“Even biology tells us that a high degree of habitual well-being is not advantageous to a living organism.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn
At Harvard’s commencement in 1978, Soviet dissident exile Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke to the graduating class, the future academic, business, and political leaders of America. He told them that “intense suffering” had produced spiritual development in the East, and that our comfortable lifestyle in the West had produced in us a state of “spiritual exhaustion.”
Solzhenitsyn said that Americans had “lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility.” He said we needed “voluntary, inspired self-restraint” to “raise man above the world stream of materialism.”
We needed to step away from our comfort because our comfort had made us numb. Comfort had put us to sleep. Discomfort would awaken our spiritual senses and take us back to God.
Harvard students booed him off the stage.
It’s difficult to accept discomfort intentionally, difficult to convince ourselves we need to pursue less comfort.
And comfort is always a relative term. In 1978, Americans weren’t nearly as comfortable as they had been in through the fifties and sixties nor as comfortable as they would be in the eighties. But through those years, we were always more comfortable than much of the world.
Discomfort makes us look up. Peggy Noonan tells us to “embrace” crisis “as a blessing” and that, if we have not been so blessed, to “pray for one” (82).
It’s always my natural bent to claim that my blessings in that department have been more than adequately fulfilled, thanks anyway.
We always want to avoid the pain of trials. And we often don’t get to choose. But even after suffering some involuntary (but largely self-inflicted) discomfort in life, I still have to work to enter someone else’s grief and see their need.
Fighting the numbness of our comfort is a constant battle. Many Christians of the East today choose discomfort, or at least they realize that they are at risk of suffering for the sake of the Gospel.
In spite of relentless persecution in many countries hostile to the Gospel, an explosion of Christianity in Africa and Asia has inverted the world, with “the developed West as a mission field [and] the Third World as the source of missionaries and parishioners, clergy and zeal” (283). Christian faith is exploding in the East as it languishes in our more prosperous, free West.
Solzhenitsyn was an exile. He was also a prophet.
America didn’t listen then. But we can listen now.
Photo Credit: Mikhail Evstafiev