"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, December 8, 2014

Life Begins At 65–If It Weren’t For Ivan Ilyich And The Fear Of Death

Results of a new survey carried out by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) in Chicago suggest that older people are happier than those decades younger.  How could that possibly be, asks Washington Post columnist and economist Robert J. Samuelson?

People [as they get older] increasingly accept the limits of their control over work and family. They become more realistic — or resigned. The opportunities for failure shrink. The mismatch between expectation and experience narrows. People mellow. There is often a reappraisal of life’s purpose and meaning.

This is all well and good, but it misses the essential point.  Although older people may enjoy living a life of leisure and few responsibilities, few can ignore the fact that man of 75 has only a few more years to live. While good genes, a healthy lifestyle, and living in a pastoral place might add a few more, there is no denying that the end of life is near. 

Tolstoy was one of the few authors who wrote honestly and intimately of the angst of death and dying. The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a chilling story of a man who constructed what he thought was the perfect, risk-free life – one that not only might postpone death but perhaps even cheat it altogether – is crippled by anxiety and doubt when he learns that he has a terminal illness. “What have I done wrong?”, he shouts, debating the nature of good and evil and the possibility that he has deserved his untimely death. He becomes terrified by the thought of the final, eternal extinction.  Being has no sense, he thinks, if life ends so quickly and so unceremoniously. Only at the point of death does he realize that death is nothing to fear; it was only the uncertainty about dying and what came after that paralyzed him with terror.

Constantine Levin, a character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina refuses to think of death and dying because he, like Ivan, is afraid; and he is afraid because of the absolute meaninglessness of it all.  If he could decipher some sense to life – its purpose, origins, destiny, or reason – he might face death with more equanimity; but the nothingness of it all makes the agony of uncertainty even worse.  Later, at the birth of his son, Levin regains some equanimity. Birth and death, he now understands, offer glimpses of the sublime:

All he knew and felt was that what was happening was what had happened nearly a year before in the hotel of the country town at the deathbed of his brother Nikolay. But that had been grief—this was joy. Yet that grief and this joy were alike outside all the ordinary conditions of life; they were loop-holes, as it were, in that ordinary life through which there came glimpses of something sublime. And in the contemplation of this sublime something the soul was exalted to inconceivable heights of which it had before had no conception, while reason lagged behind, unable to keep up with it.

Tolstoy himself struggled with the issue of faith vs.reason for much of his life, and in his personal memoir, A Confession, he writes of a conclusion anticipated by his character Levin. He recounts a dream in which he is hanging over an abyss:

I could not even make out whether I saw anything there below, in that bottomless abyss over which I was hanging and whiter I was being drawn. My heart contracted, and I experienced horror. To look thither was terrible. If I looked thither I felt that I should at once slip from the last support and perish. And I did not look. But not to look was still worse, for I thought of what from the last support. And I felt that from fear I was losing my last supports, and that my back was slowly slipping lower and lower. Another moment and I should drop off. 
And then it occurred to me that this cannot be real. It is a dream. Wake up! I try to arouse myself but cannot do so. What am I to do? What am I to do? I ask myself, and look upwards. Above, there is also an infinite space. I look into the immensity of sky and try to forget about the immensity below, and I really do forget it. The immensity below repels and frightens me; the immensity above attracts and strengthens me. I am still supported above the abyss by the last supports that have not yet slipped from under me;I know that I am hanging, but I look only upwards and my fear passes. As happens in dreams, a voice says: "Notice this, this is it!" 
He gives in and accepts God, faith, and unreasoning acceptance of Fate. He explains that one day he looked up from his academic texts and realized that millions of people believed in God that billions before him had also. He took a deep breath, and the weight of decades was removed from his shoulders. 

Like everyone, older people live on two planes.  One is the immediate and practical; and they are quite happy residing on it.  As Samuelson suggests, they are without responsibilities, enjoying their pastimes, and content in the knowledge that whatever their unfulfilled hopes and dreams might have been, they are long in the past. 
The other plane is the existential – the fear of death; or at least the obsessive compulsion to understand what it is.  In that we are no different from Tolstoy, and perhaps like Ivan Ilyich we will have an epiphany, one which comes too late, however.  We all must suffer the torment of not knowing until the end. 
“Which plane, then, is more important?”, said Bob Phillips, a close friend of mine as eager to sort things out as I am.  “I am quite happy with my life”, he said.  “I am even more intellectually ambitious and curious than I ever was.  I have cleaned my closets, winnowed my acquaintances, and simplified my life so that my focus is unobstructed. I do not mind my routine life – sedentary,interior, and reflective and punctuated by the same bed tea, nap, and dinner; and one which I never would have thought possible in my youth. 
“Yet, I am profoundly anxious”, Bob went on.  Tolstoy was helpful, but no anodyne for his anxiety no balm to soothe accentuated and painful awareness of time passing.  Like Tolstoy he said he was in a hurry to find answers but don’t know where to look. “ Ivan Ilyich’s statement, ‘We all die alone’, makes the search even more urgent and compelling.  No one can help.
“Like most people my age I jump from one plane and the other”, Bob went on. “One minute I am happy about the coming long weekend on the Rappahannock; the next I am terrified that six months have passed without me even noticing.”
When I was much younger, I thought that the only purpose in life was to find out what’s what; or put another way to avoid being ‘Too soon old, too late schmart’. I haven’t changed my mind, but like Tolstoy I am getting a bit worn out.  Hanging over the abyss is tiring; so maybe like him I will relax, look up instead of down, and unify the two planes of my existence. 
 

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