A Search for Meaning
Have you ever caught a glimpse of yourself when you have slipped into thinking that other people's problems are pretty easy to understand and fix? While your problems are, how shall we say… “more complex”? It makes me squirm. I catch myself thinking like that and try to remind myself how fast the mind can jump to a faulty conclusion that all too frequently goes unchallenged.
A close parallel is the almost magical allure of “if only". The reoccurring conviction that if only I had such and such; more money, some property or different property, more things, or different things, or a life partner, or a different partner, or a different job or a better job, or if I was taller, shorter, thinner, younger etc. then…I would be happy. No, youwouldn't. That's another faulty conclusion. Part of being alive is having problems. We always have them. We know the problems of a child are different from an adolescent and an adolescent's problems are different from the problems of an adult. The specific problems may differ but we will always have some an assortment of problems. You might appease the discontentment for a while but it always returns. Most of us are discontent, restless, side stepping what we are trying to avoid, chasing desire after desire, searching to fulfill that indefinable sense that something is missing in our lives. Too often we exchange what we want most for ourselves for what we want at the moment.
It is inevitable that we will remain discontented for as long as we search for the answers to life's deepest questions outside of ourselves. Swami Rama often said, “Nothing outside of you can give you what you are looking for."
I was reminded of all of this the other day when I ran across my copy of Leo Tolstoy's A Confession and What I Believe. Yes, that Leo Tolstoy, Count Leo Tolstoy, the one that wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Tolstoy is considered to be one of, if not the, greatest novelist in history. While this is high praise, what makes him interesting to me is what happened to him after he wrote his great popular works. How he came to write what he wrote and said that compelled the Russian government to ban his books, most of his admirers to shun him, and the Russian Orthodox Church to excommunicate him and how his home became at the same time a destination of pilgrimage.
And how his newfound beliefs changed the world.
The gist of the story, as it was told to me (an apocryphal version no doubt), goes something like this. Tolstoy was riding into a small village. He was thinking about himself and his life. He was deeply unhappy and disillusioned. He sees two serfs using pitchforks to remove manure from a wagon. He hears them talking and laughing and in their laughter he hears the unmistakable tone of genuine happiness and contentment.
This is the last straw in a series of inner promptings that had been going on in him for some time. He thinks to himself, “I have as much in my life as any man has a right to expect and maybe more than any man that ever lived.” And it was true.
He was a Count; his family’s nobility had been bestowed by Peter the Great. He was rich, he owned thousands of acres of land, thousands of head of livestock and horses. He was powerful, holding the fate of hundreds of serfs, literally in the palm of his hand. He was a world-famous author and considered by many to be the best that ever lived. He was welcomed in all the Royal Courts of Europe. He was multilingual, speaking French fluently as well as several native dialects. He was an accomplished educator that started schools for the peasants and wrote textbooks for the schools that came into common use throughout Russia. He led the life of one born to the military class. He was a decorated officer that served with distinction in the Crimean War. He was an expert horseman, a good wrestler, he loved to smoke, drink, gamble, and was no stranger to women of questionable virtue. He had settled down, was now happily married and had thirteen children. But his despondency left him almost inconsolable.
Tolstoy refers to an ancient Indian story in his book A Confession, to illustrate the situation that he found himself in. A man is walking home from his fields at dusk to the village where he lives. He sees a tiger stalking him and in a panic runs away from the tiger. He runs so fast that in the gathering darkness he slips and falls into a well. As he is falling inside the well he reaches out and grabs a vine that breaks his fall. Hanging there he looks down and sees a huge cobra that is coiling to strike him. He frantically looks up and sees that by now the tiger is peering over the edge of the well, hungrily waiting. As the man adjusts his grip on the vine he sees a black mouse and a white mouse moving in a circle, methodically eating the vine he is hanging from. The awareness dawns that his situation is hopeless. At that moment he spots a trickle of honey, fallen from a beehive in a tree branch suspended above the well that has fallen onto the vine. He licks the honey.
The black and white mice are the days and nights of our existence while we await the inevitable. The honey represents the mundane pleasures of the world we savor while we resign ourselves to our fate.
If this was your life and his unhappiness was your unhappiness, what would you do? What is your unhappiness? What are you doing to fill that sense of emptiness, how do you console yourself about your inevitable death? How do you want to be remembered? What kind of your own thoughts are you afraid of?
Tolstoy was haunted by the fear of his own death. Over and over again he asked himself, what had meaning in his life that would transcend or survive his death? He began to have thoughts of suicide to the point that he quit hunting so he wouldn't have access to a gun. He hid ropes and cords that he could use to hang himself.
He could not dismiss his death or put the thoughts of it aside. His despair was palpable, and the happiness and contentment he heard in the laughter of the serfs haunted him. How could this be? He had everything and they had nothing. He was miserable and they were happy.
As Tolstoy pondered his situation he reasoned that what gave the serfs solace was their religion. So Tolstoy threw himself into religion. He exacted heavy penances upon himself, prayed and studied. But as time went by he noticed that the priests and clergy were inconsistent or indifferent to the rules of conduct and worship expected of the members of the church. Tolstoy was appalled at the hypocrisy he observed and left the church.
He then reasoned that if it couldn’t be their religion in which the serfs had found their happiness; it must be their faith. He became convinced that it was the faith that they had garnered from their Bible. Tolstoy was very skeptical, based on his experience, that the clergy of the Church could be trusted to have faithfully translated the Bible as it was written in Greek. He thought it was much more likely that it was translated to promote dependence on the Church and its clergy.
To confirm his suspicions, Tolstoy had himself tutored in Greek and poured himself into the task of learning Greek fluently. He used his considerable influence and resources to acquire the Gospels in Greek. He then set about retranslating the Gospels, not book by book but by the chronological events in Christ’s life.
