BY T. M. Elofson & Nico Chera
I found myself lying awake late into the night a few weeks ago.
I glanced at my watch. The display read 12:36 AM. I groaned. I had to be up at six for work. And yet, for some reason, I just couldn’t settle down.
Across the room, I heard a sharp intake of breath as my roommate Nick rolled over.
“Bud,” I whispered, “You still up?”
After a moment, I heard him exhale slowly before responding.
“Something on your mind?” I asked.
“Yup,” I heard in the darkness, “Always.”
I rolled over to peer through the dark. I could make out that Nick had been looking in my direction from his bunk.
“Why don’t you tell me about it?”
After a moment, Nick began to unpack some of the thoughts that had simmered in his mind over the course of the last few days. He expressed frustrations, hopes, fears, and ambitions. He asked questions about life and made observations. Finally, he paused for a moment, as if he needed to scrape the back of his mind for the last of his concerns.
“You know, Tim,” he started, “I want to be a dad one day, but I know that no matter how good of a father I am, I’ll still fail in some way. I’ll give my kids insecurities or flaws no matter what I do, and I can’t avoid it. And, to be honest, that terrifies me. You know what I mean?”
“Sure. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t try.”
“Yeah, but the responsibility is way too heavy; I mean, it’s shaping someone for the rest of their lives, Tim. A human being! Messing up on something so precious…”
The room was silent for a while.
“Eh,” Nick continued. “So, that’s what I’m thinking about. What about you?”
“You know,” I started, “I think I’m thinking about our toaster.”
“Those are the real questions that keep us up at night: The toaster ones.”
You see, we have a love-hate relationship with our apartment’s toaster. It sits perched on the counter, its black matte and chrome glory tarnished by specks of rust. Some days, it works perfectly. On others, like the days when we happen to be running out the door, it is a devoted disciple of Murphy’s Law. Half of the toast (or waffle) ends up undercooked. The other borders on singed.
We have our theories about why this occurs, but despite our best efforts, it always seems to malfunction at the most inconvenient moments.
Honestly, it seems to me that we’re often like my apartment’s toaster – designed to do something important, but having a quirky tendency to misfire. And when it happens, we burn a lot more than just toast.
This summer, the rising juniors of the Honors College at our university will read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov – a story which follows three brothers as they wrestle with their father’s legacy. It’s become one of my (Tim’s) favorite reads over the course of my college career due to Dostoevsky’s skillful rendering of each of the brothers’ worldviews: The eldest son Dmitri is a sensualist who cares little for anything other than experience; Ivan, the second brother, an intellectual who cannot settle on a committed perspective other than cynicism; and Alyosha, a monk who seeks salvation.
I think the Brothers Karamazov has become one of my favorite pieces of literature because the three brothers can be used as stand ins for ways of living that we can fall into as people, that is, the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. I first realized this was the case when I read one of my peer’s papers trying to reconcile Dostoevsky with Plato’s notion of the tripartite soul.
And, while I disagree with Plato on some accounts, I think that humans do, in fact, have their identity rooted in a triune balance of the circles I previously mentioned.
These three circles emphasize that, within the human experience, there are realms in which certain items hold their being. A rock, for example, is fully physical. It has no spiritual or mental component. Likewise, a mathematical concept is based in the intellectual realm.
Finally, the last circle is that of the spiritual. This one is admittedly difficult to describe, and I suppose it is so for several possibilities. However, the reason I stick by is because, as Johannes de Silentio in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling states, the only thing you can say about faith is that, once you have it, you can’t really communicate it to others. Faith is concerned with a divine authority speaking into the lives of a community that may not abide by the same rules as the rest of the community outside of the faith. An example of this is someone trying to empirically prove that a guy rose from the dead and was also simultaneously divine and human. Outside the context of faith, it doesn’t communicate well. You might get a couple confused looks and raised eyebrows, though. I suppose that the closest we can come to talking about the spiritual circle is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer might describe as the sanctorum communio, the church which transcends time and space, i.e., the cloud of witnesses we hear about in Hebrews.
As humans, I believe that we are made to have our identity balanced between the three circles. When we overemphasize one or more sides, we become imbalanced and can fall into despair. According to Kierkegaard in another of his works, The Sickness unto Death, the human person is a project of becoming that is constantly trying to relate the elements of themselves that are finite and infinite. However, this task is impossible to do unless there is some form of divine agency which brings both together. This is because only the divine can reach the infinite without stretching itself too thin, neglecting the self that the divine had set out for the person with an equal footing in both dimensions.
For those who didn’t follow what I said, it boils down to the fact that in this respect, we’re kind of like the toaster that sits smugly in the kitchen. We overcook one side and undercook the others by ourselves. We get unbalanced because we spread ourselves too thin trying to be something we’re not. But, without a principle or narrative by which to develop, we have no way to figure out where that balance is or rein ourselves in to it should we strike upon it randomly.
Despair, then, is knowing, consciously or unconsciously, that we cannot generate meaning for ourselves ex nihilo – that is, in the void where a larger superstructure should, but being unable to move beyond it.
The reason why I love the Brothers Karamazov is tied to this fact, insofar that each of the characters start off as imbalanced and attempt to move towards or away from a more integrated understanding of themselves.
For those who choose to become more integrated, like Alyosha, their identity is rooted in the world around them while also mindful and guided by a metanarrative. But for those who choose otherwise, they find themselves increasingly disjointed, as seen by Ivan’s state at the end of the book being unable to land on a worldview more in line with that of Smerdyakov or that of Alyosha. We cannot exclusively ground ourselves in any one of the circles, but must move towards integration of the three through some means.
