Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Finding life… in death

As Ivan Ilych faces death in Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella, life seems to him “a series of increasing sufferings” and he does not understand why. As he says to himself,
“If I could only understand what it is all for! But that too is impossible. An explanation would be possible if it could be said that I have not lived as I ought to. But it is impossible to say that,” as he remembered all the legality, correctitude, and propriety of his life. “That at any rate can certainly not be admitted,” he thought, and his lips smiled ironically as if someone could see that smile and be taken in by it. “There is no explanation! Agony, death…. What for?”
The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy, X (53)
trans. Louise and Aylmar Maude
downloaded July 2015
Some time later, he suddenly sees that it might actually be true—that he had not spent his life as he should have, that the whole arrangement of his life and all his interests might have been false.
He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend.

“But if that is so,” he said to himself, “and I am leaving this life with the consciousness that I have lost all that was given me and it is impossible to rectify it—what then?”

op. cit., XI (55)
He finally acknowledges—or, as Tolstoy writes, “it was revealed to him,” that though his life in fact had not been what it should have been, something could still be done to correct the situation. Ivan Ilych accepts the truth about his life, how he has missed the mark; he asks and receives forgiveness, finding relief from guilt and shame even as he dies.

Reading about Ivan Ilych and his repentance put me in mind of a case from Irvin Yalom’s classic text Existential Psychotherapy (Basic Books, 1980). “Bonnie” was a long-time cigarette smoker who had a hard time quitting. Her smoking had destroyed her health and her marriage. What made it difficult for her to decide to stop smoking? In therapy,

one of the important themes that arose was her realization that, if she stopped smoking now, then that would mean that she could have stopped smoking before. The implications of that insight were far-reaching indeed. Bonnie always considered herself as a victim: a victim of Buerger’s disease, of her habit, of a cruel, insensitive husband. But if, in fact, her fate had always been under her control, then she would have to face the fact that she must bear the entire responsibility for her disease, for the failure of her marriage, and for the wreckage (as she put it) of her adult life.
Yalom, op. cit. pp. 320f
(emphasis in original)
Such a realization does not come easily; in Ivan Ilych’s words, it “at any rate can certainly not be admitted.” Thus, a part of Bonnie thwarted her efforts to quit smoking. She wasn’t exactly dying quite yet, but she was divided: she wanted to live, but she didn’t want to recognize her own responsibility for the “wreckage.”

Ivan Ilych had two advantages over Bonnie: First, he saw that death was imminent. According to Carstensen’s Socioemotional selectivity theory, “as time horizons shrink… motivational shifts… influence cognitive processing.” Ivan Ilych’s time horizon shrank precipitously as he understood that he was dying; he had weeks rather than decades ahead of him. I take Carstensen’s theory to predict that as death approaches, it also drives out tolerance for nonsense, as it did for Ivan Ilych: he cast his denial aside.

His second advantage was that he understood that forgiveness was possible. Though not devout, he confesses to a priest.

Yalom mentions neither urgency nor forgiveness in his description of Bonnie’s case: she’s not already dying, and she is offered no relief from whatever guilt and shame she may feel.

What does this mean for you or me? For me at least, it’s helpful to remember that death could come any day (the phrase memento mori comes to mind). Though we all know that death could come any day, we often forget it. Death is an abstract concept, because many of us have decades left; this may as well be forever.

“It is a good day to die” may also be helpful in combating our society’s pervasive death denial. Spoken not only by Star Trek’s fictional Klingon warriors but also by Prairie Home Companion’s real-life host Garrison Keillor, it’s something I said to myself this morning on the train platform.

How is this helpful? As I consider that today could be my last day, I ask myself if I would have any regrets; is there something I need to confess or ask forgiveness for? Or anything else that would make today a bad day vs. a good day to die? Something I could remedy?

Reading Buechner’s Secrets in the Dark (Harper, 2006), I came across his remark about “the temptation to believe that we have all the time in the world, whereas the truth of it is that we do not” (39); and therefore we need to be reminded to be careful with our lives, because they are the only lives we are going to have.

As I think of loved ones whom I’ve outlived or am likely to outlive, I remember many acts of kindness and generosity and love—gifts I happily receive, not only for themselves, but because they call me to be a better person than I am today.

These days I talk with many people who I hope will survive me; I want to give them gifts like those I've received. I want them to know that they’re special; I want them to know that life is not about money and status, but about being who they are and doing what they are called to. I want them to know that they do in fact matter, and that forgiveness and fulfillment and peace are available to them.

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