Monday Over Coffee: "From the Inside"

Published May 20, 2024 by Greg Funderburk

Born in 1828 in Russia, Leo Tolstoy’s earliest teachers called him “unable and unwilling to learn.” As a teenager, he gambled, drank, caroused, and generally mis-spent his youth until, becoming a soldier in the  Crimean War, he wrote out a series of life-long rules for himself. The first one went like this: “Carry out all you have resolved to do.” Next to it, he then penned, “I haven’t carried out this rule.” After the war, Tolstoy married. He and his wife Sophia had thirteen children. Tolstoy then began to write. And write. And write. War and Peace was published in 1867. Anna Karenina in 1878.

Tolstoy considered the novel not merely entertainment but a way to nurture and reform the human soul. He believed that reading fictional stories of the sort he wrote could serve as a kind of supplement to one’s faith, generating reserves of kindness, mercy, and morality with which to live a more enriching life. Aiming at this lofty goal, Tolstoy wrote from a third-person omniscient perspective—a God-like perch—hovering over the events of his plotlines from above, then swooping down, entering deeply into the minds and hearts of the vast array of characters he created, exploring their motivations, their vices, their virtues, setting out not just their weaknesses and flaws but how and why they arose. Even as his characters make poor decisions—because we’ve been inside each of their minds and hearts—we understand why they’ve done what they’ve done. Being on the inside stirs a deep sympathy and a tragic empathy for his often ill-fated characters rather than a revulsion. The overall effect of reading Tolstoy is to experience, as he intended, an expansion of your humanity by way of gaining a more comprehensive understanding of our shared psychology.

This is certainly the case with Anna Karenina. Dense, brilliant, it’s slow going, yet it’s relentlessly rewarding for these very reasons. Chapter by chapter, Tolstoy shifts, sometimes dances, from inside one character’s psyche to the next. Minds are plumbed. Hearts are mined. Motivations are explored. The cast of characters is vast, but Tolstoy looks deeply inside each one, recording their interior thoughts, their hidden concerns, their fears, their vulnerabilities, their losses, their back-stories, drawing intensely-detailed psychological portraits of each one as they come and go throughout the pages of his sprawling novel. Examined from the inside, even his most unappealing characters don’t seem so exceptionally awful but rather exemplify the normal mix of good and bad most of us have within us. Inside many of his characters—the farmer Constantin Levin for instance—a vast and profound philosophical drama is unfolding, which the rest of the characters don’t see or even suspect.

As the plot unfolds, Tolstoy keeps us mostly on his protagonist Anna’s side as we come to understand what is inside her head even as she is proceeding headlong down a destructive road that will surely bring ruin to her life. Tolstoy portrays her not so much as guilty but as deserving of thoughtful sympathy. Her husband, Karenin, proud and concerned with appearances, gives off an air of hypocrisy, yet when we enter into his inner life, we come to deeply empathize with him even more. He’s not what we expected from the outside at all.

What Tolstoy, with his towering skill, is doing page by page is encouraging us to embrace the idea that if we could only more accurately come to view the lives of others from the inside, we might more naturally treat each other with more grace, more mercy, more kindness, more respect, or at least more understanding. We are also more apt to forgive one another for the weaknesses we all, in some sense, share.

Might it be possible to live more like Tolstoy wrote? To swiftly, seamlessly, and intentionally camp and decamp, as we’re able, inside the minds and hearts of one another? To relentlessly seek a deeper knowledge of each other’s back-stories with curiosity and patience or simply imagine them in a more empathetic light? Maybe we’d be apt to be more kind or at least more understanding of each other if we did. Perhaps it would expand our humanity in a decisive way to consider the possibility that there’s a profound philosophical drama unfolding inside everyone we encounter—one we might not suspect? This is all to say, I feel certain we’d all come to discover untold reserves of mercy and grace with which to live more enriched lives if, even with those we might find unappealing, we simply took a moment to consider them from the inside.

God—I resolve to consider others from the inside, as far as I am able. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk