Tolstoy: A nasty case of ‘mission delusion’?
Your son or the suffering of humanity: Which comes first? Is your mission – in the case of Leo Tolstoy, to liberate mankind – more important than supporting one’s family?
The much talked about film concerning Tolstoy’s infamously bizarre final days – The Last Station – deftly engages us in this major biggie, as well as a related question: If we are ‘enlightened’ and therefore love all things and all people as our selves, is romantic love (for one person above others) by nature merely an illusion, a Hallmark-style myth that feeds our ego’s need to feel special ?
As a man with a spiritual and social mission, and a recent family to boot, these questions could not be more pertinent. If the situation arises where I have to make a choice, should I put my calling to serve humanity before that of loving and serving my wife and child? In a crisis, which would win out?
When surrounded by the suffering of millions it hurts not to commit one’s live to the work of relieving this pain, injustice and violence. The buddhist vow that adepts take, the Bodhisattva vow, essentially commits the oath taker to bringing all sentient beings into enlightenment as their No.1 priority, in this life and the next. Perhaps because of this, buddhist monks (and priests of most of the major paths) do not have wives and children – or if they do, as in India, they only take up the cloth with earnest once all are settled and looked after. Otherwise the challenge to balance the mission with the family can be overwhelming, ending up damaging both.
In the movie, Tolstoy – who in Russia had shifted by this time from novelist to spiritual and political leader, likened as a prophet to Christ- has to decide whether to leave his estate to his wife (and therefore damage his own ideals on the abolishment of personal property, which he ses, quite understandably, as spiritually insane); or does he leave it to the Russian people and hurt his wife of almost 50 years (who helped him and loved him over many years of creativity). He must also choose whether his work, his mission, is more important than his marriage – as his wife’s own defense mechanisms create much drama and angst in his life which gets in the way of his ability to write, to be great. He chooses to leave (only to relent, perhaps, on his death bed).
A biggie no?
Last week I was in the middle of this same set of questions, of choices, of challenges. And I had been suffering more than I realized for quite some time.
My start-point for all pain – looking inside – serendipitously echoes that of one of Tolstoy’s greatest observations: ‘Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.’
Thankfully I experienced a beautiful and liberating epiphany, supported by some pretty tough love from a number of true friends. Although I had already ‘realised’ this particular truth, it came returned to free me from much self-created suffering. I was living with a harsh case of what I have now termed ‘mission delusion’ – where my arrogant belief in the importance of my spiritual / social mission was causing me to experience pain; for each day I have been ironically disappointed by the gap between my potential to transform; and the actuality of my real-world impact. Even more telling, this delusion has been making me a challenge to work with; and live with. The pressure I have put myself under makes it hard for people to open up to my ideas; and it jeopardizes everything I believe in because people see the gap between my commitment to love and the vibes of stress and unease I give out.
Now, having seen the trap I was operating within, I have realized that, in the words of Khalil Gibran, if I am going to bake bread I must bake it with love. It doesn’t matter if I make bread that can free a million people from pain if I make it with an ounce of angst or anger. Thus I have remembered once again that, for myself at least, my first priority is now to be love, to experience love, to magnetize love in my everyday interactions – starting with my wife; moving to my gorgeous and spirited pride and Jai; my truly wonderful family and friends; and then expanding to the surly bloke in the store; and the woman jogging on the trails as I run by up here in fabulous Topanga Canyon.
That doesn’t mean I have forgotten what is possible if my talents can be used in service of spiritual and political liberation. But I have realized that for my own inner peace – and that of anyone I come into contact with (as well as the success of my mission) – the start-point must always be, from now on, love, compassion and openness in this moment, never mind the next… even if that means my life is a small, simple and profoundly modest one. From the maestro Lev Tolstoy again:
“All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love.”