The Death of Ivan Iylich by Leo Tolstoy
Sit Down and Read
One Line Summary
Death is a cleansing fire
The Death of Ivan Iylich is a classic novel by the great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy. I read it a long time ago but the meaning wasn’t significant until lately. The story follows the last days of a vain, high status man named Ivan Ilyich after falling terminally ill. He struggles to accept his own death, but eventually is able to make peace with the mistakes he made in life and dies happy.
Now, I know this is a depressing subject that no one wants to think about. I must be a horrible strategist if I think this will get me followers for my blog. People want fun, happy and breezy. We’ve become a culture that has collectively shyed away from death. Yet ignoring problems never does anything but make it worse. Instead of learning to accept death in a pro-active way, we live our whole lives in fear of it.
I think you’ll see that, if we can just have the courage to look reality in the eye for a moment, you’ll get tremendous benefit. So here we go.
Why it’s Awesome
Our lives are entirely self-centered. If you want a shock, go listen to normal the conversations that people have every day. It’s not much more than people just waiting their turn to mouth off their opinions or talk about whatever they want to talk about. Even more shocking, notice yourself doing the exact same thing. No one is really immune to this. As Jed McKenna would say, there really is only one cult. It’s the cult of Self. And everyone is a fanatic member.
This isn’t to say acts of altruism don’t exist or that every person is “out to get you”. That’s another mistake. I trust everyone almost to a naïve extreme, despite knowing that everyone really is mostly just looking out for themselves. I’m just trying to point to the root of motivation.
In a culture centered around “I” or “Self”, death becomes the ultimate bad guy. He you are, enjoying a perfectly good life, and death comes along and decides to ruin the whole game. Who does he think he is??
A part of us always knows this. A part of us always knows that you’re just a bad accident away from total annihilation. You could run for a very long time, but ultimately this is a race that can’t be won. Eventually we’re all going the same way.
People have three responses to this truth: anger, denial and acceptance. Anger implies that you’ve at least had the courage to look your stark situation in the eye and confront it. But the vast majority of people fall into denial. It’s simply too painful to think about.
The result is most of the absurdity of modern culture. One form of death denial comes in the form of religion. We tell ourselves that this isn’t the end, actually the party just keeps on rocking! There’s no evidence for this in reality, but if you notice, truth wasn’t the purpose of adopting that belief in the first place. It was to run away from the void, and in that respect it has fulfilled its duty perfectly.
How do I know? Well because I used to be a religious person. I was raised Catholic, and when I fell down the rabbit down of atheism, unintentionally I was forced to confront this belief in an afterlife and see it for what it is: a sham. A sad excuse for denying a necessary part of life.
Another less obvious way that we deny death is work and status. This is where Ivan Ilyich comes in. He spends his whole life climbing the ladder of success, believing that this is giving him a meaningful life. It isn’t until Ilyich is dying that he is able to look at his situation with sober eyes. His family has no real love for him. His friends care only about what they will gain from his death. Perhaps worst of all, he has denied the things he wished he could have done were he not seeking validation from others.
This is why I say that death is a purification process. When your perspective changes and you realize that death is inevitable, you cannot care for many of the same things you used to. What is the point of acquiring status when status brings you no joy? Is that truly a good life?
And yet, even if all this is obvious, we still fear death. Why? Why do we fear what we know is inevitable?
It isn’t actually physical death of the body that psychologically causes us pain. It’s the idea of the total annihilation “you” existing. You, whatever you think of as you that’s reading the words I’ve written, wants to survive. In other words, fear of No-Self.
If you’ve ever got emotionally angry at someone who criticized your beliefs, you’ve felt this low level form of anxiety about No-Self. If you’ve ever felt depressed because you thought you’re “not valid”, like everyone else was authentic and you were fake, that’s fear of No-Self. It’s really all there is, in terms of true psychological fear.
By death bringing us face to face with the reality of No-Self, your illusions about all the ways you ran from this truth become obvious. And once the illusion is seen through, there’s no going back. Just like in the Matrix, the red pill can’t be untaken.
What are some other ways we avoid death? I need to be careful here because all these things are possibilies. I’m not saying anyone who does these things is automatically running from death. But here are some of the potential ways.
Spirituality is perhaps at the top of the list. But also material success, family, shopping, going to the gym, having a job, having sex, drugs, alcohol, giving to charity, meditation, volunteering, depression, over eating, sports, reading, science and just about anything else. Ego is a shapeshifter that can take on any form.
Overall, this is an incredible book. Tolstoy had the courage to look at death and see it for what it is. An inevitable, perfect process once you remove “you” from the equation.
Why Does It Suck
There’s nothing I don’t like about this book. Tolstoy’s writing is grand and profound. All I can say is that it’s not the end. Don’t think just because you’ve read this book that suddenly you’re not going deny death anymore. No story or knowledge can make up for real experience. But hopefully this book will help shed some light on any of the traps you might be falling into in your own life. You are Ivan Ilyich. This isn’t just some fictional character that Tolstoy constructed. You’re meant to use the story to examine your own life. It’s all about you.
The Wrap Up
The Death of Ivan Ilyich is an amazingly powerful novel. I know I still have death denial of my own in my life, but I’m making progress. Highly recommended to anyone seeking peace and happiness in their life, even though the subject is obviously grim.
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