“Don't seek God in temples. He is close to you. He is within you. Only you should surrender to Him and you will rise above happiness and unhappiness.”
Have you ever read Anna Karenina and War and Peace? The great novels had brought Leo Tolstoy to fame and wealth. Interestingly, both had sent him to a painful crisis. All of a sudden, he plunged into depression, stopped writing, and withdrew from his family. Being fifty, in 1878, in the midst of his abundant wealth, his handsome nine children, and his devoted wife, he met head on a grave situation: He is going to die, just like everybody else. People die, things decay, fame fades, wealth wanes, and great moments pass.
“Sooner or later my deeds, whatever they may have been, will be forgotten and will no longer exist,” he wrote in his autobiographical Confessions. Nothing lasts forever. Some day you’ll be gone, along with your works, your projects, your family, your children and your children’s children. Some day your names will be deleted from the list of the Earth’s passengers. You will be no longer world denizens. You will belong to the past- forgone, forlorn and forgotten.
Tolstoy ruminated: “What is the meaning of life then?” Yuval Lurie in his philosophical Tracking the Meaning of Life beautifully tells us about Tolstoy’s spiritual turbulence.
“This question nagged at him painfully. He returned to it again and again, until it began to gnaw at the roots of his soul. Every time he reflected upon it, it drove a wedge between him and everything that was meaningful to him, stopping him dead in his tracks. Gradually the question turned into a malignant disease, festering in his soul and casting a grave shadow over his life.
Underlying the disease was the thought: “To what end is all this effort?” Sooner or later death would overtake him, his family, and everything dear to him. So what if he was a greatly esteemed writer? So what if he was successful in managing his estate? It would all vanish someday. So why go to all the trouble?
Tolstoy relates that no answer could satisfy him. All the former driving influences in his life—the pleasure he took in art, his literary work, his love for his family, his estate, his success—now appeared meaningless to him. “I had nothing to live by,” he writes. “My life came to a standstill.”
The So-What and So-Why questions changed the way he looked into life. He found himself a traveler through the desert, suddenly attacked by a beast of prey. He flees for his life. He jumps into the deep pit, only to see the dragon waiting to swallow him at the bottom. Fortunately, he manages to grab hold of a bush growing from the wall of the pit. Now, unfortunately, he sees a pair of mice gnawing at the roots of the bush. He certainly knows sometime in the near future he won’t be able to hang there in the air. The mice will throw him down to the dragon’s mouth. Meanwhile, he spots a few drops of honey suspended on the leaves of the bush. He licks them up in delight. They give him passing pleasure.
Everything that had appeared as joys –drops of honey- now melted in his sight and changed into something trivial and even horrible. He sneered at the high society life that the rest of the family enjoyed. He despised the glamour of the parties that people savored. Once in while, he gave up meat, alcohol, and sex. Tolstoy would occasionally abandoned his family to help the poor or to live a simple life in the monastery.
Tolstoy struggled to answer these questions: Is there a way to find an everlasting joy in the looming shadow of death? At first he turned to philosophy and science. He found no satisfying answer. He looked into the peasants on his estate. They seemed to be content and happy in spite of poverty and disease. He concluded they lived in peace because of their religious faith. But Tolstoy was raised up in the secular way . He had stopped believing in God. He was a man of his times, a modern person taught to think it’s impossible to know anything about God.
Yet, to believe in God is a must, if you want to have an eternal joy. First find God in your daily life. Don’t try to meet Him in the speeches of theologians. They are all barren and dry. Feel His Presence in your service to humankind. Feel His Touch by spreading love to the world. Tolstoy finally solved his existential problems. All his pains melted away. He lived by his new-found faith and died peacefully.