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A Talk Among Leisured People (Tolstoy)

(~) A Talk Among Leisured People

Leo Tolstoy

Some guests assembled at a wealthy house one day happened to start a serious conversation about life. They spoke of people present and absent, but failed to find anyone who was satisfied with his life. Not only could no one boast of happiness, but not a single person considered that he was living as a Christian should do. All confessed that they were living worldly lives concerned only for themselves and their families, none of them thinking of their neighbors, still less of God.

So said all the guests, and all agreed in blaming themselves for living godless and unchristian lives. “Then why do we live so?” exclaimed a youth. “Why do we do what we ourselves disapprove of? Have we no power to change our way of life? We ourselves admit that we are ruined by our luxury, our effeminacy, our riches, and above all by our pride – our separation from our fellow men. To be noble and rich we have to deprive ourselves of all that gives man joy. We crowd into towns, become effeminate, ruin our health, and in spite of all our amusements we die of ennui, and of regrets that our life is not what it should be.

“Why do we live so? Why do we spoil our lives and all the good that God gives us? I don’t want to live in that old way! I will abandon the studies I have begun – they would only bring me to the same tormenting life of which we are all now complaining. I will renounce my property and go to the country and live among the poor. I will work with them, will learn to labor with my hands, and if my education is of any use to the poor I will share it with them, not through institutions and books but directly by living with them in a brotherly way.

“Yes, I have made up my mind,” he added, looking inquiringly at his father, who was also present.

“Your wish is a worthy one,” said his father, “but thoughtless and ill-considered. It seems so easy to you only because you do not know life. There are many things that seem to us good, but the execution of what is good is complicated and difficult. It is hard enough to walk well on a beaten track, but it is harder still to lay out a new one. New paths are made only by men who are thoroughly mature and have mastered all that is attainable by man. It seems to you easy to make new paths of life only because you do not yet understand life. It is an outcome of thoughtlessness and youthful pride. We old folk are needed to moderate your impulsiveness and guide you by our experience, and you young folk should obey us in order to profit by that experience. Your active life lies before you. You are now growing up and developing. Finish your education, make yourself thoroughly conversant with things, get on to your own feet, have firm convictions of your own, and then start a new life if you feel you have strength to do so. But for the present you should obey those who are guiding you for your own good, and not try to open up new paths of life.”

The youth was silent and the older guests agreed with what the father had said.

“You are right,” said a middle-aged married man, turning to the youth’s father. “It is true that the lad, lacking experience of life, may blunder when seeking new paths of life and his decision cannot be a firm one. But you know we all agreed that our life is contrary to our conscience and does not give us happiness. So we cannot but recognize the justice of wishing to escape from it.

“The lad may mistake his fancy for a reasonable deduction, but I, who am no longer young, tell you for myself that as I listened to the talk this evening the same thought occurred to me. It is plain to me that the life I now live cannot give me peace of mind or happiness. Experience and reason alike show me that. Then what am I waiting for? We struggle from morning to night for our families, but it turns out that we and our families live ungodly lives and get more and more sunk in sins. We work for our families, but our families are no better off, because we are not doing the right thing for them. And so I often think that it would be better if I changed my whole way of life and did just what that young man proposed to do: ceased to bother about my wife and children and began to think about my soul. Not for nothing did Paul say: ‘He that is married careth how he may please his wife, but he that is unmarried careth how he may please the Lord.'”

But before he had finished speaking his wife and all the women present began to attack him.

“You ought to have thought about that before,” said an elderly woman. “You have put on the yoke, so you must draw your load. Like that, everyone will say he wishes to go off and save his soul when it seems hard to him to support and feed his family. That is false and cowardly. No! A man should be able to live in godly fashion with his family. Of course it would be easy enough to save your own soul all by yourself. But to behave like that would be to run contrary to Christ’s teaching. God bade us love others; but in that way you would in His name offend others. No. A married man has his definite obligations and he must not shirk them.It’s different when your family are already on their own feet. But no one has a right to force his family.”

But the man who had spoken did not agree. “I don’t want to abandon my family,” he said. “All I say is that my family should not be brought up in a worldly fashion, nor brought up to live for their own pleasure, as we have just been saying, but should be brought up from their early days to become accustomed to privation, to labor, to the service to others, and above all to live a brotherly life with all men. And for that we must relinquish our riches and distinctions.”

“There is no need to upset others while you yourself do not live a godly life,” exclaimed his wife irritably. “You yourself lived for your own pleasure when you were young, then why do you want to torment your children and your family? Let them grow up quietly, and later on let them do as they please without coercion from you!”

Her husband was silent, but an elderly man, who was there spoke up for him.

“Let us admit,” he said, “that a married man, having accustomed his family to a certain comfort, cannot suddenly deprive them of it. It is true that when you have begun to educate your children it is better to finish it than to break up everything – especially as the children when they grow up will choose the path they consider best for themselves. I agree that for a family man it is difficult and even impossible to change his way of life without sinning. But for us old men it is what God commands. Let me say for myself: I am now living without any obligations, and to tell the truth, simply for my belly. I eat, drink, rest, and am disgusting and revolting even to myself. So it is time for me to give up such a life, to give away my property, and at least before I die to live a while as God bids a Christian live.”

But the others did not agree with the old man. His niece and godchild was present, to all of whose children he had stood sponsor and gave presents on holidays. His son was also there. They both protested.

“No,” said the son, “You worked in your time, and it is time for you to rest and not trouble yourself. You have lived for sixty years with certain habits and must not change them now. You would only torment yourself in vain.”

“Yes, yes,” confirmed his niece. “You would be in want and out of sorts, and would grumble and sin more than ever. God is merciful and will forgive all sinners – to say nothing of such a kind old uncle as you!”

“Yes, and why should you?” added another old man of the same age. “You and I have perhaps only a couple of days to live, so why should we start new ways?”

“What a strange thing!” exclaimed one of the visitors who had hitherto been silent. “What a strange thing! We all say that it would be good to live as God bids us and that we are living badly and suffer in body and soul, but as soon as it comes to practice it turns out that the children must not be upset and must be brought up not in godly fashion but in the old way. A married man must not upset his wife and children and must live not in a godly way but as of old. And there is no need for old men to begin anything: they are not accustomed to it and have only a couple of days left to live. So it seems that none of us may live rightly: we may only talk about it.”

Reprinted from http://www.bruderhof.com/, used with pernission


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