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How Tolstoy called me out on my superficial life

Public Domain via WikiPedia

Colleen Duggan - published on 10/27/16

Reading "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" made me realize how often I chase after trivial things, rather than leading an "authentic" life

If someone asked me a month ago if I thought I led a superficial life, I would have scoffed at the idea. However, my recent perusal of Leo Tolstoy’s The Death Of Ivan Ilyich smacked me upside the head and right out of my complacent attitude about my “authentic” life.

The Death Of Ivan Ilyich is a story about a worldly, successful high court judge who never considers the impending reality of his death until he is forced to confront it face-to-face. One day while hanging drapes in his comfortable home, Ivan falls from a ladder and hits his side on the window. At first, Ivan believes he isn’t injured, but when he begins to suffer from a constant pain in his side and an odd taste in his mouth, Ivan seeks out renowned doctors to determine if his pain is curable.

None of the doctors are able to help him.

Ivan eventually becomes incapacitated, but his suffering doesn’t affect his family members. Ivan’s wife and children delude themselves into thinking Ivan is simply sick and not dying. Gerasim, Ivan’s servant, is the only character who offers compassion to Ivan, sitting with him throughout the day and holding his legs up on his shoulders throughout the night to alleviate discomfort.

As he lies dying on his couch, Ivan begins to realize that much of his life was focused on the wrong things: securing wealth, decorating his home, socializing with the “best” people, playing cards, and seeking job advancements. He was self-interested and chased materialism. When he encountered marital tensions and the death of two children, he used work and social escapades to escape his difficult, painful home life. The tragedy of the novella is not Ivan’s death, but how passionately Ivan pursued trivial and unimportant things instead of the right things, like heaven and authentic relationships.

The novel contains much hope, as Ivan does receive the sacraments and dies redeemed, but I was haunted for days after I closed the book. Although I take great effort to “do everything properly” just like Ivan, I too become distracted by worldly things, instead of embracing the everlasting life to which I am called (Timothy 6:13). And the ways in which I disregard the authentic life and engage in a superficial one are plentiful. It happens every time I:

  • Pull out my iPhone and numb out on mindless social media apps instead of working to resolve issues between my husband, my children, and me.
  • Spend time assessing, worrying about, and discussing the political landscape of our country while simultaneously overlooking the emotional landscape of my family members.
  • Choose passive entertainment with my family—like turning on a movie—instead of engaging in worthwhile activities like a board game, a family walk, a trip to the park—activities which will most certainly require more of myself initially, but will pay dividends in emotional intimacy.
  • Use my work as a writer as an excuse to remain preoccupied rather than being fully present and engaged in the real life happening around me.
  • Ignore the sufferings of my family members—my overworked husband or my lonely, self-conscious child—because doing so would require something of me.
  • Refuse to abandon my to-do list and agenda in order to sit with the sick Ivan, who is lying on my family room sofa.

While I wanted to be critical of Ivan’s tendency to trivialize sufferings and seek out his own comfort, I’m just as guilty of the same thing.

Life is challenging, even in the best of circumstances, and I am not immune to my desire to want to escape hardships in order make situations “pleasant and tolerable.” But Tolstoy’s novella offered a great reminder that a life of ease, filled with materialism and shallow relationships, is not the same an authentic life marked by compassion and self-gift.

I better get to work.

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