Meditation on a Mollusk

Do you ever notice, in a moment of self-examining vision, that you are very like a mollusk? Like those soft-bodied sea creatures, you spend your energies building yourself a snug, clean shell. You have crafted it with infinite care, for this shell is you, your self-made definition of yourself.

Only in those rare moments do you realize that the shell is not you, but a hiding place. You wrap yourself in it to keep the world out. You are split, and you have taken pains to keep the vulnerable part, the part even you aren’t sure of, behind that smooth barrier.

Maybe you would call this shell-crafting business hypocrisy, or insecurity, or independence, or individualistic creativity. But really it is the behavior of those who carry shame, who do not know forgiveness. People who don’t know who they are will work most resourcefully to construct their fortresses, where, like the fallen Adam and Eve, they can crawl in and hide.

Here is a beautiful passage from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, spoken by a man who has decided to confess a great sin in his past that he has been concealing. On days when I feel especially inclined to creep in behind my painted shell, I like to remember his warning about the fate of individualists:

For everyone now strives most of all to separate his person, wishing to experience the fullness of life within 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 the others, hides himself, and hides what he has, and ends by pushing himself away from people and pushing people away from himself. He accumulates wealth in solitude, thinking: how strong, how secure I am now; and does not see, madman as he is, that the more he accumulates, the more he sinks into suicidal impotence. 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. Everywhere now the human mind has begun laughably not to understand that a man’s true security lies not in his own solitary effort, but in the general wholeness of humanity. But there must needs come a term to this horrible isolation, and everyone will all at once realize how unnaturally they have separated themselves one from another. Such will be the spirit of the time, and they will be astonished that they sat in darkness for so long, and did not see the light. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the heavens . . . But until then we must keep hold of the banner, and every once in a while, if only individually, a man must suddenly set an example, and draw the soul from its isolation for an act of brotherly communion, though it be with the rank of holy fool” (Trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky).

This man, a few pages earlier, also declares Dostoevsky’s wonderful line, the theme of the whole novel:

“Truly each of us is guilty before everyone and for everyone, only people do not know it, and if they knew it, the world would at once become paradise.”


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