“It was true, as the doctor said, that Ivan Ilyich’s physical sufferings were terrible, but worse than the physical sufferings were his mental sufferings which were his chief torture.
His mental sufferings were due to the fact that that night, as he looked at Gerasim’s sleepy, good-natured face with it prominent cheek-bones, the question suddenly occurred to him: “What if my whole life has been wrong?”
It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. And his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend.…
He lay on his back and began to pass his life in review in quite a new way. In the morning when he saw first his footman, then his wife, then his daughter, and then the doctor, their every word and movement confirmed to him the awful truth that had been revealed to him during the night. In them he saw himself — all that for which he had lived — and saw clearly that it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death. This consciousness intensified his physical suffering tenfold. He groaned and tossed about, and pulled at his clothing which choked and stifled him. And he hated them on that account.”
– ‘The death of Ivan Ilyich’
Leo Tolstoy’s story of Ivan Ilyich is a harrowing tale of someone who lived their life in ‘bad faith’, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it. We cannot guarantee that when the end comes, we will not have regrets, but through the on-going practice of self-examination we can rest assured that we have done our best to live up to what is asked of us at each stage of our life.
Socrates claimed the unexamined life is not worth living. In fact, examining life is the only way to really live, ‘to live deep and suck out all the marrow’, as Thoreau put it.
Rather than waiting for when we are on our deathbeds we can conduct a life review right now, and regularly, to make sure that when we come to die, we don’t discover, that we have not lived.
Some guiding questions:
How have I spent my life so far?
If I were to face death right now, are there regrets I would have? Things I have failed to do?
What has my life been in service to?
Jack Kornfield encourages us to reflect:
Am I following a path with heart?
Where do I put my time, strength, creativity, and love?
Does what I am choosing reflect what I most deeply value?
These questions require a sustained inner listening. But if we stay with these questions and listen, we will find that the answer is always there.
The great gift of this reflection is the realisation, if we are unhappy with how we are living, that there is still time to change and start to create a legacy that will allow us to leave this life at peace, when the time comes.