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Leo Tolstoy- How Much Land Does A Man Need?
St. Luke. (12:16-21)
"The Lord spoke this parable: “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” As He said this, Jesus called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
"They've got no idea what happiness is, they don't know that without the love there is no happiness or unhappiness for us-- there is no life." Leo Tolstoy ~ Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy was a Russian author, essayist, philosopher and social reformer. Many consider Tolstoy to be one of the greatest novelists of all time, while others believe that his philosophical musings and religious beliefs define the man far more accurately than all of his literary works combined, I myself believe that he is well represented as the man he was on both fronts. From his epic novel War and Peace to the more personal message in What I Believe , Tolstoy emphatically allows his readers more than a glimpse at who he was. All you need to do is read between the lines.
Born in 1828, into a long line of Russian nobles, Leo was the fourth child of Countess Maria Volkonsky and Count Nicolay Tolstoy. Although his early years were marked by violence and the horrific reality of the Crimean War, the memories he later shared with his future biographer Paul Birukoff were of a happy boy, well loved by his family.
Strong family bonds were important for Tolstoy, as he was prematurely separated from his mother by her death in childbirth when he was two years old. His relationship with the Count was strong. Growing up without a mother, Tolstoy credited his father as being gentle, patient, funny, and unlike many other men of the period's nobility, kind to the serfs on their estate. He also had a close relationship with his paternal grandmother whom he saw as a sort of surreal presence. To him, she was magical...............
Tolstoy's family estate Yasnaya Polyana, was anything but lonely. Visitors drifted in and out of the household on a consistent basis; they'd come for dinner and then stay for a lengthy period of time. Game playing, singing, poetry reading, and play acting were every day occurrences, not to mention outdoor activities such as horseback riding and tobogganing, but Tolstoy's favorite moments were those spent reading or reciting to his father. Tolstoy lost those moments at the the age of eight with his father's unexpected death, a loss that would only be compounded by the grief of his grandmother who's death would follow a mere two years later. The innocence of Tolstoy's youth died with them, as sure as the seeds of his spiritual awareness were born.
One discussion that consistently finds its way into the classroom is the age old debate of wants and needs. From the time our children begin their education, wants and needs are a part of the curriculum. It makes no matter what subject is being taught; reading, writing, history, and even math can all evoke one very simple question, "How much is enough?"
Being the person I am this question is extremely easy to answer, for myself, but my answer makes no difference. That I am content with what I have, that my dreams revolve around beauty and simplicity make no difference; what's makes the difference is the way my students answer the question. I have no use for things; they believe it to be impossible to exist without the things they both want and expect. Operative word being expect. It isn't just the desire to have something that drives them, it's the expectance that they'll end up getting it, and they usually do.
I am overwhelmed and thankful for opportunities; travel, time spent with my children, an exhibit, wagging tails, or a walk in the park. My students on the other hand, feel themselves to be entitled, as do my own children, as do the children of my friends and co-workers. I have always defined my children as having grown up in the age of entitlement, and I take my part in the responsibility of having made them feel that way. I am guilty of having giving them more than they needed, and I surely tried to give them all of the things they wanted; for them, entitlement ended, but that's another story.
For my students, the definition of entitlement becomes a double edged sword. Some don't have what they need; they don't have enough food; they don't get enough attention; their bookshelves hold no books, and yet, they have an overabundance of video games, toys, and the ever important premier cable television package. For others, needs aren't an issue, but for many of them the wants never end.
So here we are opening an age old short story, a parable, and a lesson that just might become "well learned." How Much Land Does A Man Need?"
I'm not sure Mr Tolstoy............ how much land does a man need? Let's find out!
How Much Land Does a Man Need?
Our story begins with the innocent visit of two women. They are sisters, both married, and both living completely different lives.
The elder sister lives in the city where her husband works as a tradesman. She chatters about her home, her children, expensive clothing, fine foods and the theatre. Needless to say, the younger sister, married to a peasant, begins to get a bit defensive of her own home. It makes no difference where her words come from, whether she's jealous, angry, or hurt, because the older sister has been cruel in both her assessment of the younger's present living circumstances and in her dire predictions for her little sister's future. Because of this, and for lack of another retort, the younger sister responds,
'I would not change my way of life for yours,' said she. We may live roughly, but at least we are free from anxiety. You live in better style than we do but though you often earn more than you need, you are very likely to lose all you have. You know the proverb, "Loss and gain are brothers twain." It often happens that people who are wealthy one day are begging their bread the next. Our way is safer. Though a peasant's life is not a fat one, it is a long one. We shall never grow rich, but we shall always have enough to eat.'
