I just finished listening to Anna Karenina on Audible. I’ve never read or listened to it before, and Maggie Gyllenhaal narrates the Audible version. She’s great. The book is great. I spent a lot of time listening and crocheting when I should have been working or lesson planning, and I’m not sorry about it.
People way more sophisticated than I am have written way more interesting and developed theses about the morals and themes in Anna Karenina, so here are my thoughts worth a grain of salt. Like all great books, it speaks to everyone a little differently. For me, post-conversion to Judaism, getting ready to be married, and thinking about having kids and what Udi and I intend to teach them, in combination with so many of the crazy things going on in the world right now, the greatest takeaway was the idea of tradeoffs and choosing our values.
A few years ago, when I was really struggling to achieve more balance in my own life, I had a realization that may seem obvious but was fundamentally life-changing for me: Everything has trade-offs, and you can’t have it all. Going to college, still treated by nearly everybody with a degree as the only way to success in life, has major, long-lasting tradeoffs, especially in the form of crippling student debt. Creating and staying in a stable relationship, which is joyful and enriching in some ways and grueling and oppressive in others, has trade-offs. Personalities that make everybody feel warm and loved have trade-offs; often the people who appear to be the “nicest” are seething with quiet resentment because their lives are focused around meeting the needs of others instead of their own. You have no other option but to make choices between more than one good thing and more than one bad thing, and sacrificing the good in pursuit of the perfect is naive and, if you do it for long enough, destructive.
Anna Karenina is all about imperfect trade-offs. I was particularly struck by the parallels between a secular pre-Soviet Russian society in which the wealthy and educated are superficially obsessed with class relations between themselves and people about whom they know literally nothing, and current secular America in which the wealthy and educated are superficially obsessed with race and political relations between themselves and people about whom they know literally nothing. Near the end of Anna Karenina, Konstantin Levin realizes that his life-long and mostly unexamined idea of religion having passed the point of usefulness is utterly and completely wrong. The seemingly brilliant secular elites are at least as stupid and misguided as the people they spend their lives laughing at, and yet the elites feel perfectly at home creating policy and making suggestions to the peasants about morality. Sound familiar?
Part of the reason Levin realizes this is because he spends time actually working and socializing with the peasants that his class equals soliloquize so romantically about. He realizes that the downward pressure of his sophisticated ideas about agriculture aren’t catching on because the peasants have been tilling the land for centuries and – surprise – they know what they’re doing. The vast majority of these peasants, whose lives are far more intimately connected to realism, are religious. But they aren’t stupid, naive, or more unhappy than the wealthy landowners who are steeped in debt, cheating on their spouses, and judging each other constantly.
How this connects to the idea of trade-offs: Levin realizes that if he isn’t going to fill his life with Christian values, he has to fill it with something and choosing which something that will be actually turns out to be more complicated than he thought. I think that’s a realization a lot of millennials are wrestling with right now, and it explains why figures like Jordan Peterson, who advocate for seeking meaning and personal responsibility, have become so phenomenally popular. Although Levin ultimately becomes a believing Christian, Anna Karenina is not book whose mission is an exhortation to faith. Indeed, one of the most Christian characters – Lydia Ivanovna – is a fool and a hypocrite. Instead, the question that Levin and all the other characters wrestle with is, again, that of tradeoffs. Choose not to be a Christian – fine – but what will you choose instead?
Levin’s solution is something I wish I could recommend to everybody stuck in the death scroll of Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok feeds. If Americans would get off their phones (I’m no less guilty) and stop obsessing about the evils of the “other side,” most of whom they have never met, no less talked to or reasoned with, they could spend some time actually thinking about what their values are and where they come from. Levin does this by turning back to the old school philosophers who have guided Western civilization since it began. I think that’s a great place to start.
I personally had this same crisis a few years ago, and it was a major part of why I converted to Judaism. I had spent about ten years outside of Mormonism and gotten over my bitterness towards the lies I felt I had been told. I started viewing the Mormon Church as I viewed any other religion, corporation, or organization – fundamentally made of well-meaning people doing their best, driven by a shared set of values, and subject to corruption and internal competition. But what are the values of Mormonism? Are they better than the values of the other things I had tried to replace it with?