He published the work in two volumes as, A Harmony and Translation of the Four Gospels. The format he used was like a newspaper. The text appears in three columns down the page. The left column is the Greek text of the Gospel. The middle column is the translation of the Church. The right-hand column Tolstoy translates as what the text actually says. Needless to say, the Russian Orthodox Church was not amused.
The storm over Tolstoy's inner world began to abate as he was filled with his own growing faith. He came to understand; that whatever rational criticism could be made of faith, that it was faith alone that introduces a relationship between the finite and the Infinite and that the questions of life cannot be satisfactorily answered without faith. He felt that the divinity in Christ's life was not supernatural, but more importantly to him, that Christ taught mankind how to live and that if you live seeking God, you will not live without God.
Like Scrooge on Christmas morning, Tolstoys’ faith unleashed a rapid sequence of life changes. One of his first acts was to petition Czar Alexander to pardon the assassins that murdered his father. He stopped smoking, drinking, and gambling. He became celibate. He became a vegetarian. He wanted to renounce his role as an estate owner and his wealth and position in society but his wife and family prevailed in their objections for some time.
He believed with great passion that the passage in Mathew 5:39 from the Sermon on the Mount, “But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whoever shall strike thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (King James version) was to be taken absolutely literally. He became an anarchist in his thinking because governments ultimately resort to violence to implement their policies. He was positive that a primary instinct in man was to not kill. He was adamantly opposed to conscription because military service and war corrupted the nature of the individual. Be this time his books were banned in Russia and were being printed by revolutionaries in Geneva, Switzerland. The church excommunicated him in 1891.
In 1894 he published, The Kingdom of God is Within You, a book written by a world class writer at the zenith of his powers that was living his faith. It reflected the zeal of his spiritual convictions and contained scathing indictments of the morality of governments and religions. Most scholars feel that it is his finest nonfiction work.
Tolstoy became aware of a small religious sect called the, “Dukhobors,” the name means “Spirit Wrestlers”. They were pacifists that accepted the authority of God but rejected the authority of the Czar. They also rejected all religious icons and some groups believed in community property and even rejected the Bible preferring their own oral tradition that they called the, “Book of Life". Tolstoy identified with their beliefs. Czar Alexander persecuted them to force them to abide by his conscription decrees. The Dukhobors were hounded, beaten, tortured, imprisoned and murdered for their resistance.
Tolstoy took up their cause and used his considerable moral, political and financial influences to come to their aid. Living what he believed, he continued to reach out to others that were suffering injustices at the hands of their governments.
The South Africa of 1894 was perpetrating racism on its citizens. A Quaker by the name of Coates was taking his evangelical message to its many victims. He was socially active in his community and soon became acquainted with many young people that opposed the government's racist policies. He became fond of a young Indian gentleman of his acquaintance. The man was an attorney who was becoming active in politics. Coates gave him many books and writings on Christianity and Christ. The young man was a voracious reader but remained unconverted. Coates passed along Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You.
The young man would later recount in his autobiography that the book, “overwhelmed” him. “Before the independent thinking, profound morality, and the truthfulness of the book, all the books given me by Mr. Coates seemed to pale into insignificance.” The young man was Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi. The world would know him as “Mahatma". Some years passed and when Gandhi was sent to prison in 1906 he reread the, Kingdom of God is Within You. He found correlations and inspiration with Tolstoy's thinking. He shaped a political activism that involved nonviolent civil disobedience to actively seek social reform and called it "Satyagraha", truth-force. Gandhi avidly read as many of Tolstoy's works as he could find.
Finally, Gandhi wrote him and they developed a warm correspondence. The last letter that Tolstoy ever wrote was to Mahatma Gandhi. Later as Gandhi experimented with communal living he named the community Tolstoy farm.
An additional faulty conclusion that many of us have, is that the events that happened before we were born are ancient history, the implications of those events are from so long ago that they couldn’t affect us in a tangible way.
Sometimes it is helpful to get a historical perspective to put things in context. The year 1894 is closer than you might think. When Gandhi sat down to read, The Kingdom of God is Within You, the first time and Tolstoy was espousing absolute pacifism as Christ’s authentic message; a five-year-old boy, the son of Alois Hitler was growing up in Austria. A fifteen-year-old youth named Iosif Dzhugashvili graduated with honors in Russia from the Gori Church School and was awarded a scholarship to Tbilisi Theological Seminary. He would soon become involved in politics and take the pseudonym “man of steel (Stalin)" to protect his anonymity. Sara Roosevelt was personally supervising the education of her twelve-year-old son in Hyde Park. A four-year boy that was named David Dwight was called Dwight David by the Eisenhower family in Abilene, Kansas. And a one-year old bouncing baby boy in Hunan Province in China, who was too young to read, would one day write a little red book.
The despair that drove Tolstoy to search for the meaning in his life led him to a faith he could live. The ripple effect of his faith survived two World Wars and the changed we live in.
He inspired Mahatma Gandhi who led India to independence via nonviolent civil disobedience. The Reverend Martin Luther King used Gandhi's techniques and precepts to advantage in the great Civil Rights movements of the 1950's and 1960's in the United States. Time and again we see peaceful demonstrations, and acts of nonviolent civil disobedience used to advance the cause of social justice.
What remains is for you to come to your own terms with what it is in your life, which has enough meaning to transcend your death. Tolstoy was unable to live without faith. Can you? And if not, what kind of faith do you need? Faith in what?
Swami Rama said, “Remember, the concept of God is not God. But if your concept of God doesn't help you, what good is it?"
What will be the ripple effects of your search for meaning?