Tolstoy’s Confession

Continuing with my thoughts on those writers and books that have deeply influenced the way I relate to the world and those I counsel, I’ll be writing about the most famous Russian novelists from the 19th century, Count Leo Tolstoy. Though I am a great fan of Tolstoy’s most famous works, his later writings on spiritual conversion are some of the greatest contributions to the idea that man must live a life of purpose, in accord with spiritual principles, independent of the prevailing culture of narcissism and materialism.

In his book, A Confession, written when Tolstoy was in his 50’s, he talks about how by the time he’d reached middle-age, wealthy and famous, he suffered from severe depression and unhappiness which caused him to contemplate suicide on a regular basis. “My life came to a standstill. I could eat, breathe, and sleep, but there was no life. I had come to a precipice and could see clearly that there was nothing ahead of me but destruction.” Tolstoy talks about the internal struggle, as he tries to make sense of how he can be so unhappy when he has all the material wealth and recognition that a man of his era could acquire. This state of mind is one that I am all too familiar with, spending the majority of my career serving middle and upper-middle class families who are not struggling financially, but none the less find themselves in the storm of addiction and dysfunction. These families often come to treatment more confused than any other population.

As Tolstoy tries to heal himself, he begins searching for something he might have missed in his education. Inevitably, this leads him to a reexamination of different religions, especially the prevailing beliefs in his culture. Tolstoy eventually came to the conclusion that spirituality was more about the way a person lives his life, rather than what a person believes. This idea, that spirituality is about action and not belief, is the core message of recovery. Early along the spiritual path, a person is invited to “bring the body and the mind will follow.” An old-timer, one of my teachers in recovery, used to repeat  a section from a poem by William Blake that points to this idea:

I sought my soul, my soul I could not see.

I sought my God, but it eluded me.

I sought my fellow-man found all three.

In time, Tolstoy realizes that while God cannot be proven through the intellect, God can be felt in the heart, in the eyes of the people that he encounters on a daily basis. Tolstoy states that what he found was not something new, but something that was lost, the joyous part of himself that existed in childhood. This is what good therapy and recovery are about, uncovering the original or authentic self that has been lost in the darkness of addiction. In the end, Tolstoy found his later years to be his most satisfying. “Thus, I was saved from suicide. When and how this changed occurred, I could not say, but gradually the passion for life returned to me. And strange to say, the love of life that returned to me was not new, but quite old. It was the same love that had sustained me in my earliest days.”

After his awakening, Tolstoy continued to write such seminal works as The Death of Ivan Ilych and Resurrection. Tolstoy used the royalties of his later works to pay for a communal farm and transport a persecuted religious sect to Canada where they could worship in freedom. Tolstoy also wrote one of the best daily meditation books ever written, A Calendar or Wisdom, which compiles the sacred knowledge of all major religions and great philosophical thought. My mother gave me this book early in my own recovery, and I still cherish the spiritual insights compiled by Tolstoy.

When I first encountered Tolstoy’s Confession, I was violently anti-religious, blinded by my own prejudices and locked in an existential loop that caused me to see life as pointless and absurd. Reading a brilliant man like Tolstoy talk about his spirituality and conversion gave me the first glimmer of hope that I could believe in Divinity without descending into fundamentalism, extremism, bigotry, and ignorance. Leo Tolstoy was not only a visionary novelist, but also a visionary spiritual seeker, one whose wisdom shifted the trajectory of my life, insisting that I confront my own spiritual poverty.



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