Quotes & Commentary #21: Dostoyevsky

Quotes & Commentary #21: Dostoyevsky

In fact, I believe the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped.

—Fyodor Dostoyevsky

As part of my job as a professional American (being an English teacher in Spain is little more than being a professional American), I had to give a presentation on thanksgiving for my class.

Thanksgiving is really the quintessential American holiday. We watch American football—our defining sport, which involves taking land by force. We watch the Macy’s Parade—which consists of giant cartoons floating above our heads, a combination of our love of pop culture and excessive size. And finally we eat, and eat and eat. And then, the next day, we shop. No series of activities could more perfectly encapsulate the American identity.

The most conspicuous absence from this list of activities is being thankful. Theoretically, at least, we all know we’re supposed to be thankful; but we have no specific ritual of thanksgiving. In my classes, I tried to get my students to say one thing they’re thankful for. Some were very forthcoming, but most were extremely shy.

Why are people shy about thanking others? Being thankful is difficult because it requires vulnerability. To thank someone sincerely is to acknowledge a debt—not just a material but an emotional debt—a debt that perhaps cannot be repaid. To seriously communicate this gratitude requires that you let down your guard, something easier said than done.

For whatever reason, most of us go through life pretending that we are self-sufficient. We don’t like to think we owe anything to anybody. Instead, like Satan in Paradise Lost, we like to pretend that we are self-generated, self-sufficient, self-caused:

“I disdained subjection, and thought one step higher / Would set me highest, and in a moment quit / The debt immense of endless gratitude, / So burdensome still paying, still to owe; / Forgetful what from him I still received.”

Ingratitude is Satan’s principal sin. He does not want to live a life of gratitude, constantly and eternally singing a hosanna to God. He doesn’t want to acknowledge that he owes anything to anybody, not even the creator of the universe.

It must be admitted that owing a debt can be humiliating and crushing. Here I am reminded of the potlatch, a ritualized form of combat practiced by the natives of the Northwest Coast of Canada. During a potlatch, the headmen from competing groups would do symbolic battle by giving each other ostentatious gifts. The loser would be the man who received more than he could reciprocate.

This sounds bizarre, but consider: have you ever received a gift from somebody you’re not very fond of? I have, and I know that receiving gifts can engender bitterness as well as gratefulness. Being the recipient of a gift puts you under the giver’s power; and few people are grateful to be under somebody else’s power.

But is this necessarily true? Is gift giving necessarily aggressive? John Milton’s Satan goes on to say “And [I] understood not that a grateful mind / By owing owes not, but still pays, at once / Indebted and discharged.”

Here Satan realizes what many people forget. Being thankful is not a sign of weakness—although often appears so to the egotistical mind—but a sign of strength. It is a sign of strength because it requires sincerity, and being sincere always involved being vulnerable, letting your guard down. Being grateful means dispensing with the illusion that you’re self-caused and self-sufficient, and revealing your weaknesses to the world. Nothing requires more strength than showing weakness.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to personally thank the universe and everyone in it. I’m luckier than I could ever put into words.

Quotes & Commentary #4: Dostoyevsky

Quotes & Commentary #4: Dostoyevsky

“Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel!”

—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

This short exclamation is one of my favorite quotes of Dostoyevsky, and I find myself saying it under my breath all the time. The quote is arresting because it condemns as bad something we normally think of as good: human adaptability.

This adaptability—and adaptability is closely tied with intelligence—is what has allowed us conquer nearly every corner of the world. We can fashion clothes for cold climates, accustom ourselves to new technologies, and retain a childlike ability to learn new things throughout our lives.

Like anything, however, adaptability has a darker side. I know this from my own experience. When you live in New York—or Madrid, for that matter—you quickly grow used to passing homeless people on the street. At first, something inside of you rebels against this state of affairs. It is unconscionable that we can live such a heartless society, where the poor are simply left behind.

But then your outrage turns into selfishness when you are accosted for money; and your heart hardens when you pass them day after day. Soon the homeless have been completely dehumanized in your eyes, and the situation is regarded as normal. 

I’m not proud of admitting that this happens to me, but it does. I simply get used to it. I can’t maintain outrage or compassion forever. The feelings dissipate, and numbness comes creeping in.

This is just an illustration. People have gotten used to more horrible things than homelessness. One need only read about some of the darker periods of history to see how far this process can go. Injustice and cruelty, if practiced regularly, become expected, customary, unremarkable. Humans aren’t always scoundrels, but too often are.