Not dark yet: A reflection on the need for compassion in difficult times  

Dr Innes Visagie, a senior lecturer in philosophy and theology at HTC in Dingwall, offers a personal reflection on the war in Ukraine and the importance of compassion.

It is late November 2022. The days are much darker. Still, a few days to the December solstice. The darker days bring to mind Bob Dylan’s song Not Dark Yet from his album Time Out of Mind (1997). The full refrain reads: ‘It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there’. Dylan is reflecting on existential darkness. The winter solstice, however, connects to dark days in the Northern hemisphere when the earth’s pole reaches the maximum tilt away from the sun.

Another contributor to increasingly darker days is Vladimir Putin with the invasion of Ukraine. In addition to the inconceivable suffering this causes the Ukrainian people, there is also the broader consequence of the energy crisis. Darker and colder homes are increasingly part of our everyday experience. Maybe there is more to the invasion of Ukraine than physical darkness and coldness. Perhaps, as in Dylan’s case, it connects to an existential darkness. Many political commentators opined that Putin is isolated with only a handful of advisors. Such a strategy leaves little room to take onboard the views of others. His constructed lens is reduced to a dark, narrow tunnel vision. There is little room to add some perspectival light.

Not a political advisor, but someone who has a huge appreciation for Russian culture, I would suggest that Putin revisit the rich heritage of Russian literature. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment might be a good starting point for him. The protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, is an ex-law student who finds himself in Saint Petersburg, living in poverty, not being able to pay his rent. He struggles to relate to other people. The garretwhere he stays in a block of flats is dark, basic and, from his room, he looks down on people. Yet, he believes he is someone extraordinary, comparing himself to Napoleon, therefore, he concludes that it is justified to commit a murder to steal money to change his life. He murdered a pawnbroker and her sister. Following the actual crime, the self-justified belief soon crumbled. He experienced intense guilt. Supported by his sister, as she reads to him from the bible, he confessed his act to the police and was deported to Siberia for as his punishment.

Dostoevsky used Christian themes and symbols to explain why people suffer in this world. Symbols like the cross and the story of Lazarus from the Christian scriptures are repeated themes in this novel. In many of the characters’ lives, Christian symbols are present, but it often fails to connect to the deeper meaning of love, suffering and redemption. The lack of faith, pride and the inability to love or connect to people are Dostoevsky’s explanation of why people suffer in this world. Raskolnikov, after the confession of his crime to the police and during his time in Siberia, experienced a transformation. Prior to this, he was alienated from society, experienced loneliness, was unable to love and connect with other people. Raskolnikov’s problem was that he perceived other people as instruments to be used for his own benefit. While in Siberia, he is transformed into a person who realises that crime is not in the first place the murder of a person itself, but it is ultimately the denial of love towards others which then results in crimes like murder.

Putin’s crime in Ukraine is his denial to offer love to the people of Ukraine in pursuit of his ideology of an extended Russia, resulting in the death of both Ukrainians and Russians. Raskolnikov initially rejected traditional Christian morality. He believed he was beyond the law and justified in murdering two people to change his situation. Putting his theory into action propelled him into a conscious struggle which eventually is resolved through his suffering.

Will such realisation ever dawn upon Putin? He, like many of Dostoevsky’s characters, is superficially connected to Christian symbols. Putin has done a lot for the Russian Orthodox Church, attending the Church Conference in Moscow and often refers to the Church in his speeches. Like some characters in Crime and Punishment, such superficial connections to religion do not necessarily connect with the core values of the Christian ethos, namely, compassionate love, righteousness, the grace of forgiveness, and faithfulness.

As we enter the darker days of winter in Scotland let us remind ourselves of the brokenness of the world we live in and endeavour to reach out to others with compassionate love in all righteousness, willingness to forgive and with faithful commitment.   

To find out more about courses available at HTC, visit http://www.htc.uhi.ac.uk/courses

3 thoughts on “Not dark yet: A reflection on the need for compassion in difficult times  ”

  1. Beautiful sentiments Innes, thank you and from another Russophile in these terrible times and the need to encourage compassion and tolerance on all sides, I have been reminded me of another great Russian novel:
    “Everything had changed suddenly–the tone, the moral climate; you didn’t know what to think, whom to listen to. As if all your life you had been led by the hand like a small child and suddenly you were on your own, you had to learn to walk by yourself. There was no one around, neither family nor people whose judgment you respected. At such a time you felt the need of committing yourself to something absolute–life or truth or beauty–of being ruled by it in place of the man-made rules that had been discarded. You needed to surrender to some such ultimate purpose more fully, more unreservedly than you had ever done in the old familiar, peaceful days, in the old life that was now abolished and gone for good.”

    “I hate everything you say, but not enough to kill you for it.”
    ― Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

  2. I find the question, ‘Why does God allow bad things happen to good people’, one of the most difficult ones to answer. Your article shows how it is ‘bad’ people, inflicting pain and suffering on others. If more adhered to your words ‘endeavour to reach out to others with compassionate love in all righteousness, willingness to forgive and with faithful commitment.’ the world would be in a much better place. However, remember to look at all the good people who help others on a daily basis or in a crisis, there are always more of them than ‘bad’. Thanks for your insightful article Innes

  3. Timely and meaningful, thank you Innes. Bad things do happen but there are many people trying hard to bring comfort and ease the suffering.

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