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Youthful Cynicism and Dostoevsky’s Case for Hope

Why do we choose to believe in a framework where suffering and violence are the most fundamental reality of the world? How can pain and grief coexist with the small joys that we experience daily?

We young people are jaded. Our memes and social media posts reflect our dark and sarcastic sense of humor. We wear the fact that we are “deconstructing” as a badge of pride. We are leaving the religion of our youth in droves. We are becoming awakened politically to the injustice occurring in our institutions. We are learning of the plight of the poor and the victimized, who have been categorically neglected by society. Living amid endless headlines about COVID crises, exorbitant student loan debt, sexual abuse scandals, and failure on the part of political leaders, we are confronted with the question: why should we hope?

In an act of solidarity with victims of all kinds, we adopt the posture of despair. It seems that our only option is to choose to believe that the world is not fundamentally good. We feel that to have hope in a world teeming with oppression and suffering would be to transgress against our neighbors and their pain. Life, in some sense, has become commiseration, as we seek camaraderie with others who have recognized the evils of our world. And so, we reorient our speech and attitudes toward a belief in an unfriendly universe.

However, to choose despair is to go against a very deeply buried intuition about the way the universe is ordered. We are still moved by sunsets. We are struck by children’s sense of wonder. We still believe in the transcendence of love when we go to wedding ceremonies, and we still find joy in shared laughter with our loved ones. We feel warm inside when the stranger opens the door for us, or when a friend unexpectedly pays for our meal. We have an innate understanding that the world is good. We do not want misery, and we want more than just commiseration. We find joy in communion with others and want to feel as though we have a place in the universe.

So why do we choose to believe in a framework where suffering and violence seem to be the world’s most fundamental realities? How can pain and suffering coexist with these small joys that we experience daily?

 

Learning from Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky’s answer to the second question is based on his conviction that hope is an essential part of the human spirit. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov curses God to his brother, Alyosha, for the murder of innocent children. He writes a short story—“The Grand Inquisitor”—spurning God for enslaving humans in a world of suffering by making them dependent on faith. Nonetheless, Ivan declares he will always love life’s small beauties, although it defies his own intellect:

I have a longing for life, and I go on living in spite of logic. Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky, I love some people, whom one loves you know sometimes without knowing why. I love some great deeds done by men, though I’ve long ceased perhaps to have faith in them, yet from old habit one’s heart prizes them.

Despite the violence and heartache he witnesses in the world, he yet experiences—perhaps irrationally—a love of sticky little leaves because he innately believes them to be good. Ivan cannot extinguish the hope he has from the objects the world presents to him, a small but potent joy in the deepest core of his being.

Humans thus believe in bringing about a better world, despite rationality or external circumstances. In the wake of the somber aftermath of capitol riots and stark political polarization that divide our society, Amanda Gorman’s poem was still met with resounding approbation at President Biden’s inauguration. She declared, “For there is always light, / if only we’re brave enough to see it / if only we’re brave enough to be it.” The very fact that this desire to see light exists proves that darkness has not overcome our world entirely. And we not only wish to hope, but we do hope. The human spirit holds belief in a better day as its impetus for living. It is natural for us to want to believe in the goodness of the world because it makes us feel joy.

 

Why then do we choose to become cynics? Why do we want to succumb to a banal life, to what T. S. Eliot terms “the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium, / The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure”? Why is it so hard for us to want to admit our belief in the good? Perhaps, for some, it comes from well-intentioned empathy; we feel we cannot believe in goodness when the others have experienced tragedy from the world’s cruelties. For others, it stems from a fear of vulnerability, of opening ourselves up to getting hurt and being disappointed when we experience suffering.

Ivan believes the most intellectually honest option is to choose rebellion against an unjust and chaotic cosmos. He chooses to “respectfully return [God] the [entrance] ticket” because he resides in a world in which the immeasurable suffering of innocent people seems to be left unaddressed by any higher being. The consolation that hope seems to offer is instead mere sentimentality that masks the disordered state of reality. However, when he leaves Alyosha after expressing his intellectual theodicy, he feels depressed and cannot understand why. While Ivan may perhaps admirably believe in cosmic injustice, he finds himself living within the confines of his misery and loathing. He shutters himself from any goodness the world might offer, leaving him isolated from his neighbors and detached from the reality he lives in.

Submitting to Suffering with Hope

Dostoevsky offers an alternative reaction to the terrors of our world: to choose to suffer with hope. Upon the death of Alyosha’s beloved spiritual director—a Russian monk named Fr. Zossima—Alyosha enters death’s stark reality and is distraught at the fact that the body has become putrid so quickly. Nonetheless, rather than being filled with despair, Alyosha bows down and prays before the body. This act of hope allows him to “[regain] in his soul a sense of the wholeness of things.” As Alyosha falls in and out of sleep, he dreams of the gospel account of the wedding feast at Cana, awakening his soul to life. He suddenly envisions the miracle of Cana in Fr. Zossima’s own cell: he sees the monk alive with shining eyes, smiling as he invites Alyosha to be a guest with him at the wedding feast. In response to this vision,

Alyosha stood, gazed, and suddenly threw himself down on the earth. He did not know why he embraced it. He could not have told why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss it all. But he kissed it weeping, sobbing and watering it with his tears, and vowed passionately to love it, to love it for ever and ever.

Alyosha bows down to the earth and is enraptured with a sudden realization of the blessedness of the world. His intellectual humility stands in contrast to Ivan’s skepticism: having closed himself off to a grand cosmic narrative, Ivan is unable to play a role in remedying suffering. Alyosha, on the other hand, becomes one with the universe through submission to the mystery of suffering. It is his entrance into the depth of the calamity of the human condition through which he is able to see his own role in the universe and the world’s orientation toward goodness. At the depth of affliction, his hope yet persists.

 

The choice to suffer with Fr. Zossima—unlike the acts of commiseration or rebellion—is redemptive. Answering Alyosha’s anxiety about the cruelty of the world, Fr. Zossima had told him before his death to take on the guilt of humankind by considering himself responsible for all its sins and sufferings. As a result, following his vision of Fr. Zossima’s resurrected body, Alyosha “longed to forgive everyone and for everything, and to beg forgiveness. Oh, not for himself, but for all men, for all and for everything.” Alyosha sees how his own ill actions have contributed to the disorder of the world, and he promises thenceforth to produce only love. He recognizes that he and all of humanity have acted as co-conspirators in the evils of the world, but that renewal and goodness are yet possible. Even more, this submission and cooperation with Fr. Zossima’s death brings about the vision of his resurrected life. Suffering allows Alyosha to commune with Fr. Zossima and the forces of good in the universe.

Hope, then, is the truest act of rebellion against the darkness of the world. It entails the acceptance of tragedy’s coexistence with goodness because  suffering is redemptive and goodness already has the victory. As we make small acts of hope in the face of calamity and acknowledge the ills that we each have contributed to, we recognize our own role in the cosmic order. Giving us the courage to take on our neighbor’s suffering, hope allows us to reside in a world that is super-charged with meaning. It positions us to receive the generosity of the world and act as co-creators to engender more joy and love.

In the core of our being, we twenty-somethings have not given up on idealism, even in our acknowledgment of the very dismal state of the world. As long as we hope, as long as we have visions for a better, peaceful society, we indeed believe in the good. We are faced with two choices: the choice to be cynical or the choice to believe in a world that is fundamentally good. The former leaves us with nothing; the latter offers us everything.

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