By Melissa D. Johnston

Family lore has it that on a slow, winding and climbing trip home through the Appalachian mountains my dad looked into the rear view mirror of his golden Grand Prix and saw his less-than-a-year-old daughter crying.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

I pointed. “Bunny dead.” On the side of the road, a rabbit lay, half-crushed, entrails still pulpy, red, and fresh.

My dad never forgot my face that day.

And somehow I’ve never been able to let go of that pointing finger. The adult version of the finger I call “Ivan,” named after Ivan Karamazov, the character in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s book The Brothers Karamazov, who feels the suffering of the world so keenly, especially the suffering of the innocent, little ones—the children—that he rejects God completely.

The “Ivan” finger nudges the eyes to take a hard look at what theologian Wendy Farley calls “radical suffering” and philosopher Simone Weil calls affliction. Suffering that is so horrendous that, as Weil says, at “the very best, he who is branded by affliction will keep only half his soul.” Torture, brutal rape and murder, sexual and physical abuse, unspeakable war crimes—done to innocent people, and most shockingly, perhaps, to children—are only some manifestations of affliction.

One of the cruelest blows of affliction is to alienate the sufferer from others. Reaching out for help or companionship, or even wanting such, may be next to impossible after great trauma. On the flip side, the ability for others to be present for someone in great pain can be emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting.

When Ivan gives his litany of human cruelty and affliction as reasons for rejecting God, his brother and conversation partner, Alyosha, listens attentively but has no answer—not one that can be can put into words. What he does offer, however, to both Ivan and to others throughout the book, is his receptive presence.

In “School Studies,” Simone Weil recounts the first legend of the Grail. The person who asks the guardian of the grail, “a king three-quarters paralyzed by the most painful wound,  ‘What are you going through?’” is rewarded with the vessel. For Weil, only one who practices attention, one who empties her or himself in order to receive the other, “just as he is, in all his truth,” can truly ask that question. For those who are afflicted, this act is life-giving, restoring connection with others.

Alyosha, unlike Ivan, immerses himself into the lives around him. He is present, which creates a charismatic energy that draws a disparate group of boys, including one who is dying, into a loving community. Ivan keeps an intellectual distance from in-the-flesh suffering. However, I need Ivan. Just as I need Alyosha. Without Ivan, my Aloysha tends to become naïve and blind to the plight of others. But without Alyosha, I become paralyzed with despair, unable to truly be present for others.

It takes both brothers to give me hope for change in the world.


Creative Commons: Darren Tunnicliff, …Hope…, 2009

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  1. Jay McDaniel

    This is such a beautifully sensitive post, and wise, too. Thank you, Melissa. You know Whitehead’s notion of contrast? It’s the idea that part of our calling in life, part of what makes life satisfying, is that we can weave seeming opposites into contrasts in which they are held together. Some contrasts seem to resolve tensions, as perhaps suggested in the yin-yang diagram. But some carry the tensions with them, which are felt as existential contradictions. For me, your post points us toward this second kind: contrasts with conflict. This is an antidote to the overly rational mind who thinks we cannot really embrace contradictions. I think you point us toward just that embrace, with help from the Karamazov brothers. I don’t know if this contrast will change the world, but I think it changes us, and it sure helps those who suffer to have than non-anxious, non-answer-giving, non-resolution obsessed, presence. Holy communion.

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