Week 18: life, death, and legacy (in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”)

Someone recently asked me: “What do you want your legacy to be? How do you want to leave your mark upon the world?” I was a little caught off guard. I’d never really been asked that question, and I’ve honestly never pondered it very extensively. 

I just read (or rather, listened to) “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Leo Tolstoy. As Ivan is overcome by a painful sickness and becomes frightfully aware and very afraid of his inevitably approaching death, he begins to contemplate his life and legacy. In the midst of his physical suffering and emotional agony, he makes some sobering remarks and asks himself some poignant questions (all of which make me think more about this idea of “life, death, and legacy”).

It is as if I have 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. Then what does it mean? Why? It can’t be that life is so senseless and horrible. But if it really has been so horrible and senseless, why must I die, and die in agony? There is something wrong! Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,” it suddenly occurred to him. “But how could that be when I did everything properly?” he replied. 

“What if my whole life has been wrong?”…There was nothing to defend. “But if that is so, and I am leaving this life with the consciousness that I have lost all that was given me, and it is impossible to rectify it, what then?”

“This is wrong, it is not as it should be. All you have lived for and still live for is falsehood and deception, hiding life and death from you!

“Yes, it was not the right thing…But that’s no matter, it can be done. But what is the right thing?

He turned his attention to [the pain and death]. “Yes, here it is. Well, what of it? Let the pain be. And death, where is it?” He sought his former accustomed fear of death and could not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear, because there was no death. In place of death, there was light. “So, that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “Joy”…“It is finished,” said someone near him. He heard these words, and repeated them in his soul. “Death is finished,” he said to himself. “It is no more.”

We can ask ourselves: “What do I live for? How do I want to be remembered? What is ‘the right thing’?” No one can answer these questions for us. Whether we realize it or not, we are answering these questions every single day–in what we live for, what we invest in, whatever our treasure is; in every act, decision, word, thought, belief; in every choice of love, hate, or indifference. Our answers are writing our legacies.

“What do you want your legacy to be? How do you want to leave your mark upon the world?” Does your life look like your answer?

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