You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home. People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.
From Alyosha’s Speech at the Stone, Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov
Experience the Good
Alyosha’s Speech at the Stone
In one of the most piercing moments in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, a group of people, mostly boys, gather to mourn the passing of their young friend. Alyosha, who has taken the group under his wing, gives a long speech in which he helps the boys understand the meaning of what has happened to them and of what has happened to their friend.
This idea that one good memory is more powerful than years of misfortune, more important than years of study, struck me. Perhaps because our world has fallen into a pervasive cynicism, we find it difficult to believe such a sentiment.
Alyosha talks about a good memory of childhood, a good memory of home. This good memory can become sacred, preserved from the stains of the world. When you meditate on it, it can be the best education, something that leads you out of ignorance and into being more human.
If we compare these sentiments to the memories that Alyosha must have of his childhood and his home, the speech is even more striking.
Alyosha had a strange childhood. The book begins with a summary of the birth of each of the Brothers Karamazov. We hear that Alyosha’s earliest memory was of his mother’s fits of insanity. She died not long after, and Alyosha and Ivan were taken to live with a relative far from their father’s house.
Is this a childhood in which magic abounded with wonder, and love wove everything together? When moments of play and grace came so quickly upon each other that they were hard to distinguish? No. And yet, Alyosha has something that allows him to believe in the good of memories from childhood.
For us, that sense of the innocence and pure goodness of childhood is disappearing, too. We’re forcing our children to understand more and more the way of adults. Soon, there will be no childhood.
Alyosha’s later home-life was only a little better than when there was no family at all. He and his oldest brother Mitya live in the same town as their father. The middle brother Ivan comes to visit. The brothers are more-or-less reunited with their father, but the scenes that take place at the Karamazov residence are some of the strangest. And that’s before their father is murdered.
Surely this is not where Alyosha found his good memories. Is home an education in goodness for us? I hope you can answer, “Yes.” But that simplicity is also being attacked. Rather than a place where we come to desire truth, goodness, and beauty, home is warped into a teaching tool for lies, moral relativity, and ugliness. Rather than being the place where we live, it becomes the place where hope dies.
If this is true, how did Alyosha escape cynicism? Cynicism is the death of ideals. “Nobody’s perfect” becomes the mantra of permissiveness and hopelessness. If we don’t have the good memories that Alyosha speaks of, how can we believe in goodness? If we’ve never felt simple love, how will we believe in it? It seems too good to be true. This means that, even if those examples come to us later in life, we will be unable to accept them. We will always be looking for the flaw.
A friend of mine was talking to her coworker about her recent engagement. The coworker smiled. “That’s great! So are you at his place now?”
“We’re waiting,” my friend said.
The coworker’s eyes widened, and she shook her head. “If he’s not getting it from you, he’s getting it from someone else.”
Nothing would convince her that a good-looking man would have the self-control to be engaged and wait. She needed to warn my friend of her naivete and tried to help her save her marriage before it began. It made us sad thinking about it. This coworker really didn’t believe you could trust anyone to do the right thing, even out of powerful love.
Everybody agrees “nobody’s perfect”. But we should always remember that imperfection is not the same as viciousness. Rather, it might just mean that nobody’s “thoroughly done”. Heroes are those who work to become perfect even in the most difficult moments.
In many ways, Alyosha’s unfortunate life is not a model for happiness. But because he clung to the stories of saints and to the goodness of his heroes, he fought past the darkness and even was able to see goodness in it. From those small rays of light, he retained the beauty that allowed him to forgive those who had hurt him in the past and to speak as he did at the Stone.
What about the rest of us? What if there are no heroes to be found? I think the answer is stories. Even if we have no experience of goodness, or none that can be seen through the blackness and pain of life, stories of goodness and heroes can save us. They remind us of what’s possible. Even stories that happen long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away can inspire truth in us.
Some would say that stories of someone simply trying to do the right thing is “unrealistic”. We have a hard time pointing to it in “real life”, so we shouldn’t try to find it in stories. But good stories are about the way people could be, whether or not they ever are. Good stories, like the story of Alyosha, inspire us to change the way things are.