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How Leo Tolstoy Found His Purpose: The Beloved Author on Personal Growth and the Meaning of Human Existence

“That which one has set oneself to do, one should not relinquish on the grounds of absence of mind or distraction.”

How Leo Tolstoy Found His Purpose: The Beloved Author on Personal Growth and the Meaning of Human Existence

“To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention,” Susan Sontag asserted in one of her final works, a superb meditation on storytelling and what it means to be a good human being. Perhaps the most important kind of attention required is to our interior life and the values we allow to animate it, which become the scaffolding of our spirit and our wayfinding tool for navigate life. “There may be moments in life when we are so unformed that we need to use values like an exoskeleton to keep us from collapsing,” Parker Palmer wrote in his masterwork on discerning one’s path.

As he struggled to find his purpose in life, young Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 10, 1910) sketched the construction of that exoskeleton in The Diaries Of Leo Tolstoy: Youth (public library | free ebook) — the remarkable record of his moral and spiritual development.

Young Leo Tolstoy
Young Leo Tolstoy

In an entry from April of 1847, 21-year-old Tolstoy writes:

I keep finding myself confronted with the question, “What is the aim of man’s life?” and, no matter what result my reflections reach, no matter what I take to be life’s source, I invariably arrive at the conclusion that the purpose of our human existence is to afford a maximum of help towards the universal development of everything that exists.

If I meditate as I contemplate nature, I perceive everything in nature to be in constant process of development, and each of nature’s constituent portions to be unconsciously contributing towards the development of others. But man is, though a like portion of nature, a portion gifted with consciousness, and therefore bound, like the other portions, to make conscious use of his spiritual faculties in striving for the development of everything existent.

If I meditate as I contemplate history, I perceive the whole human race to be for ever aspiring towards the same end.

If I meditate on reason, if I pass in review man’s spiritual faculties, I find the soul of every man to have in it the same unconscious aspiration, the same imperative demand of the spirit.

If I meditate with an eye upon the history of philosophy, I find everywhere, and always, men to have arrived at the conclusion that the aim of human life is the universal development of humanity.

If I meditate with an eye upon theology, I find almost every nation to be cognizant of a perfect existence towards which it is the aim of mankind to aspire.

So I too shall be safe in taking for the aim of my existence a conscious striving for the universal development of everything existent. I should be the unhappiest of mortals if I could not find a purpose for my life, and a purpose at once universal and useful… Wherefore henceforth all my life must be a constant, active striving for that one purpose.

In the fashion of young men from that era, who drafted lists of their personal rules of conduct in their journals — a practice popularized by Benjamin Franklin and perfected by André Gide — young Tolstoy writes a few days later:

One of my general rules: That which one has set oneself to do, one should not relinquish on the grounds of absence of mind or distraction, but, on the contrary, take in hand for the sake of appearances. Thoughts will then result.

One of Maurice Sendak’s forgotten illustrations for Tolstoy’s 1852 book Nikolenka’s Childhood

Although he would later come to lament the questionable motives behind his early foray into writing, the next five years were both tremendously trying — like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy succumbed to gambling and spiraled into debt — and a major creative growth spurt that led to his debut as a writer. But he remained existentially restless. In a diary entry penned shortly before his thirty-fourth birthday, Tolstoy contemplates his life’s purpose with growing anxiety:

For some time past I have been tormented with regret at having wasted the best years of my life. It dates from the time when I began to feel myself capable of doing something good. Interesting it would be to describe the course of my moral growth; but neither words nor thoughts would be sufficient for the purpose.

To great thoughts there are no boundaries: yet long ago writers reached the impassable boundary of the expression of such thoughts. Played a game of chess, had supper, and now am going to bed. The pettiness of the life worries me. True, I feel this because I myself am petty ; but in me I have the capacity to despise myself and my life. There is something in me which forces me to believe that I was not born to be what other men are… I am grown to maturity, and the season of development is going, or gone, and I am tortured with a hunger … not for fame — I have no desire for fame; I despise it — but for acquiring great influence in the direction of the happiness and benefit of humanity.

