spinningout

Spinning Out Abstract Ideas About Matters of the Heart

Cliff Williams

We professional philosophers are good at spinning out abstract ideas about matters of the heart—love, death, meaning, boredom, anxiety, despair, joy. That is what I did when writing Religion and the Meaning of Life: An Existential Approach (published in 2020 by Cambridge University Press). I imagined truths about these human realities.

Did I feel in my heart what I was writing about? Sometimes. Here is one time:

In the last chapter, “How Should We Live So as to Die Well?,” I imagined that Ivan Ilyich, in Leo Tolstoy’s short novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, did not actually die at age forty-two, but had a transformation of character and lived another thirty years. During these years, he no longer had excessive self-regard. He no longer found exorbitant satisfaction in being admired by upper society’s important people. He gave up showing the power he had, as a judge, to control the fate of those who stood before him in the courtroom.

In the months before his death at age seventy-two, in my fictional reimagining of Tolstoy’s story, Ivan Ilyich is in a nursing home with a friend who is asking him about his life. Ivan is recalling the death scare he had at forty two and the ways that radically changed him. He is not in good health now and knows that death is approaching. The friend, who is not shy about asking sensitive and straightforward questions, asks, “How do the changes in your life affect how you are facing death?”

I put words into Ivan’s mouth that I imagined him saying. I looked over those words a couple of times, refining them so as to get them just right. Several months later, as I was checking the words for the fourth or fifth time, I was suddenly hit: Those are my words, too.

I was stunned. And electrified.

I had unfeelingly spun out words close to my heart and only later discovered that they were, indeed, close to my heart.

Here is what the fictional Ivan said:

“I think I can say that I am at peace about my impending death. I don’t deny that I am sad at having to die—I have lots more I want to do. And sometimes I feel flashes of fear and dread. But in my calmer moments I am happy and content. I have loved my life. I have lived well, at least for the last several decades. I am ready to go over the book of my life with the Divine One, page by page, requesting mercy for the tainted pages and valuing those pages on which the true, the good, and the just are depicted.”

I now carry these words in my pocket wherever I go, tucked in between my driver’s license and library card. They remind me, one who is getting closer to eighty, to feel the truths about my life and death, which is likely coming sometime during the next ten or fifteen years.

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I recently told this story to a sixty-one year old former student as we hiked through forests and past meadows in a forest preserve near Wheaton, Illinois. As I read the words I had put into Ivan’s mouth, tears streamed down her face.

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