Many people experience life just going through the motions. Work, TV, eat, sleep, repeat.
We pursue status and material goods, because that is the way society leads us. We go out and party and have a good time. Yet, when we look back on it all it is all a blur.
In the Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy, this month’s book club pick, we see how a man can go through life believing that he is doing everything right. Yet, when he faces death and reflects on his past, much of it appears meaningless and empty:
And in imagination he began to recall the best moments of his pleasant life. But strange to say none of those best moments of his pleasant life now seemed at all what they had then seemed—none of them except the first recollections of childhood. There, in childhood, there had been something really pleasant with which it would be possible to live if it could return. But the child who had experienced that happiness existed no longer, it was like a reminiscence of somebody else.
As soon as the period began which had produced the present Ivan Ilych, all that had then seemed joys now melted before his sight and turned into something trivial and often nasty.
There is at some point a switch that goes off in us that tells us to stop being a child. To stop our playfulness and joy, and instead pursue the drab existence of a worker:
And the further he departed from childhood and the nearer he came to the present the more worthless and doubtful were the joys. This began with the School of Law. A little that was really good was still found there—there was light-heartedness, friendship, and hope. But in the upper classes there had already been fewer of such good moments. Then during the first years of his official career, when he was in the service of the governor, some pleasant moments again occurred: they were the memories of love for a woman. Then all became confused and there was still less of what was good; later on again there was still less that was good, and the further he went the less there was. His marriage, a mere accident, then the disenchantment that followed it, his wife’s bad breath and the sensuality and hypocrisy: then that deadly official life and those preoccupations about money, a year of it, and two, and ten, and twenty, and always the same thing. And the longer it lasted the more deadly it became. “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.
The scene of a man lying on his death bed reflecting on his life is a bit cliche, admittedly. Yet, nothing Tolstoy does is cliche. Certainly not Ivan’s death.
Create Memories and Meaning in Your Life
This story is a stark reminder to pursue a life that is both memorable and meaningful. These are two separate things.
Memories are short-lived experiences such as experiencing travel and events.
Creating meaning derives from living a deliberate life that seeks to better yourself and those around you.
To live a good life you need both. These days, people pursue making memories, but not meaning. On your death bed, you’ll look back and wish you had created both.