Shall I die with the wish a hopeless one?

[…]

I fear vanity so much, and so much despise it, that I do not expect the satisfaction of it to afford me pleasure. Yet this is all that I have to look to, since, otherwise,
what would remain as a starting-point? Love and friendship … have they brought me happiness? Or is it that I have been unfortunate? Solely upon this hope rests any desire of mine to live and strive. If happiness and useful activity be possible, and I test them, I shall at least be in a position to put them to the best use. O Lord, have mercy upon me!

That year, Tolstoy made his literary debut with Childhood — the first volume of his autobiographical trilogy — and so began his self-made destiny as one of humanity’s most visionary and life-giving voices. Throughout his long life, despite his often debilitating fallibility and the major existential crisis of his middle age, he never lost sight of this sense of purpose and remained animated by his youth’s desire to advance “the universal development of humanity” until his final breath.

Complement this particular portion of The Diaries Of Leo Tolstoy: Youth with Richard Feynman on the meaning of life, the story of how Van Gogh found his purpose, and contemporary soul-bolsterer Parker Palmer on how to let your life speak, then revisit Tolstoy on what separates good art from the bad, why we drink and party, his forgotten correspondence with Gandhi about violence, human nature, and why we hurt each other, and his reading list of essential books for every stage of life.

BP

On the Soul-Sustaining Necessity of Resisting Self-Comparison and Fighting Cynicism: A Commencement Address

“In its passivity and resignation, cynicism is a hardening, a calcification of the soul. Hope is a stretching of its ligaments, a limber reach for something greater.”

I have long relished the commencement address as one of our few cultural forms that render us receptive to sincerity — receptive to messages we might dismiss as trite in any other context, but which we recognize here as the life-earned truth of the human being at the podium, shared in a spirit of goodwill with a group of young humans just starting out on the truth-earning gauntlet called life.

So I was thrilled to deliver the address to the 2016 graduating class at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, my own alma mater. Speech text below.

annenberg_commencement

I want to talk to you today about the soul. Not the soul as that immortal unit of religious mythology, for I am a nonbeliever. And not the soul as a pop-culture commodity, that voracious consumer of self-help chicken soup. I mean the soul simply as shorthand for the seismic core of personhood from which our beliefs, our values, and our actions radiate.

I live in New York, where something extraordinary happens every April. In the first days of spring, those days when the air turns from blistering to balmy, a certain gladness envelops the city — people actually look up from their screens while walking and strangers smile at each other. For a few short days, it’s like we remember how we can live and who we’re capable of being to one another.

I also practically live on my bike — that’s how I get everywhere — and the other week, on one of those first days of spring, I was riding from Brooklyn to Harlem. I had somewhere to be and was pedaling pretty fast — which I like doing and must admit I take a certain silly pride in — but I was also very much enjoying the ride and the river and the spring air that smelled of plum blossoms. And then, I sensed someone behind me in the bike path, catching up, going even faster than I was going. It suddenly felt somehow competitive. He was trying to overtake me. I pedaled faster, but he kept catching up. Eventually, he did overtake me — and I felt strangely defeated.

But as he cruised past me, I realized the guy was on an electric bike. I felt both a sort of redemption and a great sense of injustice — unfair motorized advantage, very demoralizing to the honest muscle-powered pedaler. But just as I was getting all self-righteously existential, I noticed something else — he had a restaurant’s name on his back. He was food delivery guy. He was rushing past me not because he was trying to slight me, or because he had some unfair competitive advantage in life, but because this was his daily strife — this is how this immigrant made his living.

My first response was to shame myself into gratitude for how fortunate I’ve been — because I too am an immigrant from a pretty poor country and it’s some miraculous confluence of choice and chance that has kept me from becoming a food delivery person on an electric bike in order to survive in New York City. And perhaps the guy has a more satisfying life than I do — perhaps he had a good mother and goes home to the love of his life and plays the violin at night. I don’t know, and I never will. But the point is that the second I begin comparing my pace to his, my life to his, I’m vacating my own experience of that spring day and ejecting myself into a sort of limbo of life that is neither mine nor his.

