“What do you want?”
There are certain questions that cut straight to the core. Many of us go to great lengths to avoid such questions, filling the silence with noise, Netflix, friends, busyness, work. We cope with the uncomfortable seriousness of these eternal questions with humor and sarcasm. In the end, it’s avoidance. We don’t like to sit with these kinds of inquiries long enough for them to do their work.
We are afraid of what might be unearthed.
The Russians used to call these cursed questions. In The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) unravels the tale of a man forced to confront the meaninglessness of his life pursuits by a minor injury that results in a painful, drawn-out death.
Resourceful, clever, and well-bred, Ivan was always able to avoid crises in his workplace, marriage, finances, and relationships—that is, until death showed up at his doorstep. The comfort and ease provided by a middle-class lifestyle shielded him from ever having to wrestle with questions like, “Why do I exist? What is my purpose? What do I want? Does any of this matter? What will happen when I die?”
Tolstoy’s novella is a crisis moment for anyone who reads it. George Gibian explains, “Tolstoy believed that facing a crisis was necessary, even desirable, if a person was to arrive at a genuine understanding of what he or she wanted to achieve in life. [Men] have a need to confront extreme situations in order to discover what is truly important and what is not.”
Tossing in agony during his waning hours, Ivan’s head echoes, “What do you want? What do you want?”
Angry with himself, he finally answers: “What do I want? To live and not to suffer.”
“To live? How?”
“Why, to live as I used to—well and pleasantly.”
This honesty–that the greatest yearning of his soul is for a comfortable life–sends Ilych into a tailspin.
His life had been filled with pleasant dinner parties, games, polite dalliances, fashionable clothing, a tolerable marriage, long work hours, and a big house. He had gotten everything he wanted.
But what is the value of a soul that longs for nothing greater than comfort? Ease? A life devoid of suffering? Suddenly, all the greatest joys of his comfortable life–the fun, the admirable career, the trendy house, the pleasant relationships–now melted before his sight and turned into something trivial.
“Maybe I did not live as I ought to have,” it suddenly occurs to him.
Ought. That’s a hard word. Is there an ought to living? Ought implies there is a right and a wrong way to live. Ivan’s mind races: “What if my whole life has really been wrong?”
No more pleasantries. No more distractions. No more busyness or games or conversation or entertainment. Death has a way of forcing Ivan to finally confront this cursed question.
Ivan’s life was one big avoidance. Nice meals with friends, the kitchen remodel, the new furniture, the promotions–they were all just fancy wallpaper over a decaying soul. Ivan Ilych’s comfortable middle-class life was a giant charade orchestrated to help him ignore the existence of death.
The way we answer the question “What do I want?” reveals more about us than we’d like–which is why we, like Ivan, surround ourselves with endless distractions to avoid such cursed questions. What kind of person wants ease as his supreme desire? Could it be that a life whose chief end is to avoid suffering is a life wasted?
Unfortunately, Ivan’s adept ability to sidestep every possible crisis in his life and maintain a safe, comfortable status quo means that he has never been forced to wrestle with the meaning of life until it’s too late. It seems that Tolstoy would have us pity Ilych. Moreover, we would do well to heed his warning: Death, the Great Crisis, comes for us whether we have ignored its existence our whole lives or not.
Tolstoy means to infect our minds with this thought: “Maybe I am not living as I ought to be…” To live and not to suffer–is that really it for you? To live well and pleasantly–is that your purpose? What ought is steering your life?