Perhaps it’s the human question of questions: what is the meaning of life? No doubt the answer concerning nature at large is beyond our wildest dreams. But, in a limited and personal way, a human way, is it answerable? I think so, and I think the chief answer is LOVE.
I know of no other person who has wrestled with the questions of life and its meaning, if any, as deeply as the Russian Christian, Leo Tolstoy. But don’t take my word for it. His contemporary in India, Gandhi, called him ‘the very embodiment of truth in this age.’
When Tolstoy was a young child, his older brother told Tolstoy that he had a great secret. The secret, said his brother, was engraved on a green stick that was buried by the ravine at the edge of their forest. If found, he says, it had the answers to annul every war, every illness, every death, and that all would live as ‘ant brothers’ – that is, as those who would choose to snuggle and work under the same roof because they all loved each other.
Tolstoy literally believed this fable as a child. But as he grew up, he came to view it in a more figurative way.
The most obvious starting ground for him to find the green stick was the church. He was baptized and raised in Russian Orthodox churches and schools. They preached love. However, Tolstoy recalls, they also dealt elaborate rituals, creeds, and politics, which he thought led gullible sheep to superstition and divided more people than it brought together. Tolstoy recalls that as a young man he followed almost all of his cultured and intelligent friends, including his brother, in leaving church in his early years of education.
He then sought the green stick in Enlightenment. He called it art. He saw the novel not as entertainment, but as the supreme medium whereby we overcome our ignorance of and subsequent bitterness towards characters and replace it with understanding and empathy for them, both on and off the page. He wrote at this time the novel Anna Karenina, which gave great psychological insight into a young lady that almost every body in the story comes to judge by way of her external failings but whom the reader, with a deeper awareness of her inner world, comes to love. He also wrote War and Peace, which argued epically that it is not heroic leaders who make history, be that good or bad, but the many wills of ordinary people deciding it so. But this project he came to see as insufficient to lead to worldly kindness. He still felt that he, like his characters, were groping around in the dark.
Where to go now? Family. He got married. Had kids. Dedicated himself to his career and home life in order to love them, care for them, and watch over them. But no green stick there either, for this project, like every other project, still had a blatant, nagging question underlying it.
That question is: ‘What will come of what I do today or tomorrow? What will come of my entire life? Expressed differently, the question may be: Why should I live? Why should I wish for anything? Or to put it differently: is there any meaning in life that will not be destroyed by the inevitability of approaching death?’
He then hands on a fantastic parable. “There is an old Eastern fable about a traveler who is taken unawares on the steppes by a ferocious wild animal. In order to escape the beast the traveler hides in an empty well, but at the bottom of the well he sees a dragon with its jaws open, ready to devour him. The poor fellow does not dare to climb out because he is afraid of being eaten by the rapacious beast, neither does he dare drop to the bottom of the well for fear of being eaten by the dragon. So he seizes hold of a branch of a bush that is growing in the crevices of the well and clings on to it. His arms grow weak and he knows that he will soon have to resign himself to the death that awaits him on either side. Yet he still clings on, and while he is holding on to the branch he looks around and sees that two mice, one black and one white, are steadily working their way round the bush he is hanging from, gnawing away at it. Sooner or later they will eat through it and the branch will snap, and he will fall into the jaws of the dragon. The traveler sees this and knows that he will inevitably perish. But while he is still hanging there he sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the bush, stretches out his tongue and licks them.
Tolstoy expounds: In the same way I am clinging to the tree of life, knowing full well that the dragon of death inevitably awaits me, ready to tear me to pieces, and I cannot understand how I have fallen into this torment. And I try licking the honey that once consoled me [writing and family], but it no longer gives me pleasure. The white mouse and the black mouse – day and night – are gnawing at the branch from which I am hanging. I can see the dragon clearly and the honey no longer tastes sweet. I can see only one thing; the inescapable dragon and the mice, and I cannot tear my eyes away from them. And this is no fable but the truth, the truth that is irrefutable and intelligible to everyone.
Needless to say, Tolstoy was downhearted. He contemplated suicide, which he considered would be just acting upon the inevitable. But, thinking he might have erred somewhere, somehow, he kept up the search.
He searched in the sciences. Yet received the answer, ‘you are a temporary, random conglomeration of particles…This conglomeration will continue for a certain period of time; then the interaction of these particles will come to a halt, and the thing that you call your life will come to an end and with it all your questions.’ No life and green stick here.
He then scoured Philosophy and Religion, but found more or less the same answer. Socrates said,
“We approach truth only inasmuch as we depart from life. For what do we, who love truth, strive after in life? To free ourselves from the body, and from all the evil that is caused by the life of the body! If so, then how can we fail to be glad when death comes to us?….The wise man seeks death all his life and therefore death is not terrible to him…. Socrates concludes, ‘The life of the body is an evil and a lie. Therefore the destruction of the life of the body is a blessing, and we should desire it.’