I grew up in Bulgaria and my early childhood was spent under a communist dictatorship. But for all its evils, communism had one silver lining — when everyone had very little, no one felt like somebody else was cruising past them motorized by privilege.

I came to Penn straight from Bulgaria, through that same confluence of chance and choice (and, yes, a lot of very, very hard work — I don’t want to minimize the importance of that, but I also don’t want to imply that people who end up on the underprivileged end of life haven’t worked hard enough, because this is one of our most oppressive cultural myth and reality is so much more complex). In any case: When I came to Penn, I had an experience very different from my childhood. Suddenly, as I was working four jobs to pay for school, I felt like everybody else was on an electric bike and I was just pedaling myself into the ground.

This, of course, is what happens in every environment densely populated by so-called peers — self-comparison becomes inevitable. Financial inequality was just my particular poison, but we do it along every imaginable axis of privilege and every dimension of identity — intelligence, beauty, athleticism, charisma that entrances the Van Pelt librarians into pardoning your late fees.

But here’s the thing about self-comparison: In addition to making you vacate your own experience, your own soul, your own life, in its extreme it breeds resignation. If we constantly feel that there is something more to be had — something that’s available to those with a certain advantage in life, but which remains out of reach for us — we come to feel helpless. And the most toxic byproduct of this helpless resignation is cynicism — that terrible habit of mind and orientation of spirit in which, out of hopelessness for our own situation, we grow embittered about how things are and about what’s possible in the world. Cynicism is a poverty of curiosity and imagination and ambition.

Today, the soul is in dire need of stewardship and protection from cynicism. The best defense against it is vigorous, intelligent, sincere hope — not blind optimism, because that too is a form of resignation, to believe that everything will work out just fine and we need not apply ourselves. I mean hope bolstered by critical thinking that is clear-headed in identifying what is lacking, in ourselves or the world, but then envisions ways to create it and endeavors to do that.

In its passivity and resignation, cynicism is a hardening, a calcification of the soul. Hope is a stretching of its ligaments, a limber reach for something greater.

You are about to enter the ecosystem of cultural production. Most of you will go into journalism, media, policy, or some blurry blob of the increasingly amorphous Venn diagram of these forces that shape culture and public opinion. Whatever your specific vocation, your role as a creator of culture will be to help people discern what matters in the world and why by steering them away from the meaningless and toward the meaningful. E.B. White said that the role of the writer is to lift people up, not to lower them down, and I believe that’s the role of every journalist and artist and creator of culture.

Strive to be uncynical, to be a hope-giving force, to be a steward of substance. Choose to lift people up, not to lower them down — because it is a choice, always, and because in doing so you lift yourself up.

Develop an inner barometer for your own value. Resist pageviews and likes and retweets and all those silly-sounding quantification metrics that will be obsolete within the decade. Don’t hang the stability of your soul on them. They can’t tell you how much your work counts for and to whom. They can’t tell you who you are and what you’re worth. They are that demoralizing electric bike that makes you feel if only you could pedal faster — if only you could get more pageviews and likes and retweets — you’d be worthier of your own life.

You will enter a world where, whatever career you may choose or make for yourself — because never forget that there are jobs you can get and jobs you can invent — you will often face the choice of construction and destruction, of building up or tearing down.

Among our most universal human longings is to affect the world with our actions somehow, to leave an imprint with our existence. Both construction and destruction leave a mark and give us a sense of agency in the world. Now, destruction is necessary sometimes — damaged and damaging systems need to be demolished to clear the way for more enlivening ones. But destruction alone, without construction to follow it, is hapless and lazy. Construction is far more difficult, because it requires the capacity to imagine something new and better, and the willingness to exert ourselves toward building it, even at the risk of failure. But that is also far more satisfying in the end.

