“There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.”
Elder Zosima, The Brothers Karamazov
I was finishing my undergrad when I read The Brothers Karamazov for the first time and came across Dostoevsky’s idea of “corporate guilt”. It disturbed me at the time, mostly because it made perfectly good sense, yet I had never heard it mentioned before. I brought it up in conversation with some friends and was surprised to find how passionately they rejected this idea. “You can’t be responsible for other people’s choices; everyone is only responsible for their own actions, not the actions of others.”
The seed of this idea lay dormant in my heart until I recently began re-reading The Brothers K. I think I understand better now why many would have a negative reaction to the assertion that we are all responsible for all of the sins that people commit. We live in a society that idolizes the principles of autonomy, self-reliance, and individualism, so we are encouraged to believe that humans are separate, self-sufficient beings who can live in a relational void where our actions are seen to be (incredibly) the result of our own creation and genius. In a word, we fail to understand the power of imitation.
One of the characters in The Brothers K. puts it this way:
“…everyone now strives most of all to separate himself, and yet what comes of all his efforts is not the fullness of life but full suicide, for instead of the fullness of self-definition, they fall into complete isolation. For all men in our age are separated into units, each seeks seclusion in his own hole, each withdraws from others, hides himself, and hides what he has, and ends by pushing himself away from people and pushing people away from himself…for he is accustomed to relying only on himself, he has separated his unit from the whole, he has accustomed his soul to not believing in people’s help, in people or in mankind, and now only trembles lest his money and his acquired privileges perish.”
As much as we have been conditioned to believe otherwise, our actions have consequences that affect other people in ways that we can’t really begin to imagine. Mankind is not a group of individual units separate from one other; mankind is more like a lake–making a movement on one side has an effect, however imperceptible, on the body as a whole. There is no action any of us takes that does not resonate forth into the rest of the world, for the rest of history.
I’ve just finished reading (again) No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. It’s a tough book to read–pretty dark at times–but there is much truth contained in it, and McCarthy is a brilliant writer. I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, but the book tells the tale of a man who stumbles across a drug deal gone wrong and decides to take a bag full of money and make a run for it. The book does an excellent job of showing the way one man’s choice can spark a chain of consequences that reach far beyond the supposed boundaries of the original choice. No man is an island, and the choices we make are always the result of the influence of other people in our lives, and our choices in turn always effect and change the people around us, who subtly effect and change the people in their lives, and so on. This doesn’t negate the reality of personal responsibility, but rather balances the two in a paradox.
Acknowledging that I am “guilty on behalf of all and for all,” changes how I look at people and, more importantly, how I treat them. I see it all too clearly with my children: their sins are simply imitations of my own, and I know for certain that I have played my part and instilling those evils into their souls. May God have mercy on every parent. The same is true in my students at school: the sins of the students reflect the sins of their teacher. May God have mercy on every teacher. How can I be angry or impatient with those who sin against me when I myself am responsible for their sin in the first place? A better response than getting angry when wronged would be to ask forgiveness from the person who wronged you–“Forgive me, brother, for I know that my sins in this life have hurt you and thereby caused you to sin as well.”
This is a radical kind of love, a turn-the-other-cheek kind of love. It is death to take no offense when offended. But this is precisely what we are called to–loving others and considering them better than ourselves. It is not a path for those who wish to avoid suffering.