Avoiding death bed epiphanies

“What if my whole life has been wrong?” I’m haunted by this line from Tolstoy’s classic work The Death of Ivan Ilych. As Ivan’s life of pleasantry pursuits is overtaken by disease and pain he comes to the realization that perhaps his life has been nothing but shallow and futile. Echoing Christ on the cross he cries out in desperation, “Why hast Thou done all this? Why hast Thou brought me here? Why, why dost Thou torment me so terribly?” Ivan Ilych’s lament frequents my lips at times due to far less severe suffering than that experienced by Ilych. My suffering is far more pedestrian. Indeed, God may recognize my voice by the distinctive pitch of my whining when mundane life is occasionally derailed. 

But in many respects, Ivan Ilych’s experience is illustrative of my own. His clarity, which comes only in the last hours of his existence, is reminiscent of the depths of my philosophical and theological conundrums. On his death bed Ivan expresses his regret, anguish, and sorrow; “It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death.” Thankfully, in his last moments of life, Ivan has an epiphany when he looks upon his loved ones and empathizes with their grief and impending loss. He senses the emotions they are experiencing even after his life of general unkindness and selfish unconcern for them. And in that moment his fear of death disappears as he suddenly and uncharacteristically exclaims “So that’s what it is! What joy!” And although there is some truth to the axiom “better late than never,” I certainly hope to discover this joy quicker than Ivan did. 

Joy is often a difficult emotion for me. I’m sure that I have experienced it at times in my life, but joy, like love, is hard to define especially in terms of chronological parameters.  This is true for me especially because my mind is plagued by an inability to dwell in the present. Most of my thoughts remain stuck in the past or more frequently contemplating the next moments of some future success, conquest, or experience. And many times, my thoughts are preoccupied with a desire to speak to the problems of our world, or to cheer up those who are unhappy around me. But alas, I can’t. With all of my effort, energy and ability, I’m unable to make even one person around me change in any demonstrable or lasting way. It is a fool’s errand. And I’m the fool for thinking I have some sort of Svengali hold over others, because I don’t. I can’t change anyone. 

However, I’m working on changing myself, a task worthy of herculean effort, and often this is equally as impossible as changing others. But it seems I do experience more success in changing myself than I do in the futility of attempting to change others, please them, or make them even incrementally happier. More often than not, I continue to be frustrated to observe how many people put so much time and effort in attempting to construct experiences that will reward them with some imagined happiness that has never really existed to begin with. This observation serves to inform the futility of my own expectations that anything should be different just because I’m authoring or initiating the experiences along with the subsequent expectations. Collectively we may carefully cultivate expectations, but no matter how much attention to detail we employ, they will ultimately be dashed against the rocks of unintended consequences. This happens because others do not share our vision of the same good life, as we do not share theirs. Competing visions of what it means to flourish in life has a way of complicating our relationships. We seek to compensate for these discrepancies through a myriad of cultural and social engagements including education, entertainment, and other escapes or mediated realities, including religions. 

In this way, religion serves society by attempting to answer the ultimate questions of existence by managing our expectations. I certainly experienced this growing up in a small rural Pentecostal church. My expectations were regulated primarily by scriptures and emotive worship services. I was taught to seek solace in both of them, but more often than not, fresh revelatory “words from God” were preferred over perennial truths of the Bible. And no matter what the means, it seemed the spiritual bar was always being raised, as I never had a clear understanding of what it was I supposed to achieve and certainly no way of knowing when I arrived. We always lived in pursuit of the next spiritual high, holiness benchmark, Sunday night shout, or Camp meeting miracle. The stakes were always raised along with the volume of the imperatives, “More prayer! More fasting! Less worldliness, More sacrifice.” Prohibitions of television, rock-n-roll, organized sports, swimming with women, facial hair, and general objections to frivolity of any kind were common place. Christ’s death on the cross wasn’t sufficient to save me, apparently, I had to die too? 

Maybe this is why I struggle with joy? Because after being taught for most of my formative years that joy is elusive and only obtainable after a life time of being good, I eventually came to the conclusion that I’ll never be that good. Am I better than Hitler? On most days yes. But I’m most certainly always worse than Mother Teresa. And often I’m even worse than you. Well, probably most of you.  Believe me. 

Like Ivan Ilych I’m learning these lessons, and thankfully it isn’t taking a death bed epiphany to get me there. Ivan Ilych spent his life obsessing over keeping up the appearances of a good life, to only discover the truly good life in the faces of loved ones in his last moments on this Earth. Thankfully I’m discovering this now along with the accompanying joy it brings. 

So, don’t be too hard on yourself. I’ll try to be better also. Here’s to the joy of working together. 

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