For starters, I spent several years as a dedicated atheist and loved Hitchens, Hawkins, and Harris. I was sure that the end of religion was nigh and that the problems of the world would be solved if we could just get rid of fairy tales and self-deception. Ha! Only a 22-year old could believe that. Moving to Chicago where virtually nobody around me was religious, and spending time in the exciting, pulsing, drug-ridden gay community for a couple of years was enough to exhaust me and jettison me out of that nonsense. Turns out that staying up until four in the morning drinking and snorting things you just bought from a stranger leaves you tired, fat, and fired from your job.
As I moved into my mid-20s and got a little more serious about life, I tried getting into the secular humanist community, if you can call it that. Getting atheists together is notoriously akin to herding cats – and it’s hard to build a real community out of people who are there because they pride themselves as having seen through the bullshit that still veils their hoodwinked peers. I found that the secular are as confused, frustrated, and yearning for meaning in life as everyone else.
It wasn’t until I encountered Judaism – both the Orthodox and the more secular Conservative versions – that I started rethinking many of the assumptions I’d made after leaving Mormonism. It wasn’t that I suddenly found God – I still haven’t, and doubt I ever will – but I remembered why tradition, liturgy, and knowing where you come from are so, so important for a sense of belonging in the world. That sense of belonging is absolutely essential, because when shit hits the fat and you’re lost at sea, life is much, much harder. The last couple of years, I’ve spent a lot more time reading philosophy and trying to think about it carefully and apply it to my life. It’s hard to develop this mental discipline, and it’s an ongoing project that I fail at more often than I succeed. But I’m a calmer, more cautious, and ultimately more fulfilled person than I was five years ago. Am I happier? Sometimes. But my life has become richer and more meaningful, that’s for sure.
Religion isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t exist because of stupid people who are afraid to die. Religion, with all of its serious problems and failures, exists and will always exist because its tradeoffs are, for most people most of the time, worth it. In the West, we are so far removed from death and disease that we spend a lot less time thinking about them. If Covid showed us anything, it showed us that when we are forced to look death in the face in the West, we run away in terror. The people most susceptible to the craziest anti-Covid measures – even when it became very clear that they were, at best, marginally effective – were the secular. In places like Utah, Florida, and Texas, where people’s identities are generally more rooted in religion and smaller communities, life more or less went on.
Don’t get me wrong. I left Utah at 22 because I felt stifled by Mormonism, and I still understand and empathize deeply with anyone who feels that way. But to sit in a high-rise apartment building in a big city and look at conservative whites and Hispanics in Utah and Kentucky as though they’re all stupid, malicious racists who hate women and want America to be straight again takes as much willful self-deception as believing God didn’t make no such thing as gay people. And when you base your life on principles that are defined more easily by what you don’t believe than by what you do, those principles turn out not to be principles so much as they are nice ideas that exist only in the realm of World Peace and other such intellectual nonsense.
It turns out to be really, really hard to create a firm set of principles by which you want to live, and although secular humanists think they’ve got it all figured out, the fact that they’ve been buffeted about by the winds of trendy social pressures should tell you everything you need to know about whether their worldview is effective. One great way to illustrate this is by looking at how they react when their principles come into conflict.
Here’s a great example: The debate about transgender athletes in sports is raging in America, with both camps divided so starkly that anyone who seeks balance is immediately vilified as either a transphobic bigot who wants trans teenagers to die, or a godless moron who has never heard of basic biology. At the root of the debate, though, are two fundamentally important principles: Including those at the margins of society, and fairness. Those are both really important. But you just can’t have both of them when it comes to male-to-female transgender athletes competing in women’s sports. It’s not possible. The male-to-female transgender athletes who were middling when they competed as men are absolutely trashing all of the women’s records. That’s a devastating problem for female athletes who are driven to win, and there are a hell of lot more female athletes driven to win than there are male-to-female transgender athletes. So, if your object is to do the most good, you can’t allow MFT athletes in women’s sports. But if your object is to have the most compassion, you have to allow MFT athletes in women’s sports. It’s a Catch-22 and people are absolutely losing their minds over it.
