There is a classic passage from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamasov that burned itself into my mind when I read it years ago in college: the frenzied meditation by Ivan on how a good God could have possibly created a world in which children suffer, for which he “returns God his ticket.” I had occasion to think about the passage again not long ago, after reading a heartrending column by a young woman in the Harvard Crimson. Let me tell you why.
Ivan is talking in some little tavern with his brother Alyosha about God and the meaning of life, as people in Russian novels are wont to do. “I meant to talk about the suffering of mankind in general, but better let us dwell only on the suffering of children,” Ivan tells his brother.
Do you love children, Alyosha? I know you love them, and you’ll understand why I want to speak only of them now. If they, too, suffer terribly on earth, it is, of course, for their fathers; they are punished for their fathers who ate the apple — but that is reasoning from another world; for the human heart here on earth it is incomprehensible.
Ivan goes on to describe in excruciating detail what humanity — “the beast!” — is capable of doing to children. Dostoyevsky simply took these stories from reading the Russian court cases and daily newspapers of his time; they are not just maudlin tear-jerkers. There is the eight-year-old serf boy set upon and torn to pieces by his master’s wolfhounds for the sin of throwing a stone and bruising a favorite hunting dog’s paw. There is the five-year-old girl screamed at, smeared with excrement, and locked in a freezing outhouse overnight by her parents for the sin of fouling her bed. There is more. But even one would be too much.
“Listen,” Ivan says, “if everyone must suffer, in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children got to do with it? It’s quite incomprehensible …. Therefore I absolutely renounce all higher harmony. It is not worth one little tear of even that one tormented child who beat her chest with her little fist and prayed to ‘dear God’ in a stinking outhouse with her unredeemed tears!”
“I don’t want harmony, for love of mankind I don’t want it. I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and my unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong. Besides, they have put too high a price on my harmony; we can’t afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket …. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.”
“That is rebellion,” Alyosha said softly, dropping his eyes.
“Rebellion? … Answer me: Imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears — would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth.”
“No, I would not agree,” Alyosha said softly.
A few weeks ago, an anonymous Harvard student wrote a guest column in the college newspaper, titled “Pregnant at Harvard?” The column received some attention but, to my mind, not nearly enough. She began this way:
I still remember freshman orientation, when the Office of Student Life had us all bond with our entryways by sending us on a dorky scavenger hunt through Harvard’s plethora of campus resources, from the Bureau of Study Counsel to the Office of Career Services to Room 13. In the Women’s Center, my friends and I giggled awkwardly at the rainbow condoms and joked about a brochure entitled “Pregnant At Harvard?” I never dreamed that it would be relevant to my life. And yet two and a half years later, I walked sobbing out of a clinic in Boston after having an abortion.
She had come to school as the stereotypical over-achieving Harvard freshman, with an almost “scarily wholesome” upbringing in which she had checked every box and excelled at every challenge. “The most I’d ever had to drink was a glass of champagne with my parents,” she writes.
But “college was a whole new world in so many ways. I drank for the first time. I partied every weekend.” And then, as will happen, she met a boy:
I fell in love with a boy who was perfect for me — the type of soulmate that everyone dreams of finding at Harvard. He was my intellectual equal and shared both my romance and my quirky sense of humor. And he made me feel crazily and unquestioningly in love. We could spend hours working on problem sets or hours tearing up a dance floor, we finished each other’s jokes, and we could look at each other and know exactly what the other person was thinking. More than that, we understood each other in a way that no one else ever had. He told me he wanted to marry me. The feeling was mutual, and I eventually ended up losing my virginity to him. Like life, relationships aren’t ever perfect. But we were the type of relationship that everyone wanted to have.
Everything was perfect, until it wasn’t.
We started having arguments about every little thing. I would say “I love you,” and then get angry and then confused and then sad. I still loved him, but something felt overwhelmingly different and I didn’t know how to express it in words. Eventually, he’d had it. He told me that I wasn’t the girl he fell in love with, and he broke up with me.
She “spent weeks sobbing about losing the love of my life, the one person who had promised to always be there for me.” She had trouble eating, sleeping, and concentrating. It seemed to affect her health; she had trouble keeping her food down. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me.”
She hadn’t realized, or hadn’t admitted to herself, “that my ever-changing feelings were hormonally induced mood swings, that the vomiting was morning sickness.”
“It wasn’t until I was getting dressed and noticed a visible stomach bump in the mirror that I finally came to terms with the truth.”
The very next day, I skipped class and went to an abortion clinic, where I officially learned that I was almost four months pregnant. My ex-boyfriend had apparently broken up with a girl who was a month and a half pregnant with his child.
And though she “desperately wanted” her boyfriend back, it seemed too late for that: he was already dating someone else. What was there to do? She called the clinic and made another appointment. In the meanwhile she wore baggy sweaters, skipped class, and cried in her bedroom when no one could hear.
I headed to the clinic a week later with just a book, a water bottle, my Harvard ID, and a locket containing a picture of my ex-boyfriend and me. The procedure didn’t take long. It wasn’t even that physically painful. But when it was over, I screamed. I couldn’t stop screaming. As I write these words, it has been over a month since the abortion — and on the inside that screaming hasn’t stopped.
Since then she has tried to hold herself together. But she has had to do it alone:
There are nights where I stay up holding the locket, the one piece I have of both my ex-boyfriend and my child, and just cry hysterically. There are nights where I try so hard to convince myself that life is worthwhile by talking myself to sleep with thoughts of stargazing and dancing and laughter, but no matter what I think about I can’t get rid of an all-encompassing sense of pain.
She finally told her ex-boyfriend, unable to hold it in any longer:
I wanted him to realize that we’d never actually been broken. I sobbed into his chest and confessed everything. I told him about my guilt and my pain. He still didn’t take me back. He told me to tell him if anything was seriously wrong, but he didn’t support me when I needed him and reached out for help. Maybe now I’m just too messed up for him, or anyone else, to deal with.
Maybe so. “It is frightening how hard it can be to find support at Harvard. I was shocked by how easy it was to hide my pregnancy.”
“Here at school, we’re so wrapped up in our own lives that we forget to pay attention to others.”
Of course. The achievement train does not stop for her, for anyone. There are problem sets to do and internships to get. There is no time to slow down without being left behind. What could her ex have done, actually marry her? At the age of 20, while you’re at Harvard? That is just not realistic.
She closes with this:
If you saw me today, you’d never guess what I’m hiding. You’d see me heading to class with an oversized backpack, or studying in Lamont, or dancing at a final club, or laughing in the dining hall while surrounded by friends. I look happy. But on the inside, I’m still screaming. The odds of getting pregnant while engaging in the safe sex that my boyfriend and I engaged in are one in a million. Then again, so are the odds of getting into Harvard.
This is why we have safe sex, after all: so things like this do not happen, do not get in the way. Usually, at least. For that unlikely eventuality we have the clinics.
Harvard is such an extraordinary and wonderful place, full of talent, youth, energy, and limitless possibility. It is an extraordinary thing that we have built the edifice of human destiny such that a place like Harvard should exist, or a place like Greenwich or Manhattan or Palo Alto. So many people in such places are creative and productive, prosperous and happy, at peace and rest at last. I myself was exhilarated to be at Harvard; it seemed I had finally found there the higher harmony I longed for.
But Ivan’s rebellion means asking: On what foundation has this glittering city been built? On whose screams? On whose suffering? On whose innocent blood?
Rebellion means returning the ticket. And to do more than rebel means laying another foundation, even outside the walls of the city, a foundation that will last.
The featured image is “A return ticket to Hell” by Aslak Raanes. It is licensed under Creative Commons.