In New England, we have often been accursed by other parts of the country as liberal elites, best known for our stiffness and detachment. In short, we’re told we’re not very friendly – particularly by Midwest or Southern standards.
Unfortunately, there is some truth to this.
Here in Boston, for example, the notion of ”community” is very distant. Maybe it’s the pace, the cost of living (which quickens the pace), the crime (real and imagined), the elaborate locks on our doors, etc. But here, “neighborliness” does not rank high on our agendas. It’s not that we’re bad people, we’re just too busy to be friendly. Like many urban centers we hurry to work, hurry home, and avoid meaningful eye contact at all costs. If you live here long enough, this cocoon-like existence begins to feel “normal.”
Then it snows two feet, as it did this week, and everything changes. The ice cracks.
The schools and workplaces close and the streets fill with friendly, surprisingly happy shovelers. We dig our cars out together, walk our dogs unleashed, smile at everyone we meet, and for a few hours forget we don’t know each other. It is the strangest thing, and I have seen it many times over the years. After snowstorms, World Series wins, 9/11 and the Marathon bombings. Regardless of how distant we are as neighbors, certain shared events bind us together just for a moment.
And this sense of togetherness, of community, is beautiful. It must be what God had in mind for us, and a hint of heaven.
It got me thinking of the increased sense of isolation many of us feel, despite all the technology designed to make us more social. In my own life it has surely made my relationships more efficient, but not closer. Personally, I’ve come to like my cocoon, or at least depend on it. But increasingly I realize it is probably killing me. I continue to find compelling evidence that anything taking us away from being the people God made us to be – and he made us to be in loving, forgiving, authentic relationships with each other, is unhealthy.
For many years I have been the center of my own little universe and it has paid certain dividends. I have everything I ever wanted, but in the end it has left me wanting. Clearly, it is time to dream new dreams. The business titans I grew up admiring in the pages of Forbes, Business Week and The Wall Street Journal, despite their extraordinary talents and financial accomplishments, do little for me. The people with nothing material, the holy ones, fascinate and excite me.
As the snow fell this week and with nowhere to go, I turned to Dostoyevsky to see if he had any answers. It turns out he knew of the box we sometimes make for ourselves, and more importantly, how to get out.
In The Brothers Karamazov, the Elder Zosima, on his deathbed, is recalling a story from his youth, and opines on the plight of modern man (circa Russia 1880). He makes a strong case for heaven on earth, and how we create it:
For all men in our age are separated into units, each seeks seclusion in his own hole, each withdraws from the others, hides himself, and hides what he has, and ends by pushing himself away from people and pushing people away from himself. He accumulates wealth in solitude, thinking: how strong, how secure I am now; and does not see, madman as he is, that the more he accumulates, the more he sinks into suicidal impotence.
For he is accustomed to relying only on himself, he has separated his unit for the whole, he has accustomed his soul to not believing in people’s help, in people or mankind, and now only trembles lest his money and his acquired privileges perish.
Everywhere now the human mind has begun laughably not to understand that a man’s true security lies not in his own solitary effort, but in the general wholeness of humanity. But there must needs come a term to this horrible isolation, and everyone will all at once realize how unnaturally they have separated themselves from one another.
Such will be the spirit of the time, and they will be astonished that they sat in darkness for so long, and did not see the light. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the heavens… But until then we must keep hold of the banner, and every once in awhile, if only individually, a man must set an example, and draw the soul from its isolation for an act of brotherly communion, though it be with the rank of holy fool. So that the great thought does not die.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The Brothers Karamazov“ translated from Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, pgs. 303-304
For the holy ones, or “holy fools” in Russian Orthodox tradition, the big idea is simple. Communion, and community, are not just for snowstorms and tragedies. They are the key to a rich, considered life.
Here’s to becoming a “holy fool.” Perhaps Caeli Rose, the chocolate Lab in the video below has the right attitude?
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