Unnoticed or possibly simply ignored, the younger woman's husband Pahom is listening nearby while reclining on the stove, but their conversation disturbs him greatly. He hasn't heard the words of his young wife because his focus lays with her sister's avarice; he hasn't listened to either her defense of their life or her feelings of contentment. Unable to move past the prophetic words of his sister-in-law; he fixates on the negative aspects of his life rather than the positive, and what he's seen and heard leads him to despair and foolish thoughts.
'It is perfectly true,' thought he. 'Busy as we are from childhood tilling mother earth, we peasants have no time to let any nonsense settle in our heads. Our only trouble is that we haven't land enough. If I had plenty of land, I shouldn't fear the Devil himself!'
Pahom said nothing aloud, but amidst the women's nattering, and the silent thoughts of Pahom's mind lurked another presence hiding behind the stove. This presence was delighted by the elder sister's bragging and thrilled at the young sister's reaction, but even more than that he was thrilled that the young wife's words had led Pahom to challenge the Devil himself. For the Devil enjoys nothing more than a challenge or a fight; one of his greatest joys is experienced through the downfall of man, but the greatest joy of all comes from watching him fall and knowing that he's caused it. The Devil was ready to play, but Pahom, filled with pride and the stirrings of greed, is consumed by thoughts of land. The game has begun, but only the Devil knows it.
As the summer months go by Pahom becomes more and more discouraged with his lot in life. Like many other local peasants, Pahom lived near the estate of an old woman. Due to advancing years, the old woman found herself unable to run her small estate, and in turn hired a steward to watch over her holdings.
The steward took his job seriously and ran the property as efficiently as his mistress ever had. Fines were imposed on the peasants for neglect, and Pahom found himself endlessly indebted to the woman. His cattle would stray into her fields, garden, and crops, and with each infraction, Pahom would find himself deeper and deeper in debt.
The following winter brought news that the old woman was ready to sell her property. It was also rumored that the innkeeper had put in his bid to buy it. Worry that the innkeeper would fine them even more stringently than the old woman led the peasants to band together as a commune and make a group offer to purchase the land. She accepted their offer, but not all of the peasants had enough money put away for the land to be purchased equally.
Meetings were held and discussions were lengthy, but no common ground could be found. The Devil watched with a smile, sowing discourse and disagreement. Finally, it was settled that each of the peasants would have to buy as much land as they could afford. Pahom, panicked by lack of funds, brainstormed with his wife to find a financial solution that would allow him to count himself amongst the landowners.
Their savings would leave them short of a down payment, but the couple worked together to realize Pahom's dream. They sold livestock, hired out their son as a laborer, and borrowed from the older sister's husband. In the end, they had gathered enough money to purchase forty acres.
As a farmer, Pahom was successful. His crops were abundant, his cattle multiplied, and he saw his forty acres as the most beautiful place on Earth. Pahom finally began to realize that he had what he wanted, but did he?
His land gave him what he needed, but the neighbors were now viewed as annoyances. The men he'd stood with to bargain for the land he now owned trespassed on his land, as did their cattle. Starving peasants would steal onto his land in the darkness of night and cut down trees for their bark. He made accusations against friends, quarreled with his neighbors, and alienated the local judges. He had his home, his land, and his crops, but he also heard the gossip that there were those who wished to burn him out. He didn't need more land; he needed nothing, but now he wanted............ he wanted more land and fewer neighbors, and he thought that "more" would give him the ease he dreamed of.
Around this time a passing stranger stopped, and Pahom graciously offered him a place at the table and shelter for the night. The stranger spoke of a Commune beyond the place he'd traveled from (Volga), and extolled its virtues. Merely by joining the commune a man would receive 25 acres; good, fertile land, where crops of rye stood as tall as a horse. Pahom could hardly believe his ears, but his curiosity had been piqued. More land, better crops.......... that was just what he wanted.
