On Relationships, Human and Otherwise (With a Nod to the Best Book that I Hated When I Was 25)

“Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible” —Count Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Leo Tolstoy’s short novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich is not the sort of book that the 25 year old version of me had any patience for. I read it, because I had to read it, when I took a Short Story class at BYU. But I was more interested in War and Peace because it was long and difficult, or Anna Karenina because it was about sex. But The Death of Ivan Ilyich is only about fifty pages long. Its simple prose borders on simplistic. And worst of all, it’s about a middle-aged man falling off a step ladder and dying a slow and meaningless death. Can you say BO-RING?

It was not until I was in my mid-40s—the same age that Ivan Ilyich was when he died—that Tolstoy’s small classic became pretty much my favorite book in the history of ever. That is when I finally got it. It is not a book about a guy who died; it was a book about a guy who, until the last few seconds of his life, never lived. He spent almost all of his life as a box on an org chart instead of as an actual human being.

Ivan Ilyich—the name should be rendered in English into something common like “John Smith”—is human universal: someone who spends his life reading from someone else’s script and confusing himself with the part that he plays. He marries precisely the sort of person that a man of his position should marry, has the correct number of children, and advances in his career from lawyer to judge to magistrate—always making almost, but not quite enough money to live the sort of life that his sort of person is supposed to live.

And he interacts with everybody else as something just less than a human being. In what I consider to be the most important, and most devastating passage in the novel, Ivan prides himself on the fact that he is always a consummate professional, but never quite a human being, with the people he encounters every day:

One had to know how to exclude all that was raw, vital–which always disrupts the regular flow of official business; one had to allow no relations with people apart from official ones, and the cause of the relations must be only official and the relations themselves only official. For instance, a man comes and wishes to find something out. . . . If there are relations with this man as a colleague, such as can be expressed on paper with a letterhead, then within the limits of those relations Ivan Ilyich does everything, decidedly everything he can, and with that observes a semblance of friendly human relations, that is, of politeness. As soon as the official relations are ended, all others are ended as well.

This becomes the theme of Ivan’s life. He relates to his wife, his children, his superiors, his subordinates, and everybody else he knows as one representative of an institutional category to another. When he becomes ill, however, he discovers that his doctors treat him in exactly the same way, and he realizes that he can neither request, nor expect human sympathy. Institutional categories don’t do that. It is only in the last moments of his life, as he is being comforted by a servant, that he forms his first meaningful human connection and realizes that nothing else in his life actually mattered.

Every time I read The Death of Ivan Ilyich (and I read at least once a year), I am forced to confront the terrible ordinariness of my own life. Like most modern human beings, I occupy a dizzying number of institutional spaces: husband, father, provost, professor, voter, blogger, and so on. The scripts that define the proper interactions between various institutional categories are now so well developed that it is possible for most of us to spend years imagining that we are in meaningful human relationships when all we are really doing is reading our lines.

Latter-day Saints, I suspect, are even more prone to Ivan Ilyichism than most people. We pride ourselves on making sure that everybody in our community has a calling, or a well- defined place–one that both facilitates, and constrains, one’s interactions within the community. The highly correlated nature of both the Church’s organization and its curriculum means that most people in it have a pretty good idea what they are supposed to do in their callings, what they are supposed to teach in their classes, and how they are supposed to interact when they visit each other’s homes.

The downside of all this organization is that it is entirely possible to confuse categorical relationships for real human connections. One is moderately important to program development; the other is the main reason we exist.

Home teaching, visiting teaching, fellowshipping, and curricular correlation are valuable programs, but programs aren’t the same thing as relationships. We must be careful not to mistake one for the other—to think that somebody who has been through training has been educated, or that somebody who has been assigned a visiting teacher now has a friend. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the development of meaningful human connections is the belief that, through our institutional attachments, we already have them. It is a simple and ordinary belief, to be sure, which is precisely why it is so terrible.


  1. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Rigt you are, Michael–Several times have I tried to contact VT’s who moved out my ward thinking we were still friends and been roundly rebuffed!

  2. I still feel sorrow for what I call “calling friendships.” You work with someone in a presidency, say, and you share so much beyond the calling, sorrows, joys, worries, triumphs, and then one day the calling ends, and seemingly so does the friendship, thereafter you are aquaintences only. Some of that is probably my fault as well, but I have tried to fight it and have built a friendship beyound the calling only once.

