"Perhaps our times are more analogous to 19th-century Russia than we realise," writes Johnny Miller as he takes us on a journey along Leo Tolstoy's reading of society. As a widely acclaimed photographer and journalist, he sees how the Coronavirus is ravaging cities, spreading fear and death throughout the world in an event nearly unprecedented in living memory. During this time of forced introspection, he asks himself a question many of us might have posed: Am I living life the right way?
Let your mind wander in search of answer to this question. Johnny's extraordinary pictures and his reading of Tolstoy's teachings on the purpose of life are your guide...
The author Leo Tolstoy had an existential crisis just after the publication of perhaps his most famous book, Anna Karenina, in 1878. Feted as the greatest novelist in Russian society, but disillusioned with his success and questioning his purpose in life, he asked, “Sooner or later my affairs, whatever they may be, will be forgotten, and I shall not exist. Then why go on making any effort?” Tolstoy reached a point that I think is familiar to all of us who ever wondered, “What’s the point of all this?”
Tolstoy was rich and powerful. He belonged to society’s elite class, but found cold comfort in his friends and social life, which he considered pointless. If death was inevitable, then surely, he thought, it would be faster to kill one’s self and end it all immediately, a step he considered bold and noble. But before going down that path, he decided to give understanding life’s purpose one more try. He embarked on a series of wanderings and writings that would drastically change his life.
He categorised society into four types of people:
Those who were too ignorant or too stupid to have existential thoughts in the first place, and as such, were happy.
Those who realised their own shallow existence, yet sought to make it as pleasant as possible through worldly, selfish pleasures.
Those who despaired at their own cosmic ephemerality and killed themselves through suicide, whom he considered strong.
Those who despaired at the meaningless of their lives, but who were too weak to actually kill themselves. These people, including himself, live their lives in a kind of depressed daze, waiting for death to inevitably take them.
Now let’s jump to the present moment. Perhaps our times are more analogous to 19th-century Russia than we realise. Coronavirus is ravaging cities, spreading fear and death throughout the world in an event nearly unprecedented in living memory. Traditional ways in which the world works seem to be shifting dramatically, and almost all of us have been forced into our homes without the distractions of the neighbourly activity, exercise, work and physical touch that we are used to. It’s a lonely time, and perhaps for some people quite a sad time. If you’re like me, you’ve definitely had a moment where you asked yourself, “Am I living life the right way?”
'If you’re like me, you’ve definitely had a moment where you asked yourself, “Am I living life the right way?"'
Returning to the rubric above, I can almost guarantee that most people reading these words are not too ignorant or stupid to question their purpose in life. And while mental health and suicide are serious matters, which could and probably will be exacerbated by this crisis, most people will not end their own lives in despair. That leaves us with the possibility that all of us are either a) distracted by earthly pursuits in a kind of wilful fantasy world, or b) aware of our pointless existence and constantly depressed.
But is there perhaps another option?
Tolstoy wandered into the rarefied world of faith and reason and discovered another type of person, one that is much more common than the other four types. A person who has accepted what our questions cannot hope to answer without crossing into the infinite. That’s the person who embodies faith.
It’s important to note that Tolstoy didn’t tie faith to a belief in God. He defined faith as a belief held in the absence of rationality. This means that a faithful person, while totally rational and aware of the logical argument of nihilism, chooses to believe that on the scale of infinite time and space, rational arguments cannot, and will never, make sense.
You cannot satisfactorily answer a finite question (What is my life worth?) with an infinite answer (Life is without limits). And this, Tolstoy decided, is where he wanted to be. To him, this is what made life worth living: a life without doubt, and without despair. Life’s purpose was an unanswerable conundrum.
Living with the infinite allows us to accept that there is such a thing as morality, justice, and, ultimately, a reckoning for “how we did in life”. Tolstoy noted that most people allow this morality to be dictated to them through the teachings of one of a set of predominant theisms, and in the West, manifesting in one of three religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. I’m not interested in exploring these religions in detail except to note that they all require faith – faith as a prerequisite foundation to plant the ideas of morality and justice into the minds and hearts of the faithful.
Faith can also provide a requisite foundation for our ideas of equity. As someone who believes in achieving a more equitable world, I often run into people who are sceptical of the notion, and want to know, “What’s in it for me?” This is a perfectly legitimate question, and one that I all too often get caught up in explaining by the “how”. I’ll pull out all the bookmarks and citations and set about explaining how we can alleviate health injustices, architectural inequities and pay gaps, but without appealing to their inner faith that truly drives decision-making. Often I engage in this behaviour because there’s no succinct way of stating my belief – that equity is simply “the right thing to do”.
But there is a way to explain it. The same way that the faithful all over the world define their own cause – because I know it to be true.
'There is a way to explain it. The same way that the faithful all over the world define their own cause – because I know it to be true'
Johnny normally lives in South Africa but he is in Detroit at the moment with his grandmother. "Grandma in her living room", April 2020. Credit: Johnny Miller
Perhaps during this time of forced introspection, we can more clearly define ourselves in terms of the acts we untake that our faith demands. By analysing the drivers of our actions, we can then seek to better influence others to our cause. Tolstoy said as much in a book he wrote on his deathbed, long after he had wandered the world in search of answers and finally come to peace with his own faith:
“If you see that some aspect of your society is bad, and you want to improve it, there is only one way to do so: you have to improve people. And in order to improve people, you begin with only one thing: you can become better yourself.”
This story was shared by Johnny Miller, a photographer, journalist, and founder of Unequal Scenes and africanDRONE. He is based in both Detroit, USA and Cape Town, South Africa, and is interested in how to achieve healthy, prosperous and vibrant societies. Johnny is a BMW Global Responsible Leader, a News Fellow at Code For Africa, and an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the London School of Economics. He tweets at @UnequalScenes.
Credit of all photographs included in this story: Johnny Miller, who was so kind to share these pictures with us.
How do you experience living in your city under Coronavirus? Share your story and join us to Spread stories, not the virus.