Death and Dying
Death and Dying
At the opening of Chapter II in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy characterizes Ivan's life as “simple” and “ordinary”, and goes on to suggest that because of this fact, Ivan's life was the “most terrible”. In this paper, I will refer to Michael de Montaigne to refute this position.
According to Montaigne in his essay, That To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die, there are three things we should do in order to be able to extract meaning from life. First, we should live without regrets. Second, we should seek happiness in our day to day activities. And finally, as we transcend our fear of our inevitable death, we no longer need to distract ourselves from that inevitability and therefore are more able to embrace life's reality moment by moment. I will explore each of these points and contrast them with the “most terrible”, “simple” and “ordinary” life of Ivan Ilyich.
To the outside observer, Ivan appeared to carve out a comfortable life for himself, counting a middle-class home, a wife and children, and a respected career among his successes. He performed the way someone in his social and professional position should, trying to avoid unnecessary attention. Ivan's life initially appeared to be without obvious regrets. However, as the story unfolds, regrets abound.
Ivan strained to appear wealthy enough to merit the lifestyle which he felt he deserved. He regretted the marriage he had entered into rather casually, a decision that ended up cramping his life. He turned his nose up at local medical doctors when he began to have health challenges. Only those who had “celebrity” status were good enough for him. Ivan spent the balance of his life stretching for something always beyond his grasp, unsatisfied with his own lot in life. These regrets were a large part of the torment that he languished in as he prepared to die, climaxing in the moment when he finally understood he had misspent his entire lifetime, thus creating the ultimate regret and the most painful sting before death. Had Ivan “settled” for a more simple and ordinary life, seeking less for what he did not have and valuing more of what he did, much of the turmoil that infected his life and those connected to him could have been calmed as he lived and finally prepared to die.
According to Montaigne, “... I am at all hours as well prepared as I am ever like to be, and death, whenever he shall come, can bring nothing along with him I did not expect long before. We should always, as near as we can, be booted and spurred, and ready to go, and, above all things, take care, at that time, to have no business with any one but one's self.” If we live a life that is mindful, making conscious decisions rather than weakly plodding through, we can approach life and subsequently, death, with a conscious void of regret. This is, according to Montaigne, one of the tools through which we create meaning in life, and thus meaning in death.
Another look into Ivan's life and we see that he lived an existence full of preoccupations and muted bliss. He could have been lapping from the very bowl of the deepest pleasures life had to offer, but instead of recognizing and enjoying that moment, he busied his mind with the distracting chatter of anticipating what better thing might come next, or what better thing he may be missing out on that very moment. By not living in that one moment and recognizing the value of what lay right before him, the best of life slipped through his fingers as he reached out his hand to grope around for something more. When the current moment is all we really have in life, to mindlessly surrender that, our only true possession, is to invite meaningless into our lives.
Montaigne spoke about finding happiness by engaging in simple and ordinary day to day activities that we find meaningful. “I would always have a man to be doing, and, as much as in him lies, to extend and spin out the offices of life; and then let death take me planting my cabbages, indifferent to him, and still less of my garden's not being finished.” Joy can be found in the most mundane activities, if that activity is something we consider to hold intrinsic value. When we fill our days with ordinary but edifying tasks, however simple they may be, we slowly build up a life replete with meaning, culminating in a life well spend and a death we can approach with no regrets. No activity is wasted if it has personal value.
Finally, glancing back to Ivan, we learn that he lived life disconnected with the idea that he would most assuredly die. Death was always something abstract to him; something that happened to other people whom he read about in the paper while he, himself, enjoyed good health and vitality. As his health deteriorated enough that he began to recognize he was in fact mortal, even then he could not become truly personal with death. He rigourously tried to ignore it's reality until the pains of his dying overwhelmed him so that his temporality became a part of his every thought. It was at this point that he turned in death's direction and despised it vehemently. He wrestled with it's far reaching span, refusing to find peace in it's approach.
“...'Tis the condition of your creation; death is a part of you, and while you endeavor to evade it, you evade yourself.” (Montaigne). As Ivan went about mindlessly ignoring his own mortality, his life lost all meaning, for it is only under the canopy of recognizing our existence as fleeting, that the moments within that existence become valuable.
“The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life. Is it possible you can imagine never to arrive at the place toward which you are continually going?” (Montaigne). It would appear that Ivan lived a relatively long life, yet lived only a little. Others could have lived a fraction of Ivan's existence and yet lived more fully and mindfully. In an existence of dissatisfaction and irritation, he whittled away each year he had, ending with a slap of reality that though he had ignored his ultimate demise, it had methodically approached closer everyday since his first breath. Ivan spent his life avoiding and then fearing death, while according to Montaigne, a life of meaning is one that looks at death, becomes familiar with it's reality, and then transcends it's fears.
In conclusion, I would argue that is was not because Ivan's life was “simple” and “ordinary” that made it “most terrible”. Montaigne maps out ways to achieve a meaningful life which can be applied to a person in any circumstance, though possibly more easily applied to someone not caught up in complexity but mindfully basking in the mundane. I surmise that what made Ivan's life “most terrible” was his mindlessness and lack of perspective. In his haste to get on with living, and thus his coming closer to death, he set aside the weightier matters of life and replaced them with common distractions. As he stepped nearer his worst fear, one that he wouldn't even consider, he dug in his heels and at that moment, lost his footing. “Life in itself is neither good nor evil; it is the scene of good or evil, as you make it. And if you have lived a day, you have seen all: one day is equal and like to all other days. There is no other light, not other shade; this very sun, this moon, these very stars, this very order and disposition of things, is the same your ancestors enjoyed, and that shall also entertain your posterity.” (Montaigne). True, Ivan's life was simple and ordinary, but the scene he created on the stage of his existence was what caused it to be “most terrible”.