Active Love: The Key to the Good Life
A graduation speech featuring the wisdom of Fyodor Dostoevsky and C.S. Lewis
Dear students, traditionally, a teacher’s speech to a graduating class is called an exhortation. It is supposed to be the last lesson you receive at this school. As I pondered what I would say to you for this last lesson, it dawned on me that we have spent a lot of time over the years talking about how not to live. We have discussed Gatsby and that green light. We have explored Jim Burden and his missed opportunity with Antonia. And, of course, we have discussed Thoreau and his cabin by Walden Pond. In discussing these things we have explored the futility of the American Dream–we have learned that the endless pursuit of wealth, achievement or fame will not lead to a life of happiness. That these things do not lead to human flourishing. But it dawned on me that while we have spent ample time discussing how not to live, we have neglected the all-important question of how to live. Your exhortation is therefore devoted to the theme of the good life. Let’s begin.
Travel with me, if you will, into Fyodor Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov, a deeply philosophical work that must rank in the top ten literary works of all time. Our story takes place in rural 19th century Russia. Life is harsh and brutal. Suffering, loss, and deprivation are everywhere to be seen on a scale we can hardly imagine. The people live “lives of quiet desperation” (as Thoreau said).¹
But in a small village there is a monastery that is home to the elder Zosima, one of those rare humans who is able to inspire hope and provide solace for a multitude of others. Zosima is an old man, and the people flock to him for advice and encouragement–hoping to benefit from his wisdom before his time on earth comes to a close.
In book two of this great novel a certain lady–Madame Khokhlakov– approaches Zosima. She is weighed down with the cares of life, and exhausted from supporting her child who is sick and suffers from a disability. She is in crisis, and hopes Zosima can unburden her.
The woman approaches the elder and blurts out her story in a nervous fit. He listens to her patiently and then gives her the solution to all of her troubles–a solution she does not expect–active love. He tells her that the solution to all of her problems–the key to living a good life–is to love others.
The woman replies that she has often fantasized about a life consumed with such love. As she lays in bed at night she dreams of devoting herself to a life of selfless service, caring for the sick and the poor–washing their wounds. When she fantasizes about such a life she feels immense strength in herself–everything feels right in the world. If only she could take the plunge and devote herself to such a life!
But she can’t bring herself to do it. As she fantasizes about helping the poor, about washing the plague-ridden sores that cover their bodies, she imagines someone being ungrateful for her sacrifice. What if she helped someone and they did not immediately repay her selfless service with complete and utter thankfulness? What if someone took her acts of service for granted? This thought derails her–she can’t embark on this life of love-driven service because she can’t stand this imagined ingratitude.
Of course, this reveals that she is not really motivated by love–as the poet said, true love “does not keep a record of wrongs,” and that is exactly what this lady is doing, even before the fact!²
So what really holds this woman back from a life of active love? C.S. Lewis can help us answer this question–there is one vice that holds us back from sacrificial love–a vice I have struggled with mightily in my own life. Lewis says:
“There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people…ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. I have heard people admit that they are bad tempered, or that they cannot keep their heads about girls or drink, or even that they are cowards. I do not think I have ever heard anyone …accuse himself of this vice. And at the same time I have very seldom met anyone…who showed the slightest mercy to it in others. There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others. The vice I am talking of is Pride… and the virtue opposite to it… is called Humility.”³
Madame Khokhlakov is derailed from a life of active love by her pride. She just can’t imagine giving her life away in selfless love to others, only to have someone disrespect her sacrifice. Because of this pride she turns away from her dream. Zosmina recognizes this almost immediately. He tells her
“I am sorry that I cannot say anything more comforting, for active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one’s life, provided it does not take long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is a labor and perseverance.”⁴
“Active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams.” I told you at the beginning that I was going to tell you how to live a good life. This is the key–a life of active love. Not a life of love in dreams. Students, something magical happens when we devote our lives to loving others in an unselfish way…in a way that expects nothing in return. Paradoxically, pouring ourselves out for others fills us with joy, peace, and that feeling of wholeness we are all yearning for. Money will not do this for you. Achievement will not do this for you. Fame will not do this for you. Love alone (unhampered by pride) is the key to human flourishing and happiness.
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience (New York: Penguin, 2017), 7.
- 1 Corinthians 13:5b.
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 1980), 121.
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 58.