What Really Matters

What Really Matters April 26, 2024

Today’s blog comes from an essay I wrote over twenty years ago. I found it in an old folder that was buried under a stack of papers sitting in the corner of my office. It is still very relevant today.

I remember writing the essay because of a book I had read by Brian Mahon. In the book he made some comments about one of Tolstoy’s shorter novels, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I was so intrigued by Mahon’s words that I purchased the novel and read it.

In the book the protagonist, Ivan Ilyich, was a successful lawyer and respected judge in Czarist Russia in the middle of the 19th century. At the age of 45, at the peak of his career, he learns he has a terminal illness. Much of the book is his inner thoughts about his life and impending death. He consistently finds himself asking the question, “As a man, what has my life all been about, and what have I been pursuing?”

What Tolstoy reveals through this story is how a man’s pursuits give birth to confusion over what makes life worthwhile. Read the words of Ilyich:

“It’s as though I had been going steadily downhill while I imagined I was going up . . . In public opinion I was moving uphill, but at the same extent (my) life was slipping away from me. Outwardly I looked great, but my inner life, my soul was becoming more and more corrupt.”

Tolstoy was clearly pressing this question on the reader: “Why didn’t Ilyich know what he really wanted, and why don’t we?”

As Ilyich wrestles with these questions, he begins to realize that the life he built for himself was a lie. He realized that he, like most men had bought into the social script of the culture.

Though he was married and had children, he realized that his life had been consumed by three pursuits:

  1. Career achievement, because of the power and social prestige that went with it.
  2. Material wealth. Ilyich had just bought a new, elegant home in an aristocratic neighborhood. When he bought this dream home, he thought to himself, “In actuality, this new home was like the homes of all people who are not really rich but who want to look rich, and they all end up looking like one another.”
  3. The pursuit of pleasure – Ilyich was a heavy drinker and philanderer.

In observing the life of Ilyich, Mahon asks, “What is it that makes the temptation of power, prestige, and high position so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is because it offers an easy substitute for the hard task of loving people. The long painful history of the world is for people to choose prestige and power over love, being in charge over being lead, and being served over serving others.”

In the end, it lead Ilyich to wonder: Was it worth it? And as he neared the end of his life he finally began to realize what really matters.

Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.

Browse Our Archives