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How to live so as to face death well

posted Mar 15, 2016, 9:52 AM by Cliff Williams   [ updated May 15, 2016, 7:37 PM ]

Yesterday was the first class of “Death and the Meaning of Life,” a half-semester course I am teaching for the first time. We talked about Ivan Ilyich, the main character in Leo Tolstoy’s short novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Ivan was a respected judge in nineteenth century Russia. But his life, Tolstoy depicts in the novel, was essentially false. Ivan simply conformed to the social proprieties of the day, as though he was not living his own life. His attitude toward those whom he sentenced in court was one of condescension. The pleasures he pursued outside of court were trivial and meaningless.

When Ivan contracts what turns out to be a fatal disease, he distracts himself from the thought of his possible death by concentrating on work. The notion that he did not live as he should have enters his mind, but he casts it out. Later, the physical pain he is in becomes outweighed by the pain of moral agony—the tormenting possibility that perhaps his whole life was wrong. Terror and despair consume him. He screams for three days straight. Then he stretches out and dies.

We spent most of the class talking about how Ivan lived and about how he faced his death. Near the end of the class we talked briefly about how the first affected the second.

With just three minutes left in the class, it occurred to me that we could ask a Tolstoyian question of ourselves. I asked the class, “How would we have to live in order to face our deaths well?” I called on Nicole, because she was next in line to talk. She paused a bit, clearly a little uncomfortable, then said, “We need to value and appreciate the people and opportunities around us, so that we don't feel remorse at the end of our lives because we wasted what was given to us.”

I liked her answer. And though I am afraid that someone in the class will ask me that same question, I am going to make it the course question—partly because I want students to find answers to it for themselves and partly because I want to find an answer for myself.

© 2016 by Cliff Williams