‘The Death of Ivan llyich’: Living the life of Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘Flow’

Everyone should read Leo Tolstoy’s little book published in 1886, The Death of Ivan llyich. It is the perfect story to exhibit what the great psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi articulated in his ground-breaking work on human motivations in his work titled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experiences. Ivan llyich was a successful man who had cancer and was dying and he had to come to terms with the meaning of his life essentially as it was closing. Slowly had to realize that the social climbs he had done throughout his existence, his marriage, his career, the things he put his value in up until the time he found out it was ending were worthless and personally disingenuous. The book is important because the great Tolstoy was knocking on the door he never quite entered in that book written late in his own life. The essence of it is that most people, if any people truly live any kind of fulfilled life and they never come to realize it until it was too late. Csikszentmihalyi later would take the next step with his book Flow, but back in 1886 is was quite something to ask such psychological questions sprinkled with elements of deep philosophy which is what high art should be.

Most people today, in 2019 are living the death of Ivan llych even as they think that what they are doing is living life. They meander about buying the things that society tells them to, reaching for the goals that they are told matter in life. I continue to be surprised at how people even in their 60s are obsessed with titles and office space because they are searching for meaning in their work that they just aren’t getting any other way. They have after all worked hard and towards the ends of their careers they need to know that it all mattered, yet nobody seems to care what they did or how they did it, because what they did do wasn’t authentic. Too often we allow ourselves to fill this empty feeling with political and religious motivations, both of which are quick to blame this effect on capitalism which is extremely disrespectful to the greatest economic device which produces the greatest human autonomy of anything ever invented by the human mind. But without facts and understanding people facing the problems of Ivan llyich who get pulled below the line in their thinking can’t come to terms with how they arrived where they did so quickly at the end facing the grim reality that none of it really mattered. Once they die there will be a funeral, people will come to it, but nobody will really care or miss them. And that is a tragedy most just can’t handle.

I was exposed to the writing of T.S. Eliot early in my life. I used to work at a high scale Chinese restaurant as a busboy and was dating the pianist who played there ever weekend and her daughter. They were both high art women who roamed around Cincinnati going to all the art exhibits, knew all the names of every wine and dined at the best restaurants. The mom was personally wealthy, her husband had died in much the same way that Ivan llyich had and left two very beautiful women behind to fend for themselves, one was in her forties and facing the prospect of losing that beauty forever and wanted desperately one adventure in life that mattered and the daughter was looking for a big personality to fill that void left by her father that was actually filled with quicksand she didn’t want to be consumed by. So I learned all about T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land and would talk to them about it in ways that made them happy. The relationship was very fulfilling to them, but for me it was another example of how women can often be the boons of new experience, especially for men, young men at that. I was able to launch myself into a lifelong journey that started what I would say was a life of Flow as understood by Csikszentmihalyi. The Wasteland was about the same kind of sentiment as The Death of Ivan llyich and I was determined not to fall into that trap so you might say I have lived a very adventurous life. Not a comfortable one, but certainly one that was filled with great Flow and that continues even to this day 35 to 40 years later. I will never have the problem of Ivan llyich or even Leo Tolstoy for that matter. I learned Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow before he published his groundbreaking book in 1990 and I have lived it every day through some very scary stuff.

All this came up the other day because all my grand children and my children were raised on the Indiana Jones movie Temple of Doom which came out in 1984. I would have never guessed when I saw it in person in the theaters way back then that it would be so important to my future family. My two youngest grandkids just love the energy of that movie even though it’s actually filled with some of the scariest stuff that one might find in human experiences. After all Indiana Jones in that movie gets tortured, poisoned twice, burnt, cursed, crushed and almost eaten by alligators. But at the same time he has a lot of fun making jokes even in the worst of circumstances and at the end of the film instead of sitting around crying about it seems to be ready for the next adventure. The movie is filled with crazy stuff from beginning to end but it is also all about the Flow experience that Csikszentmihalyi would later put to paper in his great book. Kids are born with a natural understanding of Flow and they enjoy Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom because it feeds them. The movie isn’t about some character arch about learning some progressive lesson in the movie, it’s about literally going to Hell and back without the bitterness of living through such an experience and openly accepting whatever life brings next, but the purpose is to live that life to the fullest, moment by moment every day.

I bring all this up to convey a message about how to live life. The best way to do it is with a sense of Flow and to enjoy it for whatever it is at any point that you experience it. The world we live in now assumes that you are suffering from the ailments of the fictional character Ivan llyich and are afraid of losing that nameplate on your desk or your office only to be replaced slowly by the next generation as the world has only use for the panicky youth full of sexual ambition and filling their bellies with food and drink. There is much more to life than even the most sophisticated circles of politics can even dream of. Living a life of Flow is the goal and should be for everyone. However, to do that you can’t get hung up on dumb stuff, and you can’t expect life to be perfect. Darryl Parks from WLW radio once asked me on air how I did it, how did I even manage to go anywhere after being such a controversial figure, because whenever you enter a grocery story or shopping mall where people might recognize you, there is always those little snickers in the corners of the room from people who wonder if it’s really you, the person that so many people hate or just dislike for a multitude of reasons. I told him off air during a commercial break that I didn’t usually see them because they were living in The Waste Land and weren’t living an authentic existence, so their opinions didn’t matter to me. I was living in my own Flow, and they obviously were stuck. They were all future Ivan llyichs. And that is the nature of most of our politics these days, and most of our understandings of economic theories—even our education systems. And my point is that we need to change the whole system into something that has more Flow and less Ivan llyichs.

Rich Hoffman

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