Tolstoy's Take on What Matters Most This Christmas

If you're like most human beings in the civilized world, you may be suffering from the holiday blues right about now--and with good reason. What with a seemingly nonstop barrage of news stories about terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Syrian refugees drowning at sea, police killings in Chicago, a tragi-comic spectacle of a Republican presidential primary, continued political dysfunction in Washington, and unrest on college campuses reminiscent of the 1960's, it is fair to wonder whether the season of good cheer, hope, and generosity isn't just one giant hoax. In order to escape the mayhem, and get some fresh perspective on it all, you might consider turning off the evening news and instead immersing yourself in the world's greatest and wisest novel, War and Peace, a book that offers the very sort of insight and inspiration we most need in this moment.

In 2015 the world celebrated the 150th anniversary of the publication of Tolstoy's novel, while this month we commemorate the second anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela, who in Long Walk to Freedom singled out War and Peace as a book that guided and inspired him during his darkest days of incarceration at Robben Island. He returned to the novel over and over again; years later he would refer to it as his all-time favorite. What Mandela took from Tolstoy's masterpiece, and what we can surely learn from it in our own troubled times--is how to hold on to fierce idealism in a broken world.

Tolstoy himself may not have gone through anything quite like the hell that was Mandela's life. He knew plenty, though, about the rank injustice, evil, and sheer brutishness that have ever dominated the world. He'd witnessed a public execution in Paris; had lived through the European revolutions of 1848, as well as the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, followed by the ultra-repressive regime of Alexander III. By the end of the century, Tolstoy was reading daily newspaper reports about workers' riots, bloody bombings by revolutionary terrorists, religious persecution, and pogroms. And what counts is this: Having lived through all of that, he never lost his faith in the possibility of goodness, of human promise.

In his seventies, Tolstoy asked to be buried on the spot where, as a boy, he and his brother Nikolai had discovered a little green stick, a stick on which, they believed, was inscribed the secret to universal happiness. "And just as I believed then, that there is a little green stick, on which is written the secret that will destroy all evil in people, and give them great blessings," Tolstoy wrote in his Recollections (1902), "so now I believe that such a truth exists and that it will be revealed to people and will give them what it promises." Imagine that: Someone who'd seen and done all Tolstoy had, still believing in "a secret that would destroy all evil in people."

In War and Peace no character embodies the spirit of idealism more than Pierre Bezukhov, the big-hearted, bespectacled Russian count who at the beginning of the novel inherits the largest fortune in Russia. After that, he enters into a disastrous marriage, becomes a leading Freemason before growing disillusioned with its politics, botches his attempts to free the peasants on his estate, and eventually winds up as a French prisoner of war during Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia.

Then, just when he thinks things can't possibly get worse, Pierre is brought before a firing squad. Prepared to die, he discovers, miraculously, that he has been escorted there only as a witness. Still, the sight of the blind-folded factory worker being shot in the head (which Pierre well realizes might just as easily have been him) is enough to shatter his every illusion he's ever had about his own power, every ounce of his faith in "the world's good order, in humanity's and his own soul, and in God." Yet he survives, both physically and spiritually, and emerges from captivity neither cynical nor bitter, but with a redoubled commitment to the ideals he has always believed in. "'I don't say we should oppose this or that. We may be mistaken,'" he tells his wife after the war, upon returning from St. Petersburg, where Pierre has been trying to unite conservatives and liberals, who are at each other's throats over the future direction of the country. "'What I say is: let's join hands with those who love the good, and let there be one banner--active virtue.'"

As he was reading all this in prison, Mandela may well have been thinking about his own unfolding life journey. He, too, was born into a noble family, rose to prominence in the ANC, got married and divorced, and watched his political dreams crumble and his own life hang in the balance when in 1962 he was sentenced to life in prison after leading a badly botched, non-violent revolutionary campaign. Like Pierre, he survived prison with his faith intact. Precisely because he refused to accept that conflict is inevitable or that social harmony is a hopelessly Pollyannaish goal, Mandela eventually managed to transform a country barreling toward civil war into a democracy.

If to live is to suffer, as Tolstoy understood so well, then to persevere is to find meaning in one's suffering. Does hardship make us beasts, Tolstoy asks, or better human beings? Do we continually focus on getting what we think we want, or on making something meaningful out of what we have, no matter how miniscule or shabby it might seem?

Nelson Mandela did that latter. Rather than being dragged down by his surroundings, he rose above them, transforming his own personal pain into spiritual possibility for the benefit of humanity at large. Not that one must be famous or touched by some grand destiny in order to exhibit that kind of inner strength. If an unprepossessing nineteenth-century Russian count can do it, Tolstoy shows us, then surely any one of us can, if we choose to.

That's a message many of us could use right about now.