Leo Tolstoy's classic story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, is a tale about a man's journey towards death: the denial, the alienation, the terror, and the awful recognition that life has not been lived as it ought to have been. Stricken by a mysterious ailment in the prime of his life, Ivan Ilyich finds himself struggling to make sense of his situation as he witnesses all those closest to him struggle to navigate the unpleasantness of his condition and its impact on their lives. In his hour of greatest vulnerability, Ilyich finds himself isolated and alone, save for the faithful presence of his servant Gerasim. In the final days of his life, Ilyich comes to the terrible realization that his "whole life has really been wrong."
"It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. And his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false. . . . In the morning when he saw first his footman, then his wife, then his daughter, and then the doctor, their every word and movement confirmed to him the awful truth that had been revealed to him during the night. In them he saw himself – all that for which he had lived – and saw clearly that it was not real at all but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death."
Like all classic works of literature, The Death of Ivan Ilyich remains timeless and resonant because it addresses universal themes. Ivan Ilyich, like so many of us today, dedicated his life to pursuing all the things that culture and society tells us are most worth pursuing – professional excellence, sterling reputation, and material luxury – with the ultimate goal being a life free from personal hardship or discomfort of any kind. Anything or anyone that threatens to undermine Ilyich's lifestyle or detract from his professional momentum or leisure pursuits – including his wife and children – is deemed an unwelcome interloper to be managed at arm's length. The picture that Tolstoy sketches for the reader is one of oblivious vacuity, selfishness, and artifice.
But it's also a picture that is eminently relatable to most readers. Who among us never sometimes resents the obligations placed upon us by work and family? Who never wonders if we are living as we should? If we are valuing the right things and making the right choices? Who among us doesn't know that we should appreciate our family more and do more to serve our fellow man, doesn't vow to spend less time engaged with virtual reality and more time tuned into the world around us? Who hasn't vowed to stop placing their worth in material possessions? We relate to Ivan Ilyich because there is a little bit of him in all of us, and in reading of the horror he experiences in the face of death, we fear that we might, too, one day confront the same feelings of regret for a life lived in service to the wrong things.
The irony is, of course, that try as we might to orient our lives correctly, we humans have a frustrating tendency to fall back into bad habits. Selfishness, shallowness, complacency, ingratitude, insecurity, greed – the tendency towards these things is pervasive and powerful. The Thanksgiving holiday is a good time to reflect on this paradox. As human beings, we know that we should be grateful for the good things we have. We should cherish our loved ones and feel fulfilled by our accomplishments. These are worthy goals to strive for but they are not easily achieved. There is a reason why so many Thanksgiving and Christmas season movies revolve around the theme of tension-filled, neuroses-laden trips "home for the holidays." Often the very occasions intended to reconnect families end up having the opposite effect, becoming instead some of the most stress-inducing and dreaded times of the year.
Dr. Mark Mitchell, Professor of Political Theory at Patrick Henry College and founder of the online web journal, Front Porch Republic, recently published a book called The Politics of Gratitude (http://www.amazon.com/The-Politics-Gratitude-Community-Global/dp/1597976636), in which he discusses the importance of cultivating a properly grateful attitude towards life. When asked in a 2013 interview with the John Jay Institute how people can learn to be grateful, he said "I think the biggest thing is to simply pay attention. Tocqueville once remarked that the habit of inattention is the greatest vice of the democratic mind. Indeed, we are, as Eliot put it, 'distracted from distraction by distraction.' We are the most hurried and harried people in history yet we have so much. If we learn to stop and attend to the good things all around us, good things we did nothing to deserve, gratitude will be one outcome. But attending is not easy or natural, so we must intentionally work to cultivate the habit of attention." (http://www.johnjayinstitute.org/resources/articles/politics-of-gratitude-a-qa-with-dr-mark-t-mitchell1/)
Ivan Ilyich built a life around an ethos of self-serving ease, and in the end he discovered that it had been "all wrong." In his final days, he was horrified to discover that he was utterly alone in the world save the companionship of one sweet servant boy. His wife was a virtual stranger to him, his daughter detached from his sufferings, his friends repelled by the specter of his impending death. Though he had done "everything right," he could not find any peace as he reflected back on his life and his choices.
In the end, Ivan Ilyich was released from his prison of regret and despair by the grace of a loving and merciful God. This, thankfully, is the hope that animates the faith of Christians. We know that we will never achieve perfection in this life and we rely on the saving work of Jesus to bridge the gap. In his Prayer for Ordering Life Wisely, St. Thomas Aquinas implores of God:
Put my life in good order, O my God. Grant that I may know what You require me to do. Bestow upon me the power to accomplish Your will, as is necessary and fitting for the salvation of my soul. Grant to me, O Lord my God, that I may not falter in times of prosperity or adversity, so that I may not be exalted in the former, nor dejected in the latter. May I not rejoice in anything unless it leads me to You; may I not be saddened by anything unless it turns me from You. May I desire to please no one, nor fear to displease anyone, but You. May all transitory things, O Lord, be worthless to me and may all things eternal be ever cherished by me. (http://www.marriageuniqueforareason.org/2013/11/07/saints-day-reflection-st-thomas-aquinas/)
St. Thomas prayed this prayer daily before an image of Jesus Christ. He, like so many Christians before him, knew that he lacked the fortitude to life his life rightly without divine help. Regardless of whether or not one is a person of faith however, The Death of Ivan Ilyich can and should serve as a prompting for everyone to pay more attention to the truly important things in life. Any one of us at any moment could find ourselves facing death, and when that time comes we can only hope to confront the unknown with the peace that comes from the knowledge that we lived our life rightly.