So Pahom packed some belongings, left his family, and journeyed to the land the visitor had shared with him. A steamer took him to Samara, his feet took him the rest of the way. He walked 100 miles. Upon his arrival, Pahom saw that the stranger had been truthful, and he quickly turned heel to hurry home. Once there, he sold all of his belongings; their sale would afford him a mass of land and great wealth; land and wealth were what he wanted.
The Commune granted Pahom and his sons a large tract of land, but no matter how great the harvest or how financially secure Pahom became he still wanted more. Every year he'd rent fields to plant more crops, every year the land he used and the money he made increased, and after every harvest he'd make plans for the next to be bigger and better.
The family's time spent living on the Commune had been prosperous for them all, but Pahom continued to dream of the day he would have his own holdings; a place where he could build a homestead for his family and be answerable to no one. He was determined to be a landowner, certain that it was his fate to be independent........... that independence and the accumulation of wealth were the things he required to be truly happy.
He found land for sale, and had all but closed on the parcel when a passing dealer came to Pahom's home to buy feed for his horses. They discussed Pahom's upcoming purchase, and the dealer was quick to alert Pahom that he'd just bought 13,000 acres in the far away land of the Bashkirs. The dealer told Pahom of the group's friendliness, and the benevolence of the chiefs; all Pahom had to do was brings gifts and make friends. Pahom was drawn in by the dealer's words wondering why he would ever settle for the land he was already committed to buy when he could have so much more for the same amount of money, He determined to go to the land of the Bashkirs and immediately made plans for the journey.
Seven days and 300 miles later, Pahom arrived in the land of the Bashkirs. He found them to be a stout and merry group, unconcerned with the world around them. After accepting his gifts, they asked what he would like in return. Pahom replied, "What pleases me best here is your land. Our land is crowded and the soil is exhausted; but you have plenty of land and it is good land. I never saw the like of it."
The chief of the Bashkirs wasn't present for the giving of gifts, and without his consent those who were gave Pahom an answer through an interpreter. "They wish to me to tell you that in return for your presents they will gladly give you as much land as you want. You only have to point to it with your hand and it is yours." When the chief arrives, he concurs.
Pahom readies himself for negotiation, and the Chief complies. He is just as the dealer described. The only stipulation the Bashkirs set upon Pahom is that the tract of land he'll be given must be marked off in the span of one day, dawn to dusk. The price is set, all he has to do is make it back to the place he started before the sun disappears behind the hills; if he makes it the land will be his; if he doesn't........... his money is forfeit.
Early the next morning the Bashkirs have settled at the starting point. There is much laughter and merriment; the chief seems to be having a great time. Pahom sets off with some supplies, trying to mark his direction, find the best land, and pace himself in order to return before the appropriated time. He doesn't give himself a chance to rest; he can rest later. At noon, he stops to eat, but there's no time for a rest............ he might fall asleep. The sun is growing hotter and Pahom discards his clothing; the heat has created a haze, and he sees that he's far from his goal. He leaves his boots behind hoping to make up for lost time; how did he get so far away?
He decides that in order to make it back by the designated time he'll need to cut off and move in a straight line towards the hill. The lot would be lopsided, but that would be okay. Exhausted, bruised, and bloodied, Pahom moves towards the hill and the Bashirs who await his arrival. With a pounding heart he can hear them as he gets closer to the finish line. He begins to run, his legs giving way, but unwilling to stop he continues on towards the cheers and the yelling up ahead. The Bashkirs waving arms and shouts give him the strength to keep moving; he has to make it.
As the sun begins to fall behind the hillside, Pahom can more clearly see the Bashkirs up ahead; he can see the cap on the ground that holds his money, and he can see the chief clenching his sides in the throes of laughter. The chief was laughing; laughing like the Devil. Falling to the ground, Pahom understands that the last thing he will hear in this life is the laughter marking the end of the game. Pahom had made the challenge, boasted that with the possession of enough land he'd not fear even the devil himself, and the Devil had heard him. Pahom never knew it was a game; he just wanted more, and the Devil gave him his chance, but greed and desire caused his downfall. The Devil had won.
Like any other Book Club selection, if you haven't figured out the ending............. find the story online and read it in its entirety. Its message is clear............. and it's a fantastic story. Tolstoy at his best.