Perhaps because of that unresolved late-night talk about parenting and toasters, Tim and I (Nick) have since had a lot of conversations about who we are as people and what we should strive for. We’ve noticed that we tend to break our experiences down into three broad categories: physical, mental, and spiritual. At first, we treated those categories as if they were mutually exclusive, but the more we thought about it, the more we realized that the lines between them are really quite blurry. Then on top of that, we realized that we also had our own favorite categories and often judged the others through the lens of our choice.
For example, I have a heavy mental focus, so it’s easy for me to downplay the importance of taking care of my body. After all, the body is messy and “impure,” and it often gets in the way of rationality. My default tendency is also to dismiss people’s spiritual experiences as the result of emotional manipulation, confirmation bias, and/or the desire to see something that isn’t there. My default is to think the spiritual is an illusion. It has to be, my mind says, or else there are things which won’t fit into the categories and frameworks that the mental provides. I devalue the physical as well as the spiritual because they threaten my favorite way of understanding how the world works.
For other people whose focus is primarily spiritual, the realm of the physical is often thought of as a transient distraction, while the realm of the mental can be downright threatening. From my perspective, it often feels like spiritual people are afraid of asking hard questions because they are afraid that a meaningful answer may emerge which threatens their way of knowing the world. Perhaps spiritual people are sometimes afraid that the mental will boil down the unknowable and miraculous into something mundane. On the other hand, the physical, with its comforts and lusts and boundaries, is thought of as fleeting and therefore unimportant. Oftentimes spiritual people care a lot more about being ready for the world to come than about fixing the world’s problems here and now — it’s easy to use the spiritual reality as an escape from how awful the physical one can be.
Finally, overly physical people tend to avoid the spiritual and the mental both. Their default is to think that the most important thing is what we can see in front of us. Sometimes physical people think of the mental realm as unimportant because in its contemplation, it creates barriers to action–these kinds of people believe we need to think less and do more. Similarly, the spiritual can also be viewed as a distraction, except the other way around. Some pie-in-the-sky promise or ‘higher calling’ shouldn’t get in the way of what we need to do here and now. Physical people might also try to avoid the mental or spiritual by distracting themselves with more extreme pleasures or shinier possessions.
In reality, our experiences are usually some kind of combination of these categories, and thinking about them or experiencing them only in one of those ways prevents us from understanding more fully and being more whole as people. If you’re like me, some of these phrases I just used may even have struck you as odd. Calling a group of people ‘mental people’ kinda makes it sound like they’re insane, calling them ‘physical people’ makes it sound like they’re violent or sensual, and calling them ‘spiritual people’ makes them sound like monks or nuns or gurus.
It’s almost like we intuitively know that restricting ourselves like that hurts us, and yet we do it anyways. For however many reasons, we choose to prevent ourselves from becoming balanced. The reality is that we are physical, mental, and spiritual beings, and we absolutely need to respect and understand all three parts of ourselves if we want to be healthy. If we don’t, we risk becoming malfunctioning toasters.
The first step in fixing any problem is realizing that there is one. And if we’re being honest, we could all be more balanced people. The thing that’s hard for me (Nick) is the fact that acknowledging a problem doesn’t fix it. No matter what I do, I will, for the rest of my life, make mistakes that have damaging consequences for myself and others. Somehow it feels inevitable. Despite my gifts and talents, I often feel like the worst of toasters.
In the end, I (Tim) think it all comes back to toast. Well, bread and wine actually. Or body and blood. By itself, bread is just bread, and we humans are, in and of ourselves, flawed beings. But something happens to that bread, whether one believes it to be in the imagination or reality, when it becomes something more in context of a community oriented toward God, where grace can be encountered, even though it may seem absurd. And something happens in people, too, when grace can be shown, calling us toward something holier, even in spite of ourselves.
There’s a passage in Galatians 2 that is usually translated as “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Interestingly enough, it can also be translated as “I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
It’s so easy to compartmentalize ourselves and our Christianity into one of those sectors, sometimes leaving us wondering how we could possibly be the people that God wants us to become. There’s part of me that thinks that, as Kierkegaard waves from the sidelines, the reason why is because we aren’t seeing correctly. Becoming ourselves may be the human project, but we would be sorely mistaken to think that we are the architects of that project–it begins and ends with God.
While we are most ourselves when we land in a place shared by all three of these circles, this isn’t to say that when we are decentered the actions we do are irredeemable. Even when the toast burns, you can scrape off most of the char. That is to say, yes, we make decisions and slip up from time to time. We have our virtues and our vices alike. And yet, there’s the absurd reality that despite our sin, we seem to come out all the more polished in the end. After all, Christ carries us always, even when we break down.
He’s why we need toast for more than just food in a physical sense. Frederick Buechner once wrote that eucharist/communion is “…a game we play because he said to play it.” He concludes, saying, “Play that it makes a difference. Play that it makes sense. If it seems like a childish thing to do, do it in remembrance that you are a child.”
When we are invited to take all three circles as they are, and not as we should like them, it won’t always seem to make the most sense. Abraham offered up his son as a sacrifice with full trust in the strength of the absurd, expecting that somehow he would have Isaac restored to him; he believed this despite the fact that it flew in the face of reason, experience, and basic common sense.
And while we are not called to the same actions, it stands to reason and experience that no matter how burnt or undercooked the toast may be, there is always space for redemption.
I think the same can be said for us, as well.
Even at 12:36 in the morning.
Nico Chera is a rising senior attending Azusa Pacific University majoring in Computer Science and the Humanities within the Honors College. He enjoys toast – lightly buttered.