I related readily with Ivan Ilyich, the main character in Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. There was a time when I myself lived my life without regard to the spirituality of life. I, however, was very lucky in that it did not take death looming over my head to realize this. Maybe the fact that my bout of depression’s onset happened sooner in life allowed me to see it sooner. Eric Simpson put it best as “We all die, like Ilyich, and if we only live to live, to create and carve our own meaning into the universe, then life itself becomes ultimately meaningless and painfully insignificant.”
The key point here is the “painfully insignificant”(Simpson). Depression snuck up on me like old age will, forty times quicker. Ilyich manages to cover his depression by compartmentalizing his feelings from his thoughts and by becoming a workaholic. Doing this, he had a means of either dismissing his depression or drowning it in work.
Ivan Ilyich did not notice his depression and lack of spirituality until three days prior to his death. It is not until Ilyich asks himself, “What if my whole life has really been wrong?”(Tolstoy 1203), and comes up with an affirmitave answer that Ilyich tries to find a way to rectify his situation. His solution is painfully simple, spare his family the heartache of his dying and to just get it over with.
My solution was quite different. I came up with two simple rules. The number one rule of feeling better is to help strangers whenever possible. For example, last Wednesday, my car broke down on Route 7. I did not have a cell-phone and there wasn’t a payphone in sight. Since I had a paper due, I started hitchhiking to class. After about five minutes of walking, a middle-aged woman with her two preschoolers picked me up. Asking what made her stop, she replied, “I don’t think I would have slept so well knowing I left a student walk to class down a six-lane highway” (she had seen the sticker on my broke-down car and the book-bag on my back). She even offered me a ride home; it would have been an hour ride for her round trip. Not that I am saying you should always pick up strangers, but this women picked me up not only because she would have felt bad, but because she thought it was the morally right thing to do. Nothing curbs depression or the feeling of having a bad day like righteousness.
The second major change would be in how you spend your time. Just because the pursuit of happiness is guaranteed in the U. S. Constitution does not mean that you should spend all your time on it. Doing nothing besides amusing yourself leaves you with a feeling of wasted time–which it is. Ilyich liked to play cards and pay official visits to the country districts(1172). Combine that with his work ethics and Ilyich was constantly in a state of recreational and occupational bliss. My vices were quite different, mainly because of the difference between nineteenth century Russia and twenty-first century America. Not being born into the social elite, I was not guaranteed a high position in government work. Also, video games replaced cards as the modern distraction.
By following these two separate rules, I began to gain back my sense of self. As I gradually felt better about myself, my depression evaporated like a pool of water in the sun. I still spend time amusing myself with the occasional Stephen King novel or the latest video game, but I spend more time thinking about the world around me, my place in it and what I can do to make it a better place. And the best part about it is I, like Ilyich, did not need a psychologist or Prozac to feel better about myself and the world around me.
Simpson, Eric. Metaphor in The Death of Ivan Ilyich. 12 April 2001 . Simpson explains how this story can be interpreted with the Eastern Orthodox in mind and the spiritual differences between Eastern and Western doctrines. He also points out Ilyich’s total lack of spirituality and the feeling of a wasted life. Simpson points out these differences and includes Biblical quotes to back it up with great insight, getting to a level of depth that could confuse some readers but has shown this reader something I would never have thought of on my own.
Novel Analysis: Death of Ivan Illich. 12 April 2001 This author explains how Ilyich’s life is a ‘front’ for the sake of propriety. Also, the author points out that Ilyich is not aware of this until just days before he dies. A very short interpretation, but one that completely backs me up.
All quotes from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich are from the following edition: