believe, help thou mine unbelief.
Raskolnikov and John B. have me thinking about my own life, my own time, and what really matters. I don’t weight the extraordinary above the ordinary like Raskolnikov, but I’d like to take the time to appreciate both. John B. truly is extraordinary, the genius or once-in-a-generation mind that Raskolnikov flatters himself in thinking he is. But John B. doesn’t see himself as special. If anything he is as physically off-putting (he is purposefully or by personality careless and unhygienic) as he is mentally fascinating. I can’t figure out if this is self-sabotage or an act of compensation to fit into a small town. It probably doesn’t matter.
Jesus, too, is special, arguably the most special, but is not concerned with cultural norms or appearances. Throw the money lenders out of the temple. Let the leper and the clean, both, come unto me. It seems he literally filled (and I do mean jam-packed) his thirty-three years with study, service, ministry.
I don’t know what any of this has to do with me or with any of you, except to emphasize that we have limited time. I believe life is sweeter for its impermanence, but cyclically if not seasonally, it’s worth reflecting on and re-assessing what we actually want to do while we’re here. Raskolnikov warns against pride. John B. encourages action, both small and large-scale towards causes we feel passionate about. Christ exemplifies service.
May we pay attention, particularly in periods like today of waiting. May we all learn from the lives we encounter as well as the ones we live.