Here’s another one: Abortion. Yikes. Again, you’ve got deeply divided groups of people who, if you take their arguments at face value, hold two equally important values: Women’s bodily autonomy and the sacredness of human life. Any woman who has lost a fetus to a miscarriage will tell you that fetus was a human life. Any woman who has sought an abortion will tell you how difficult that decision was but how deeply she felt that, for many good reasons, she could not create and sustain a human life inside her own body. Again, these values are very, very difficult to balance when they come into conflict.
One more: Divorce. No-fault divorce released a lot of people, especially women, from miserable and oppressive marriages. Freedom and the pursuit of passionate love seems like a good thing, on first glance. But the impact on children, especially vulnerable children from low-income households and racial minorities, has been devastating. Divorce rarely makes people happier, and many couples regret it. And, as someone who’s a product of divorced parents, divorced herself, and who also writes marketing content for the thousands of divorce attorneys who are making a living off of people’s misery, I can tell you that the trade-off of easy, no-fault divorce has not resulted in happier people with more fulfilled lives. When I was teaching, the kids who had to endure their parents jumping from breakup to marriage to breakup – Wow. It was heartbreaking to watch them try to figure out what to do with themselves.
I’m not saying religion prevents people from becoming nutjobs, but it gives them an identity that comes from a far more sophisticated, carefully developed tradition. It gives structure that has been tested by time. It’s anachronistic in many ways, and that presents some really complex problems, but in other ways people really don’t change much. When your identity is made up of pursuing “human rights” (I put that in quotes because what we consider human rights is subject to change, and quickly!), you move from whichever human right seems most urgent and popular without thinking very carefully about how these values come into conflict with other, equally important values. All you have to do is read Twitter to see how easily people lose sight of their own sanity when they become obsessed with pursuing human rights as a goal in and of itself.
In contrast, ancient religions like Judaism and Christianity have mastered the concept of holding two seemingly opposing views at the same time. Jews remember the destruction of Jerusalem on their wedding day; they eat bitter herbs on the holiday commemorating freedom; they are trained from infancy to hold grief and joy at the same time. Buddhism, which may or may not be a religion depending on how you define religion, has also mastered this concept. Doing this is extremely difficult and most of us can’t do it alone; that’s why we venerate the masters of philosophy who guide us in this pursuit.
Again, I’m not saying religious people do this perfectly or even well. But the structure for doing this is baked into religion while the pursuit of secularism has very little structure whatsoever. That works for some people, but it doesn’t work for most. No structure whatsoever can be far more oppressive than too much structure. You can achieve a firmly rooted identity that looks at the hard questions of life squarely in the eye as a secularist, and you can utterly fail to do so as a Christian or Jew. There are trade-offs. But if you ask me – and I think the skyrocketing rates of divorce, the rise in loneliness, anxiety, and depression, and the insanity of social media suggest this – most people can’t or won’t think about these tradeoffs very carefully and are better off in the confines of a cultural structure that has evolved over thousands of years to guide them in ways they can’t guide themselves. It’s better to be bored in church on Sunday morning believing you’re eating God’s flesh and blood with your parents and kids and neighbors than awake at 4 a.m., drunk and angrily fighting on Twitter with someone you’ve never met over whether Lia Thomas should be able to swim against biological women.
At the end of Anna Karenina, Levin is the character who has the most happiness, and I don’t think it’s coincidental that he’s also the guy who fumbles his way through the book towards some sort of balance between opposing values and priorities. He’s religious, but not a zealot; he found passion in love, but was grounded pretty quickly by the difficulties of cultivating a stable family life; he works hard with his body and mind, but isn’t so single-minded that he sacrifices everything else to his work.
That’s my takeaway. The trick to a meaningful life is to pick your poison. That probably sounds cynical, but for me it’s empowering and stabilizing. If life will be difficult no matter what you do, choose your difficulties wisely and make smart trade-offs that are grounded in reality and enriched by love and sacrifice for others. It’s why I threw in my lot with the Jews and made Udi’s people my people. They’re good at it. I like that. The end.