Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

by AJ

Im currently reading Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich". Its not exactly happy reading. But it is very thought provoking.

The story chronicles the main character's death process. Tolstoy himself was obsessed with death and its significance to life.

Ivan Ilyich's life had been most simple and commonplace-- and most horrifying.

That quote mirrors Thoreau's quite nicely: "The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation".

What they are both saying is that the common life, the life of routine acceptance of authority, the life of drudgery and monotony, is a horrifying and overwhelming tragedy. What makes such a life particularly tragic is that most people don't realize the horror until its too late. Only as death approaches do they ask, "what does my life mean?" Only as death approaches do they question the "common wisdom".

Only the approach of death can shake them from their complacency and obedience. Sometimes.... usually... its too late for them to do much about it. They die full of regrets.

I have witnessed this process many times.... Professionally (as a social worker working with AIDS and Cancer patients) and personally (with older friends and acquaintences). And it is indeed tragic.

I carry these people's words in my head. Many admonished me to "follow your dreams".... "travel while you are young and healthy"...."do what makes you happy".

Not one said, "be sure you have a job with good benefits". Not one said, "I wish I had paid more attention to my career". Not one said, "I wish I had made more money".

American culture, as a rule, denies the truth of death. No one wants to talk about it. No one wants to think about it. When we bury people we mummify them and enclose them in vacuum sealed coffins-- to pretend that they will stay preserved forever... to deny that they will decay.

And its not just young people. Has there ever been a more death-denying generation than the baby boomers? They are hitting their 50s and 60s but still chasing consumer gadgets. They are still chasing money and vain status symbols. They are still in massive denial.

How will these people handle the inevitable approach of death? Its not going to be pretty.

But the more important questions are:

How should you live now so that you can die peacefully, without regrets or denial?

What kind of life will give you satisfaction on your deathbed? What kind of life will be meaningful at that moment? What will seem most important then? What priorities should shape your life now?

My hunch is... a stable job with good benefits will not be among them.


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