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

Sunday, October 29, 2017

When Life Is Better Led Alone–The Distracting Seduction Of Love, Family, And Friendship

Man is a social animal no doubt, but when does society become clutter and unnecessary baggage?

‘We all die alone’, said Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich who felt that social trappings were to be battened down to leave life free for running but realized near the end of his life that even tight ships spring leaks.  Despite his attempts to keep everything in place, his own life free and clear, and his social partnerships pleasant and uncomplicated, he was surprised and shocked at how little people thought of him.  He wasn’t even in the ground yet and they were already pecking at his remains.

Image result for paintings 19th century sailing ships underway

What was life, then? Should he have paid more attention to family, friends, and colleagues?  Would that, as specious and dishonest as it might have been, have at least assured something other than a misanthropic legacy?  And what was legacy after all, since at the moment of death one’s life and the world left behind both face extinction?

Tolstoy was in a very depressive stage of his lifelong search for meaning. Even so he offered a glimmer of hope at the end of Ivan’s tale.
"And death...where is it?"
He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. "Where is it? What death?" There was no fear because there was no death. In place of death there was light.
"So that's what it is!" he suddenly exclaimed aloud. "What joy”
To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.
"It is finished!" said someone near him.
He heard these words and repeated them in his soul. "Death is finished," he said to himself. "It is no more!"
He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.
According to the Gospel of John (19:3) Jesus’ last words were “It is finished”.  His physical life was over, his work on earth was completed, and his suffering was at an end.  When he said “It is finished”, he was speaking as a man thankful for relief from his human suffering, ready to return to his Father after his filial duty was done, and ready to take his rightful and preordained place in heaven.

Image result for images christ on cross renaissance

Most Christians extend the meaning of Christ’s words to suggest that although his life was finished, their life was just beginning. Thanks to God’s grace, mankind now had an eternal future. “It is finished” meant “It is just beginning”.

Tolstoy’s choice of phrasing in Ivan’s last words was deliberate, and he was referring, as many critics conclude, to a final epiphany. 

Yet the question of of Ivan’s former social life is not answered.  If one dies alone, and if the only important moment in one’s life is the final one, then what to make of the life one leaves?  Perhaps Ivan was right to order and control his life so that his mind could be free, not unlike Hindu sadhus who in the final stages of their spiritual evolution leave everything behind.

Image result for image hindu sadhu himalayas

Ivan, however, was not a spiritual man.  In fact he was a selfish, mean-spirited one who cared little for his wife, his family, his friends, and his associates.

Given the ending of the story Tolstoy seems to suggest that one’s past life doesn’t matter at all.  Whether loving and caring or sharp, bitten, and crabbed, it all amounts to the same thing.  It is the end that counts – not a final Christian accounting nor the meaning of life but an understanding of death itself.

Ivan, in his desire to remove clutter, entanglements, and unnecessary demands, might have chosen the right path for the wrong reasons.

Most of us give little thought to death and dying and consequently pay even less attention to the construct of our lives.  If Ivan had known what to expect as he faced extinction, he might have ordered his life with more equanimity.  A Hindu understands from the very first that his life is a journey of four stages:

  • The First Ashrama - "Brahmacharya" or the Student Stage.
  • The Second Ashrama - "Grihastha" or the Householder Stage.
  • The Third Ashrama - "Vanaprastha" or the Hermit Stage.
  • The Fourth Ashrama - "Sannyasa" or the Wandering Ascetic Stage.
 He can never achieve spiritual enlightenment or escape endless reincarnation unless he moves from one stage to another.  There is no inherent value in any one stage, only that it is prescribed, to be endured, to be respected, but to be left behind.

Tolstoy understood that neither Ivan nor he nor the rest of us could be so spiritually evolved.  We are either are seduced by the allure of love, family, and friendship; or befuddled by life’s conundrums.

Why, asked Tolstoy’s character Konstantin Levin, did God create an intelligent, sentient, creative, insightful, witty being only to give him a few decades of life before consigning him to eternity in the cold, hard ground of the steppes?

It is far easier to ignore Levin’s question, dismiss it as meaningless and unhelpful, and go about the happy round of living.  Tolstoy himself finally gave up his painful quest and came to the conclusion that if so many millions of people have unquestioningly believed in God, there must be something to it.  He backed into faith, as much as any man can hope to do.

No automatic alt text available.

Most older people have intimations of mortality.  “It is hard to ignore the numbers”, said a patient to a encouraging doctor who told his patient that he was in good health, had good genes, and could expect to live many more years.  There was no way to ignore the fact that even under the best of circumstances he had only a relatively few years left.

It was already too late for ‘too soon old, too late schmart’, and the patient realized that although he had had a good, productive, and successful life, he was no more prepared for his end than if he had years left before him.

He had been tricked, seduced, enticed by a life without any particular spiritual or philosophical anchor.  He simply kept the wheels oiled and spinning, and now it was too late.

Others become Hindus whether they know it or not.  They begin a process of social divestment early on.  If one dies alone, they reason, then why pull a wagonload full of pots, pans, and crockery behind?

Of course relegated friends and family see only mental imbalance, dementia, or Alzheimer’s in their loved one. Why else would he become so reclusive and so inattentive?

They simply make it harder for anyone to make ends meet.

The image of weeping loved ones grouped around the bed of a dying relative dies hard.  The myth of loving support persists; and while concern, compassion, and care have their place during one’s life, they have no place at all at death, a unique, essential, and especially solitary moment.
Image result for painting weeping family around bedside of dying man

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.