Book Review: “What Men Live By” by Leo Tolstoy

“What Men Live By” by Leo Tolstoy

A Review and Reflection…

Though a majority of the story is nothing profound–the simple recount of a stranger being found naked and starving by a poor shoemaker who takes him home and cares for him; the stranger then learns the shoemakers craft and becomes a renowned shoemaker in the region, bringing prosperity to the shoemaker and his wife; a rich man comes and orders a pair of boots but dies before he gets home; and then later, a prosperous woman orders slippers for her adopted twin daughters–the conclusion is something to be read and reread, something to be contemplated, understood, applied and remembered.

Michael, who, unbeknownst to the shoemaker and his wife, is a fallen angel, was sent to Earth as punishment for disobedience. During his time on Earth he is required to answer three powerful and profound questions: What is given to men? What is not given to men? And, what do men live by?

During the time he lived with the shoemaker, Michael discovered the answers to these questions:

   What is given to men? 

Love.

It has always been a wonder to me that our entire existence revolves around love – finding our “true love,” being crossed in love, heartbreak, loneliness, being loved, marriage, family, friends, love of money, love of success, love of fame, love of God – it is a part of everything. Books, legends, traditions, music, television shows…even classic literature! All must leave room for love. Even if it is not a central theme, no plot is complete without a love story.

I never thought of love being “given” to us though. I assumed that love was just something we did, despite our better judgment. And I guess that is precisely why it had to be given to us – because it was against our “better judgment”. From a logical standpoint, what parent would have chosen to have children if they had not love? None, that I know of. Even with love, many married couples stick with their “better judgment”. And who would choose to get married? Why not follow the rules of the animal kingdom? Multiple partners. No commitment. It “makes sense”, doesn’t it? And yet, we love. We commit. We give our all. We raise little monsters that raise their own little monsters and we enjoy as much of it as we can. We suffer and cry and hurt just to have a few moments of joyous laughter, a few memories of perfect peace – we love precisely for those moments when someone’s empty hands reach out to us. And, in those moments, we live.

   What is not given to men?

The knowledge of their own needs.

The rich man died before he received his boots. He did not know he was going to die. What would he have done if he had known? Would he have gone to confession? Would he have given his money to the poor rather than buying expensive boots? Would he have been more merciful? More compassionate? More charitable? What did he need? What do we need?

My grandpa (on my dad’s side) once told my mother that Pancreatic cancer is “the way to go”. My mother’s mother had died of Pancreatic cancer, so my mom though my grandpa was crazy and told him so. He defended himself by saying that it had its advantages: It allows someone to prepare before they died. They could write a will. Organize their funeral. Talk to their children. Right some wrongs. Pancreatic cancer lasts a few months rather than years. It is painful, yes, but you are not a burden to your family for too long. You don’t lose your memories like with dementia and someone else doesn’t have to wipe your rear like with a severe stroke. You can say goodbye.

You can say goodbye… Why is it so important to humanity to say goodbye? To share a last word, a last moment, a last embrace? What is that need?

We don’t understand ourselves, that’s obvious enough. We don’t know what we need. We don’t know what we will need. But, we can see the needs of others. If there was some kind of incredible network where everyone in the world could share their experiences in a second and all of those experiences developed into truths, then we would know our needs. As a human race, we can understand ourselves. But without that unity, we are without answers. We can’t see the truth: we need each other.

   What do men live by? 

The love of others–to love and to be loved.

Not, “what do men live for?”. That is an entirely different question. “What do men live by?”. What allows them to continue from one day to the next. What gives them a roof over their heads, food to eat, warmth, work, a way?

The love of others–to love and to be loved. Few people would credit a landlord with love if he allowed them to have a roof over their head. That was money. True. But there are moments in our lives when most assuredly we would have lost ourselves if someone had not shown mercy, a sliver of compassion, a small portion of love.

In middle school, I began to struggle with depression. It grew steadily worse as I grew into my teens. When I moved to Puerto Rico it peaked for a few months. I had no enthusiasm for life. I spent nearly every day reading in my room. I lived in my books. I spent a lot of time on the computer too, chatting. I became close friends with a boy that I only knew vaguely in the town I had moved from. We spent hours chatting. Then he sent me a gift. A lighthouse. Later, he sent me an email encouraging me to move forward with my life.

It was a turning point for me. This small kindness allowed me to live, to live the kind of moments that I mentioned before–moments that I felt truly alive. That lighthouse now sits on the dresser in my son’s room.

When disaster or tragedy strikes it is only the love offered us from others that allows us to continue living. In the story, a mother fears to leave behind her newborn twins and entreats Michael, who is an angel of death, to let her stay. But, men live by love. The only reason any of us live is by the love of our friends, our parents, and strangers. It is by their mercies that we find joy. The mother in the story had no reason to fear. Because men are given love, because men can recognize need, men can sustain one another and live. In the story, the fallen angel Michael mentions that when the shoemaker and his wife acted selfishly, the “stench of death” spread around them, but when they allowed compassion and love into their hearts and served others “death no longer dwelt” with them and they “had become alive”

There is a balance – a justice – in this principle. When I help you live, in return, you help me become alive.”

Conclusion

I enjoyed this short story very much. It is short and an easy read, and yet its meaning is applicable to everything in our lives. It reveals vital truths about our individuality and our humanity. I recommend it as a definite read and, even more importantly, a definite truth.

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