Likewise, Solomon (and/or the tradition who wrote in his name) in Ecclesiastes says, ‘“Vanity of vanities”, says Solomon — “vanity of vanities — all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun? All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous and to the wicked; to the good and to the evil; to the clean and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth and to him that sacrificeth not; as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one event unto all; yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead. Solomon concludes: All that is in the world — folly and wisdom and riches and poverty and mirth and grief — is vanity and emptiness. Man dies and nothing is left of him. And that is stupid,”’
Likewise, we read about Sidartha Guitarma, the first Buddha: “Sakya Muni, a young, happy prince, from whom the existence of sickness, old age, and death had been hidden, went out to drive and saw a terrible old man, toothless and slobbering. the prince, from whom till then old age had been concealed, was amazed, and asked his driver what it was, and how that man had come to such a wretched and disgusting condition, and when he learnt that this was the common fate of all men, that the same thing inevitably awaited him — the young prince — he could not continue his drive, but gave orders to go home, that he might consider this fact. So he shut himself up alone and considered it. and he probably devised some consolation for himself, for he subsequently again went out to drive, feeling merry and happy. But this time he saw a sick man. He saw an emaciated, livid, trembling man with dim eyes. The prince, from whom sickness had been concealed, stopped and asked what this was. And when he learnt that this was sickness, to which all men are liable, and that he himself — a healthy and happy prince — might himself fall ill tomorrow, he again was in no mood to enjoy himself but gave orders to drive home, and again sought some solace, and probably found it, for he drove out a third time for pleasure. But this third time he saw another new sight: he saw men carrying something. ‘What is that?’ ‘A dead man.’ ‘What does dead mean?’ asked the prince. He was told that to become dead means to become like that man. The prince approached the corpse, uncovered it, and looked at it. ‘What will happen to him now?’ asked the prince. He was told that the corpse would be buried in the ground. ‘Why?’ ‘Because he will certainly not return to life, and will only produce a stench and worms.’ ‘And is that the fate of all men? Will the same thing happen to me? Will they bury me, and shall I cause a stench and be eaten by worms?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Home! I shall not drive out for pleasure, and never will so drive out again!’The Buddha concludes: “…To life in the consciousness of the inevitability of suffering, of becoming enfeebled, of old age and of death, is impossible — we must free ourselves from life, from all possible life.’”
So the answer he received from some of the wisest, most rational minds in science and philosophy simply confirmed what he already suspected: all endeavours in life are ultimately meaningless, even family or art, for it all comes to nothing in death. Even if the green stick were found, it would matter nothing for all comes to nothing.
“But’, Tolstoy says, ‘ again and again, from various sides, I returned to the same conclusion that I could not have come into the world without any cause or reason or meaning’. He gives the analogy:
I could not be such a fledgling fallen from its nest as I felt myself to be. Or, granting that I be such, lying on my back crying in the high grass, even then I cry because I know that a mother has borne me within her, has hatched me, warmed me, fed me, and loved me. Where is she — that mother? If I have been deserted, who has deserted me? I cannot hide from myself that someone gave me birth, loving me. Who was that someone? Again “God”? …
Tolstoy had earlier been arrested by the horror of death, meaninglessness, and indifference. Here, however, he finds life, meaning, and love. In other words, he becomes mindful not just that the meaninglessness of death is indifference, but also that meaning of life is love.
With the potentiality of love now on the horizon, Tolstoy returns to again explore love in the faith tradition of his childhood. He steps back in the doors of the church and finds it rituals inspiring but also dusty. He reads anew its theology and finds much of it aloof. Ultimately though, he’s captivated by Jesus’ sermon on love, delivered on a mountainside: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also… and so on, to conclude on…as God sends rain upon the unjust and the just, so be perfect (in love, that is) as your heavenly father is perfect.
Tolstoy focuses in on the words ‘resist not evil’. They’re saying, in Tolstoy’s words, “‘Do not resist evil,’ and if you do not resist evil, you may meet with some who, having struck you on one cheek, and meeting with no resistance, will strike you on the other; after having taken away your coat, will take away your cloak also; having profited by your work, will oblige you to work on; will take, and will never give back. ‘Nevertheless, I say to you, do not resist evil. Still do good to those who even strike and abuse you.”
Why would anyone in his or her right mind do this? Tolstoy’s flash of insight is that in resisting evil, we usually become the very evil we seek to destroy, perhaps worse. In resisting the evils present in communism, the United States, on the might of its science, politics, and economy, built 30,000 nuclear weapons. In resisting the evils present in capitalism, the Soviet Union built 20,000 weapons. These actions created an evil far greater than those being resisted: the very real danger that civilization could be destroyed. Perfect love, in contrast, has the power to stop the cycle of evil. Here, in the words of Jesus, Tolstoy suggests we find not just a prerogative to love, but also a method: good overcomes evil, and therefore life is honored above death, not by the way of more evil, but by good itself. Even the Nuclear Threat will likely not fade with responding to its evil in kind, but by refusing to do so, and even lobbing bombs of goodwill over the border in its stead. Tolstoy called this love or soul force ‘nonresistance to evil’ or simply ‘the law of love’. Regardless of what one thought about the theory at large, Tolstoy upheld that in ‘nonresistance to evil’ there was a force to recon with.
Thus Tolstoy finds his green stick. What is the secret engraved on the green stick, a secret worthy of ascent in our lives, a secret that enabled us to live as ant brothers and sisters? Was it something of Magic? No! Was it something of Science? No. Was it something of Philosophy? No! Family? Not even that! It was the simple belief that beyond the meaninglessness, death, and indifference, there is a purpose, a life, a love, a God that seemed to produce us in the first place and requires something similar of us. In short, the secret on the green stick, i.e. the meaning of life, is love, as God has loved us.