On & Off Campus Blog

Pandemic life-lessons from Tolstoy
Pandemic life-lessons from Tolstoy
Jackie Haining '22


When my summer plans crashed like a poorly-constructed Jenga tower back in March of this year, I was still fully expecting that I would soon fill the vacation months with activities galore. I hoped that Covid-19's effects would have somehow expired by June and new opportunities would open up in its reality-bending wake. But alas, as the long weeks at home pushed on, and greater society continued to brace for the worst, I settled into the realization that my summer would be filled instead with none other than the anxious mind's familiar collaborator: self-pity.

I pitied myself for what I wouldn't be able to do: the places I wouldn't see, the skills I wouldn't develop, the goals I wouldn't accomplish. But, to my delight, I gradually found little things here and there to fill my time. One of those was Mr. Walker's two-week online course on Russian literature. The course was fascinating and an absolute pleasure in the relative isolation at home. But what struck me most was how the story of a nineteenth-century Russian court official, facing an existential crisis and an unfortunate death, shaped my own reflection on life during this time of social change.

This short story is none other than Leo Tolstoy's 1886 The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Unlike many traditional plot lines of the time, the story begins with the death of the protagonist, Ivan Ilyich, and then backtracks to demonstrate his self-perceived successes and failures throughout his life. Ilyich spent his life attempting to climb in employment, social rank, and wealth. No position was sufficiently high for his self-expectations; no social rank earned him what he felt to be a deservedly high degree of respect; and no raise in pay could satisfy his desire for more.

Because of his unhappiness, his family life grows increasingly intolerable for him. Not even an eventual promotion, new-found status, and higher income can fix the situation. He pampers his new flat with expensive items. He becomes obsessive over the look of the place, and, ironically, injures himself while adjusting the upholstery over the floor-to-ceiling windows.

It is this very injury that eventually kills him months later, but not before he befriends his young house-servant, Gerasim. The servant lived frugally, suffered greatly in his life, and was of low social status but still shows Ilyich compassion and sympathy. Ilyich realizes that he has spent life focused on the wrong things, rather than being kind and conscientious like Gerasim.

Reading this story provided another perspective on my own expectations. While so many of us pitied ourselves for what we wouldn't be able to accomplish because of the coronavirus, we were mourning the wrong losses. Like the story of Ivan Ilyich, our lives can fly by with the pressure of grades and college applications, worries over our interests and future careers, social expectations and concerns over how we are perceived. All the while we do not sufficiently appreciate what makes it all tolerable, even worth-while: friendship.

Of course, we have all missed our friends dearly. However, Many of us did not fully understand the extent to which day-to-day interactions and companionship bring us joy. Separated in our respective homes, we were unable to provide and receive the usual support and companionship that an in-person experience creates. And without that, all the pressures of work, school, and social expectations in life start to lack some meaning.

Our desire to study for an exam falters without the constant compassion of our friends around us; our work ethic dissolves without the commiseration from those working side-by-side; our desire to meet social expectations fades without the companionship of those around us. The pizzaz of life is directly linked to the compassion we give and receive daily to and for friends. As Tolstoy wrote, without this compassion and companionship from our friends and colleagues, life is essentially "most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible." I couldn't agree more.