  3. Excellent–thanks!

  4. He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
    One against whom there was no official complaint,
    And all the reports on his conduct agree
    That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
    For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
    Except for the War till the day he retired
    He worked in a factory and never got fired,
    But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
    Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
    That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
    When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
    He was married and added five children to the population,
    Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
    And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
    Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
    Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

    W. H. Auden, The Unknown Citizen

  5. (Hatred of a great work of literature at a young age can be an auspicious for future love. I couldn’t stand the Wallace Stevens I had to read in high school, and it took me three or four forced marches through Paradise Lost to scale the misogyny and see something more. Now both poets are among my favorites.)

  6. Love your posts, Michael, and this one particularly. You have quickly become one of my BCC favorites.

  7. Thank you for giving some rare focus to our (insert your favorite modifying adjective, I’ll use mine) peculiar Mormon social dynamics. I’ve come to the observation that we are relentless social climbers, forever trying to sort ourselves into a celestial hierarchy here in this world, according to our limited understanding of celestial respectability, with the goal of making sure that our connections are secure. Kinda reminds me of Nauvoo polygamy. Kinda makes me shudder when I imagine the brown-nosing yes-men social climbing that must occur in the vicinity of any given GA.

    Another attribute I have observed is how much we as a people fear truly real relationships. It’s really been painful to observe this in myself, and the source of much sorrow. This is the heart of my “faith crisis” which is not about my faith at all. I still believe in Christ and wish to follow him, but I find that my church life keeps getting in my way. As someone once said, “You want religion, do you?” And we certainly got it, in correlated truckloads.

    I have no answers, just a broken heart and a not always contrite spirit.

  8. We may be more prone to Ivan Ilyichism than most, not because of some fatal flaw in our nature or our institution, which our critics (but not you Michael, this was concise and powerful) try to create, but because as members of the church we have more categorical relationships than most. Anyone who has attended a 20 year HS reunion and tried to reconnect with their old gang or has failed to keep alive a workplace friendship after one of the friends moves on to a new job has experienced the same thing many members experience when a good friend moves to a new ward, leaves the church, is reassigned as a VT or HT, or is released from a calling. True friendships transcend categories, and that makes them rare, in the church or outside it.

  9. I have to correct my last sentence. A friendship that transcends categorical relationships is rare, we should cherish them if we are lucky enough to have them. But a friendship is no less true or valuable or worthwhile because it is sustained by the categorical relationship that created it.

  10. I have to disagree. I am trying to figure out what I disagree with. I am always trying to figure out what makes someone unique at church. I know the older lady who drives go carts and someone else who plays mountain dulcimer with an old time band. I am still good friends with my HTer who took his wife skydiving for their anniversary the year before they had kids, and my friend who is a college professor whose husband does secure govt work in insecure locations around the world. I know people who love Russian authors and probably love Ivan Ilych too, and then get their kids to carpe diem, and watch DPS to understand about living raw. We encourage our children to have friends and especially be close friends with each other. I don’t vote according to any party, I do unusual things like cloth diapering and I love teaching nursery. I love Ram Dass, Pope John Paul II and Cu Dubh. I take my kids to Ren Faire’s and classical music performances.

    It seems to me that what we know on the inside about our earth sisters and brothers will take us so far when what we see is white shirts and ties. I worry less about dotting I:s and crossing it’s and more about love.

    I feel sorry for Everyman Ilyich. Of course, he is a literary figure, but as one who loved Walden Pond and DPS, I think we can look for what makes us beautiful in each other.

  11. MDearest might be my favorite commenter ever.

  12. “Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the development of meaningful human connections is the belief that, through our **institutional attachments, we already have them. ”

    **I would have said ‘social media.’

  13. Thanks for the reminder Michael, the gentle kick was good (Even though you didn’t intend it as such). I found similar lessons in Tuesdays with Morrie.