You may find your fate forked by construction and destruction frequently, in ways obvious or subtle. And you will have to choose between being the hammer-wielding vandal, who may attain more immediate results — more attention — by tearing things and people and ideas down, or the sculptor of culture, patiently chiseling at the bedrock of how things are to create something new and beautiful and imaginative following a nobler vision, your vision, of how things can and should be.

Some active forms of destruction are more obvious and therefore, to the moral and well-intentioned person, easier to resist. It’s hard not to notice that there’s a hammer before you and to refuse to pick it up. But there are passive forms of destruction far more difficult to detect and thus to safeguard against, and the most pernicious of them is cynicism.

Our culture has created a reward system in which you get points for tearing down rather than building up, and for besieging with criticism and derision those who dare to work and live from a place of constructive hope. Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively, in yourself and in those you love and in the communication with which you shape culture. Cynicism, like all destruction, is easy, it’s lazy. There is nothing more difficult yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincere, active, constructive hope for the human spirit. This is the most potent antidote to cynicism, and it is an act of courage and resistance today.

It is also the most vitalizing sustenance for your soul.

But you — you — are in a very special position, leaving Annenberg, because your courage and resistance are to be enacted not only in the privacy of your inner life but in your outer contribution to public life. You are the creators of tomorrow’s ideas and ideals, the sculptors of public opinion and of culture. As long as we feed people buzz, we cannot expect their minds to produce symphonies. Never let the temptation of marketable mediocrity and easy cynicism rob you of the chance to ennoble public life and enlarge the human spirit — because we need that badly today, and because you need it badly for the survival of your soul.

So as you move through life, pedal hard — because that’s how you get places, and because it’s fun and so incredibly gratifying to propel yourself forward by your own will and power of intention. But make sure the pace of your pedaling answers only to your own standards of vigor. Remain uncynical and don’t waste any energy on those who pass you by on their electric bikes, because you never know what strife is driving them and, most of all, because the moment you focus on that, you vacate your own soul.

Instead, pedal forth — but also remember to breathe in the spring air and to smile at a stranger every once in a while. Because there is nothing more uncynical than being good to one another.

Thank you and congratulations.

BP

Wait: Galway Kinnell’s Beautiful and Life-Giving Poem for a Young Friend Contemplating Suicide

“Be there to hear … the flute of your whole existence…”

Wait: Galway Kinnell’s Beautiful and Life-Giving Poem for a Young Friend Contemplating Suicide

“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” Albert Camus famously wrote — a statement that has only swelled in intellectual notoriety and spiritual significance in the half-century since. But beyond philosophy, when the will to live or die plays out in the personal realm, it creates a vortex of pain — not only for the anguished person contemplating suicide but for those who love them, to say nothing of the perilous social contagion of suicide.

Pulitzer-winning poet Galway Kinnell (February 1, 1927–October 28, 2014) addressed this elemental question of existence with extraordinary compassion and spiritual grace in a poem he wrote for a student of his who was contemplating suicide after the abrupt end of a romance. Originally published in Kinnell’s beautiful and beautifully titled 1980 collection Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, it was later included in A New Selected Poems (public library).

In this recording courtesy of the Academy of American Poets, Kinnell brings his miraculously life-giving words to life:

WAIT

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Wait.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

I am grateful to Rosanne Cash and the New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber for bringing this enormously enlivening poem to my attention. Complement it with Diane Ackerman on what working at a suicide prevention hotline taught her about the human spirit.

For more beloved poets performing their work, hear Sylvia Plath reading “Spinster,” “The Birthday Present,” and “The Disquieting Muses,” Billy Collins reading “Aristotle,” T.S. Eliot reading “Burnt Norton,” Lucille Clifton reading “won’t you celebrate with me,” Elizabeth Alexander reading “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe,” Sarah Kay reading “The Paradox,” and Mary Oliver reading “Wild Geese.”

BP

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