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Reckoning with the Complexities of Humankind

June 1, 2020


“History is concrete and complex; everything in it is individual and entangled.”
“What is said to be true must relate to something experienced and must state that experience accurately.”
—Jacques Barzun

Recently, in reading Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece Anna Karenina, I found myself mesmerized. Tolstoy had crafted a scene in which I gained a glimpse into the darkness of a despairing mind. Anna Karenina, the novel’s namesake, is a beautiful socialite living in nineteenth-century Russia. She is thoughtful, sophisticated, and prepossessing. But she is also human. Estranged from her son, isolated from “society,” and unsure of the faithfulness of her lover, Count Vronsky, Anna is troubled by myriad uncertainties. And while Vronsky and her doting servants can admire her gathered poise and soft confidence, hidden from view Anna is deeply unsettled. Anna can “get inside her own head.” She jumps to conclusions and has frets that snowball. She worries that her anxieties are true and then worries that though her anxieties are not true, they are creating a troubling reality that didn’t exist before her worrying began. She can be rational and irrational in ever-shifting measures. She resolves to change and then fails to change. Her short bouts of petulance and dark imaginings feed on themselves as she spends more time alone thinking and worrying, worrying and thinking. Anna can, at once, be lost in an abyss of selfishness and despair, and then find her clouded mood unexpectedly penetrated by a bright shaft of lucid hope. But then her mood clouds over again. However, to the outside world, the sweeping drama of her emotional tumult is nearly imperceptible. It manifests only as a momentarily furrowed brow or a grimace that quickly runs away from her face. Is Anna deranged? Is she unstable? No, quite the contrary. She is human.

In writing Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy has found a way into our heads. In an uncanny fashion, he nails our inconsistencies and irrationalities, our hopes to straighten out and our penchant for backsliding. He shines a bright light on our own dark moral corners and flawed thinking. He shows how we delude ourselves and pretend otherwise. Tolstoy’s characters embody Jonathan Swift’s insight that men are not rational animals, but are instead beings capable of reason. Tolstoy doesn’t write on the theory of man; he writes on man. Anna Karenina’s character is not boxy or formulaic. She is not two-dimensional or simply explained. Nor is she unnecessarily or gratuitously complex. Instead, her life is familiar and honest in its messiness. In reading Anna Karenina, we can’t help but hold our breath as she stumbles into an avoidable mistake. And we can’t avoid wincing as she endures incomparable pain. Why? Because, when we are immersed in her story, you are Anna. And so am I.

Gary Saul Morson, the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities at  Northwestern, once observed,

There is an obvious proof that the great novelists knew more about human psychology than any social scientist who ever lived. If psychologists, sociologists, or economists understood people as well as George Eliot or Tolstoy did, they could create portraits of people as believable as Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke or Anna Karenina. But no social scientist has ever come close.

That is why Leo Tolstoy, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Charles Dickens are so captivating. And so difficult. They deal in nuance and subtlety. They trade in the unexpected and unpredictable. These novelists/playwrights reveal people as they are, and not necessarily as we would like them to be. To them, their characters are not constructs of sterile theory, but beings of flesh and blood. Their figures are, at once, dignified and fallen, honorable and dastardly, truth-tellers and liars, heroes and villains. Their virtues shift. Their vices oscillate. On any given day, Anna Karenina, Hamlet, or Mr. Darcy may be admirable, deplorable, or both. They are truly, frustratingly, and wonderfully complex. But that’s the trouble. And it is why many avoid reading the works of these literary masters.

Complexity is work. It is hard to get our heads around. We want to swiftly get to the crux of the nature of a person. A new boss, an emerging friend, a love interest, or a next-door neighbor can all be consequential in our lives. The sooner we understand who they are, it seems, the better. The same is true for ideas and events. How quickly do we read a newspaper article, listen to a podcast, or watch the evening news before we have come to our conclusion and moved on to the next thing? Does this mean that we have a full and nuanced understanding of the person, idea, or event in question? Of course not. But it means that we know enough to our satisfaction. And with that, we will get by.

But therein lies the danger. The trouble with this approach is that we must use care not to become lazy. To be sure, to navigate our lives with passable understanding, we all have to take shortcuts. But shortcuts on important matters may do us or others a great disservice. The shortcut of oversimplification arrives at easy absolutes by sanitizing people and circumstances of “pesky details” and “inconvenient variables”. The shortcut of complexification (great word, right?) unthinkingly renders something more complicated than it truly is. It loses sight of the human at the expense of a crusading pedantry and modish theory. Neither shortcut brings us closer to the truth. Clearly, none of us has the time to do a deep dive on everything. To think things through to a complete if not exhaustive end can be, well, exhausting. But when it comes to judging people or events or ideas that are consequential in our lives, an earnest humility should guide us to remember it is worth a little extra effort to understand a little more or else we should render our best judgment while remaining open to reform.

And so we return to Anna. Certainly, Anna Karenina is a complex figure. But hers is a beautiful form of complexity. Oversimplifying with stereotypes would cheapen her. Complexifying with calculation would de-humanize her. What she needs—in fact, what we all need—is to be loved enough in her limitless human-ness that we would deign to “understand” her in her brokenness and in her joy, in her caprice and in her steadiness.

If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. Should we bother with the unfathomable (if not maddening and inconvenient) person, idea, or event before us? Is it worth all of the trouble? Of course it is. Because people, ideas, and events matter. This is what Christ means by loving your neighbor as yourself. After all, Christ bothered with the maddening, inconvenient, unfathomable person that is you and me.

In the end, we too are like Anna Karenina. But plunged in darkness, Christ brings us light. Swept up in tumult, Christ brings us peace. Crushed in brokenness, Christ makes us whole. Mired in complexity, Christ gives us clarity.