Confession | Leo Tolstoy | 12


Recognizing the errors of rational knowledge helped me to free myself from the temptations of idle refection:

The conviction that knowledge of the truth can be found only in life led me to doubt that my own life was as it should be;

and the one thing that saved me was that I was able to tear myself from my isolation, look at the true life of the simple working people, and realize that this alone is the true life.

I realized that if I wanted to understand life and its meaning, I would have to live not the life of a parasite but the genuine life; and once I have accepted the meaning that is given to life by the real humanity that makes up life, I would have to test it out.

This is what happened to me at the time:

in the course of a whole year, when almost every minute I was asking myself whether I should end it all with a rope or a bullet, when I was occupied with the thoughts and observations I have described, my heart was tormented with an agonizing feeling: This feeling I can only describe as a search for God.

I say that this search for God was born not of reason but of an emotion because it was a search that arose not from my thought process - indeed, it was in direct opposition to my thinking - but from my heart.

It was a feeling of dread, of loneliness, of forlornness in the midst of all that was alien to me; and it was a feeling of hope for someone's help.

In spite of the fact that I was convinced of the impossibility of proving the existence of God (Kant had shown me, and I had fully understood him, that there can be no such proof),

I nonetheless searched for God in the hope that I might find him, and according to an old habit of prayer, I addressed the one for whom I searched and could not find.

In my mind I would go over the conclusions of Kant and Schopenhauer regarding the impossibility of proving the existence of God, and I would try to refute them:

Causation, I would say to myself, is not in the same category of thought as space and time. If I exist, then there is something that causes me to exist, the cause of all causes:

And this cause of all that exists is called God; and I dwelled on this thought and tried with all my being to recognize the presence of this cause.

As soon as I was conscious of the existence of such a power over me, I felt the possibility of life. But I asked myself:

"What is this cause, this power? How am I to think about it? What is my relation to this thing I call God?"

And only the answer that was familiar to me came into my head: "He is the creator, the provider of all things."

I was not satisfied with this answer, and I felt that the thing I needed in order to live was still missing. I was overcome with horror, and I began to pray to the one whom I sought, that he might help me. And the more I prayed the more clear it became to me that he did not hear me and that there was absolutely no one I could turn to.

My heart full of despair over the fact that there is no God, I cried, "Lord, have mercy on me, save me! O Lord, my God, show me the way!" But no one had mercy on me, and I felt that my life had come to a stop.

But again and again and from various directions I kept coming back to the conviction that I could not have come into the world without any motive, cause, or meaning that I could not be the fledgling fallen from a nest that I felt myself to be.

If I lie on my back in the tall grass and cry out like a fallen fledgling, it is because my mother brought me into the world, kept me warm, fed me, and loved me.

But where is my mother now? If I have been cast out, then who has cast me out? I cannot help but feel that someone who loved me gave birth to me.

Who is this someone? Again, God!

"He sees and knows of my search, my despair, my struggle," I would say to myself. "He exists." And as soon as I acknowledged this for an instant, life immediately rose up within me, and I could sense the possibility and even the joy of being.

But again I would shift from the acknowledgment of the existence of God to a consideration of my relation to him, and again there arose before me the God who is our creator, the God of the Trinity, who sent his son, our Redeemer.

And again, isolated from me and from the world, God would melt away before my eyes like a piece of ice; again nothing remained, again the source of life withered away.

I was overcome with despair and felt that there was nothing for me to do but kill myself. And, worst of all, I felt that I could not bring myself to go through with it.

I slipped into these situations not two or three times but tens and hundreds of times - now joy and vitality, now despair and a consciousness of the impossibility of life.

I remember one day in early spring when I was alone in the forest listening to the sounds of the woods. I listened and thought about the one thing that had constantly occupied me for the last three years. Again I was searching for God.

"Very well," I said to myself. "So there is no God like the one I have imagined; the only reality is my life. There is no such God. And nothing, no miracle of any kind, can prove there is, because miracles exist only in my irrational imagination."

"But where does my notion of God, of the one whom I seek, come from?" I asked myself. And again with this thought there arose in me joyous waves of life. Everything around me came to life, full of meaning. But my joy did not last long. My mind continued its work:

"The concept of God, “I told myself, “is not God. A concept is something that occurs within me; the concept of God is something I can conjure up inside myself at will. This is not what I seek. I am seeking that without which there could be no life."

Once again everything within me and around me began to die; again I felt the longing to kill myself.

But at that point I took a closer look at myself and at what had been happening within me; and I remembered the hundreds of times I had gone through these deaths and revivals.

I remembered that I had lived only when I believed in God. Then, as now, I said to myself: "As long as I know God, I live; when I forget, when I do not believe in him, I die."

What are these deaths and revivals? It is clear that I do not live whenever I lose my faith in the existence of God, and I would have killed myself long ago if I did not have some vague hope of finding God.

I truly live only whenever I am conscious of him and seek him. "What, then, do I seek?" a voice cried out within me. "He is there; the one without whom there could be no life." To know God and to live come to one and the same thing: God is life.

"Live, seeking God, for there can be no life without God." And more powerfully than ever a light shone within me and all around me, and this light has not abandoned me since.

Thus I was saved from suicide. When and how this transformation within me was accomplished, I could not say:

Just as the life force within me was gradually and imperceptibly destroyed, and I encountered the impossibility of life, the halting of life, and the need to murder myself, so too did this life force return to me gradually and imperceptibly.

And the strange thing is that the life force which returned to me was not new but very old; it was the same force that had guided me during the early periods of my life:

In essence I returned to the first things, to the things of childhood and youth. I returned to a faith in that will which gave birth to me and which asked something of me;

I returned to the conviction that the single most important purpose in my life was to be better, to live according to this will.

I returned to the conviction that I could find the expression of this will in something long hidden from me, something that all of humanity had worked out for its own guidance;

in short, I returned to a belief in God, in moral perfection, and in a tradition that instils life with meaning. The only difference was that I had once accepted all this on an unconscious level, while now I knew that I could not live without it.

What happened to me was something like the following:

Unable to recall how I got there, I found myself in a boat that had been launched from some unknown shore; the way to the other shore was pointed out to me, the oars were placed in my inexperienced hands, and I was left alone.

I worked the oars as best I knew how and rowed on. But the further I paddled toward the centre, the faster became the current that took me of course, and I encountered more and more people who, like myself, were being carried away by the current.

There were a few who continued to row; some had thrown away their oars. There were large boats, enormous ships, filled with people; some struggled against the current, others gave themselves up to it.

And, looking downstream at everyone being carried along by the current, the further I rowed, the more I forgot the way that had been pointed out to me.

At the very centre of the current, in the throng of boats and ships being carried downstream, I lost my way altogether and threw down my oars.

All around me, in joy and triumph, people rushed downstream under sail and oar, assuring me and each other that there could be no other direction.

And I believed them and moved along with them. And I was carried off a long way, so far that I heard the roar of the rapids in which I was bound to perish and saw boats being destroyed in them.

Then I came to my senses. For a long time I could not understand what had happened to me:

I saw before me the singular ruin toward which I was rushing headlong and which I feared, I could not see salvation anywhere, and I did not know what to do.

But, looking back, I saw countless boats that were relentlessly struggling against the current, and I remembered the oars and the way to the shore and began to pull against the current and head back upstream toward it.

The shore was God, the stream was tradition, and the oars were the free will given to me to make it to the shore where I would be joined with God. Thus the force of life was renewed within me, and I began to live once again.