  14. Yes, Ivan Ilyich is a kick in the gut — and a work of genius, giving substance to Tolstoy’s qualities as a seer.

  15. Very insightful. Tolstoy’s genius in characterization is amazing.

  16. Arthur Fruend says:

    Excuse my vocabulary. I don’t think I am familiar enough with the concepts to keep my labels straight but I will give it a try. I believe that institutional attachments, associations and friendships have their place. They are necessary to meet the modified institutional imperative that can be beneficial in many ways if controlled to include the need of the human element rather than solely the institution. These associations can be driven by church, work or geographic association and are a necessary part of a functioning social contract. Such “friendships” are cultivated, grafted and pruned to assure a certain continuing functionality in society. The tragedy exists when we allow these associations to satisfy the entirety of our own humanity. I have a handful of friends that have an internal existence. Friends that have extended beyond the initial relationnal association, friendships that have continued to grow. They are the small percentage of my inventory of “friendships.” Since I consider friendshp to be a rather personal and intimate association that presupposes a certain loyalty, I doubt I could successfully maintain more than a few such true or continuing relationships but that is just me. On the other hand I have been shaken by associations with people that I thought were real friends only to see them prune me from their inventory when relations changed. This is probably another reason why I am careful to recognize the value of associative frienships and only deliberately move a friendship from associative to internal or personal and unique.

  17. The Death of Ivan Ilych has long been a favorite of mine, too. I have re-read it several times since first encountering it in a civ course in college. (I’m not much of a reader, really, so the story’s shortness helps!). Ivan is both an awful human being and pitiable. And there is much to draw from his bad example.

    And yet, I disagree with using Ivan Ilych as a critique of our institution-based friendships in the Church. Yes, there is a flimsiness to many of our assignment-based friendships in the Church. Yes, yes, yes. However, friendship by proximity occurs in every aspect of life. Some of our best friends during law school were so close in part because we happened to be in the same stage of life. And we lived in the same apartment complex. And we served in our Ward together. Since that time, we moved away and our friendships have changed, diminished.

    So, yes, there IS a downside to all the organization in the Church. But there is an upside, too. And it’s not just the the certainty that comes from structure and assignments. This organization sometimes clouds and sometimes gets in the way of good relationships, yes. But many of my most meaningful relationships have come precisely because of all that organization.

  18. This has been one of my favorite stories for a long time and Tolstoy has been one of my favorite writers.

    As a public school teacher outside the Mormon belt who teaches a relationships class and a living skills class, my whole aim is to help people to truly live and to truly relate to each other. I really don’t think that Mormon’s are any more or less likely then nonmembers to live this kind of superficial life. Living superficially, social climbing, and not really living are part of the human condition and part of our fallen nature. I see it with all of my students and with their parents.

    It is just the kind of thing that the gospel will help us to overcome if we truly have a broken heart and a contrite spirit and seek the change of heart that the scriptures and the prophets are continually urging us to find. It is indeed what the gospel is designed to do.

    Helping people to really seek the inner change that this requires is one of the hardest things to do as a teacher both in and out of the church.

  19. Thomas Parkin says:


  20. Kristine says:

    I love this, Mike. But I think I also have more sympathy for “merely” institutional, functional relationships than you (or Tolstoy). Real human connection is taxing, and exhausting, and I don’t think we can actually do it all (or even much) of the time. I suspect that we can cherish those deep connections only because they are rare and difficult. Here’s an ancient post of mine trying to sort out these ideas in an LDS context: https://bycommonconsent.com/2007/07/08/three-kinds-of-wards/

  21. As an introvert who doesn’t form or manage or nurture friendships very well in real life, I have found myself simultaneously resentful of the VT/HT artifice and grateful that the Church provides a framing/scheduling for one-on-one relationships. Perhaps over the years, some people whom I’ve visit taught–only to stop visiting when the calling shifted–have felt “Ivan Ilyiched” by me. It’s a fair criticism. Some of us, though, are pretty shy and withdrawn. Maybe these institutional visits/callings/relationships are, like the original WoW, adapted to the (relationally) weakest of all Saints, including me. As someone who has entertained (irrational, I hope) doubts that anyone would want to talk/work with me, leaning on these formal roles has fostered a needed confidence *to* relate, period. Which reminds me, March is getting a bit long in the tooth. There are appointments to make…

  22. Treating others as functions—the essence of the organizational imperative.

  23. Tolstoy’s story also influenced what I consider one of the greatest films ever made: Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ikiru’.

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