People are strange creatures, I've learned. Most of our existence is characterized by routine but still, we persist in measuring our lives by "significant" events; those huge, dramatic, episodes where people demonstrate their ability to navigate through pain and suffering.
But some would argue that it is the ordinary day-to-day living that actually defines who we are, all that makes a life feel meaningful or feel meaningless.
What defines a marriage, for example? Is it the anniversaries and the Christmases or is it about the affection, care, and love we give our partners everyday?
I read an article written by Joseph Epstein, formerly the editor of The American Scholar titled "The Symphony of a Lifetime". He cited Gary Saul Morson, a teacher of Russian literature at Northwestern University, who showed how Tolstoy believed in the prosaic life and Dostoyevsky in the dramatic.
In his article he said:
Things happen to Tolstoy’s characters — they go to war, have vastly disruptive love affairs, suffer unexpected deaths — but they are most interesting in their ordinariness: a strong case in point is Natasha’s family, the Rostovs, in War and Peace. Her brother and father and mother, with their rich but normal passions, appetites and family loves, are people who gain moral stature through an endless series of small acts.So what then constitutes a happy life? Tolstoy would say what makes a life good or bad is how the ordinary moments are lived.
In Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, nothing is ordinary: passions turn into obsessions; gambling addicts and epileptics are at the center of things; men are beating horses to death on the Nevsky Prospect; poverty has wrenched people’s lives into little hells on earth. The question isn’t really who — Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky — is the greater novelist, for both are great, but which shows life as it is more truly is.
As Professor Morson puts it: “Dostoyevsky believed that lives are decided at critical moments, and he therefore described the world as driven by sudden eruptions from the unconscious. By contrast, Tolstoy insisted that although we may imagine our lives are decided at important and intense moments of choice, in fact our choices are shaped by the whole climate of our minds, which themselves result from countless small decisions at ordinary moments.” At some point in life, I think, one has to decide if one is, in one’s belief in the shape of his or her life, a Dostoyevskian or a Tolstoyian.
In my university, we were taught the concept of the fundamental option in theology; the idea that people do not become good or evil overnight. Fundamental option refers to the basic human choice we make as to how to live our life. It is not the freedom of choice to do a particular thing or not. Rather, it is the freedom to create oneself with regard to the totality of existence and its direction.
Let's say I lied today. That doesn't make me a liar. But if I lie every day, at some point in the future, I not only lied, but I have become a liar. We become what we do.
And in the end, all those little choices we make; to wake up early for work no matter tired and sleepy we are, to be kind to those who may not deserve it, they may be the ones that matter, after all.