One thing is common to all men, that is death. It may be a cliche but from the moment we draw our first breathe, we begin to die. What a fatalistic way of looking at things. If we have the realisation from the beginning that we have a purpose in life, then we would strive to seek it and then achieve it. or would we. Would we forsake all else and strive toward the purpose in which our lives were destined?
“You were made by God, and for God and until you understand that, life will never make sense”… Rick Warren.
I have just finished reading ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ by Leon Tolstoy. I hated the story, I loved the story. My conflict arises because it described the death of a man suffering from (I speculate) cancer. My own father died of cancer some years ago. I knew it was a long illness for him and at times a very painful distressing time for him. Tolstoy seems to have an intimate knowledge of the thoughts and pains of a dying person.
I watched my father deteriorate from a strong capable man to one who aged way beyond his years; before his time. He was too young to die. Unlike Ivan Ilyich, my father achieved. It was not just his professional life in which he excelled. He was the loved father of four boys, grandfather to many before he passed. He was adored by many and liked by all. My father had a professional life that made all the boys in my class envious. He was able to take us on many flights in helicopters and planes in his capacity of an Aeronautical Engineer. He strove to make life good for my mother and his family. He achieved that goal. When he retired early due to illness, he decided to pass on his knowledge to assist schoolkids in learning about the theory and practicality of flight. He went to the high school of the town in which he retired and offered to assist the kids to build a real aeroplane. One that could be registered and flown. He achieved that goal.
It was also in his retirement that he learnt the beauty of wood. In the Australian bush, some trees developed a pimple like growth on their trunk. These are called Burls. They are distinguished by the inner pattern of not rings, but more like squiggles throughout the wood. My father learned to make all manner of things from wood, from pens to coasters and bowls to much larger projects.
But I saw him waste away. He gave up smoking in an attempt of maybe extending his time on Earth, but in the last few months, I noticed that he took it up again. Like Ivan he had resigned himself to death as being inevitable.
Ivan Ilyich strove to achieve position in society. He strove to accumulate ‘things’. he did so not just for his own benefit, but for the benefit of his family. Perhaps for his own benefit as well, because if he found favour with his wife, he could then be relieved of her whining.
This book not only made me look at my own mortality and the futility of accumulating things, but to reassure myself that my purpose for life is now on track. In hindsight, I can see that in the past my actions and inaction, my own need for wealth and seeking favour from society ( as Ilyich attempted to do when setting up his house in Petersburg) had caused hurt to others. My goal in life now is to not accumulate wealth but to share beauty with those unable to see it for themselves. I do that with my art, photography and writing on a semi professional level, and by volunteering for social justice causes and organisations to assist those less fortunate than myself.
I was not able to be there in the last days for my father. This is something that has grieved me as I look at the past with regret. Ivan Ilyich also looked at his life with regret. I hope that at my death, I can look back on my life, not with regret, but with a small amount of humble pride.
There are 3 Victorian novels that I have looked at so far in my studies of 19th Century Fiction. Hard Times by Charles Dickens, Silas Marner by George Eliot and The death of Ivan Ilyich by Leon Tolstoy. The three main characters all have the same need, redemption, although not all three saw that need.
Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times needed to be redeemed from his rigidity. “All men must be amused”, Mr Sleary pointed out, and for Gradgrind, a shock or two were needed to make him sway from his path.
George Eliot wrote that Silas Marner had a need for redemption. While some see the book as pointing out his need of a religious redemption, it was his obsession with gold and the accumulation of it that he needed to be redeemed from. That redemption came in the form of his sweet foster child Eppie. The Gold metal had been exchanged for the Golden curls upon her head. She tore from him his depression over loss, and gave him a new purpose in life, that being to care for Eppie. Interesting to note that when his metal gold was restored to him, his golden haired child was being claimed by another. The child would not be torn from his grasp as his gold coins had been, and justice prevailed when he could his child chose to remain with him rather than be tempted by the lure of gold. Eppie had become more important to him than the lifeless metal.
Leon Tolstoy portrayed Ivan Ilyich as a man in need of redemption from life. Life for him had been a painful existence; before, and after his injury which led to his eventual death. Life in the presence of his wife was mundane at best. He did his utmost to spend as little time as possible with her. I believe he loved his children although he saw many of them die before he. His remaining daughter unfortunately was becoming a younger version of his wife, with her need for being prim and proper, whereas his son truly had compassion for his father. It was his son who cried as his father drew his last breath. To everyone else, his dying, or taking his time doing so, was a mere inconvenience. At the very beginning of the book we see that upon his death, his colleagues were looking at the question of who was to fill his position, which bought with it a hefty salary. Ilich becomes aware of his need for redemption when he was in the greatest pain. He wanted relief from the pain, relief from his wife and others. He saw himself a burden to others and to a man who was mostly independent and solitary this was devastating. Ivan Ilich wanted to be free of it all.
I was fond and grateful to the young servant Gerasim, who patiently cared for his master at the sunset of life. Gerasim could be compared to the palliative care people who cared for my father in his last days.
It happens to all of us, death. It happens to all of us, the realisation of the need for redemption. With the 3 characters in our books, redemption came at different times. Gradgrind was saved. Silas Marner found his redemption in time to make a difference to his future. Unfortunately Ivan Ilich discovered his need too late. I implore you, to seek redemption while it can be found, before its too late.
“Yet, when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind,
nothing was gained under the sun” Ecclesiastes 2: 11