Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers, Book Two: An Unseemly Encounter, Chapter 4: Lady of Little Faith (Active Love)

“Active love? That’s the problem… You see, I love mankind so much that, believe me, I sometimes dream of giving up everything, giving up everything I have, leaving Lise and becoming a sister of mercy. I shut my eyes, I think and I dream, and in those moments I feel an insuperable strength within me. No wounds, no festering sores could hold any terrors for me. I would dress them and wash them with my own hands, I would nurse those poor sufferers, I am ready to kiss their sores…”

“That is more than enough, and it’s good that your mind is on such thoughts and no others. Who knows, one day you may succeed in accomplishing something good.”

“Yes, but how long could I endure such a life?” the lady continued passionately, almost in a frenzy. “That’s the most important question. That’s the most painful of all my questions!… If the patient whose sores you were tending should fail to respond with immediate gratitude, were on the contrary to start tormenting you with his caprices, neither valuing nor acknowledging your humanitarian services, start shouting at you, making rude demands, even complaining to the authorities (as often happens with the very sick) – what then? Would you continue to love, or not? And – imagine, to my disgust, I already know the answer: if there were anything that could immediately dampen my “active” love for humanity, it would be ingratitude. In other words, I work for payment, I demand instant payment, that is, to be praised and paid with love for my love. I am incapable of loving on any other terms!”

She was in the throes of the most fervent self-castigation, and, having finished, gave the starets a look full of challenge and resolve.

“That’s exactly what a doctor said to me once, a long time ago though,” observed the starets. “He was already elderly and unquestionably a wise man. He spoke just as frankly as you have done, but with humor, bitter humor. I love mankind, he said, but I’m surprised at myself; the more I love mankind in general, the less I love men in particular, that is, separately, as individuals. In my thoughts, he said to me, I’ve often had a passionate desire to serve humanity, and would perhaps have actually gone to the cross for mankind if I had ever been required to do so, and yet at the same time, as I well know from my personal experience, I’m incapable of enduring two days in the same room with any other person. The moment anybody comes close to me, his personality begins to overpower my self-esteem and intrude upon my freedom. Within one day I can end up hating the very best of men, some because they take too long over their dinner, others because they’ve caught a cold and keep blowing their noses. I become a misanthrope, he said, the minute I come into contact with people. And it has always been the same with me; the more I have detested people individually, the more passionately I have loved humanity in general.”

“But what can one do? What is one to do in such cases? Must one be driven to despair?”

“No, for it is enough that you should agonize over it. Do what you can and it will be rendered to your account. You have accomplished much already, for you have come to know your own self deeply and sincerely. If, however, you are speaking as frankly as you are doing now merely in order to be praised for your truthfulness, then of course you will never attain active love, you won’t progress beyond the contemplative stage, and your whole life will flash past like a shadow…”


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