The Death of Ivan Ilych and a Mid-Life Crisis

By Matt Friedman

When I was 16 years old, I read Tolstoy’s short story, The Death of Ivan Ilych. Ivan Ilych grew up in Russia. Like most young men of means, he went to the right school, married the right woman, got the right job, and moved up in the system. But along the way, he lost track of his life and followed a path that took him far from his initial idealistic hopes and dreams. Following an accident that resulted in a chronic injury, he had several weeks to look back on his life. During this process, he came to the sober realization that he had lived his life all wrong. But with death nearly upon him, there was nothing he could do to change this reality.

This story had a major impact on my life. I remember thinking that I had seen people like Ivan who had reached a particular point in their life when they suddenly woke up, reflected on their present situation, and realized they were not happy. In some cases, this scenario evolves into what is often called a “midlife crisis”.

The reason behind each ideological crisis differs from person to person. Some severely regret not achieving goals in their life related to work, personal growth, artistic and creative accomplishments, or supporting their children. Others come to feel they have never given much of themselves in support of others. The good news is, it’s never too late to get involved. At this critical point, most need someone to guide them through the process. Without this helping hand, many will feel regret, accept this feeling as inevitable and fail to change their lives.

At the end of life there should be few regrets and, in particular, we should feel that our life has had meaning and purpose. Therefore, we should help anyone who wants to contribute to find their particular niche. It is also important that you regularly take stock of your life and ask the questions, “Am I happy, am I doing what I want, am I living my life the way I want?” If not, change it.

My Cat Theory

Sometimes simple misunderstandings start with something innocent and then grow into something unintended. This happened to me at a reception in Bangladesh.

During one of my many trips to this country, I was invited to a post-conference reception at a private home. It was a lovely place, with plenty of space for the 60 people who attended. I socialized with several of the participants before finding an empty seat on one of the many couches. A small cat jumped on my lap. I petted it for several minutes. Then, without warning, it jumped on the lap of the woman seated next to me. I thought nothing of it. A friend joined me, and we began to chat.

Later that night, Ali, our host, asked, “Matt, what is it between you and Zareen? She is telling everyone how rude you are.”

Not knowing what he was talking about, I said, “Zareen who?” He pointed to a woman across the room, the one who had sat next to me on the couch. “I have no idea what you are talking about. I never spoke to that woman,” I replied.

“She said that you picked up my cat who was seated on your lap and tossed it onto her lap. She called it one of the rudest things she ever saw. She hates cats.”

I felt baffled until I remembered the cat jumping from my lap onto hers. When I went to her to explain the simple misunderstanding, she repeatedly said I was a rude man, then stormed off.

Especially with cats, things happen that can be misunderstood. Most misunderstandings occur because of limited information or false assumptions. How many events in our lives are based on the same thing? How many fights and arguments start from a lack of sufficient information?

Lesson: We must accept that things happen without our knowing all the details. It is important not to get upset with people based on misinformation and uninformed assumptions. Sometimes things just happen. Give others the benefit of the doubt. We can apply this lesson to our work place, our relationships and more.