Tolstoy & marshmallows

In Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the main character’s mind tends to wander in both time and space. “In court he found his mind wandering; he would be miles away, wondering whether to have plain or moulded cornices with his curtains.”


In the 1960s and ’70s, psychologist Walter Mischel’s “Marshmallow Experiment” proved that mind-wandering is, among other things, related to self-control. In these studies, nursery school children were offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately, or a larger reward provided later—one versus a handful of marshmallows. Before the children could receive the larger reward, they had to wait for a short period of time (approximately 15 minutes), during which they were left alone.

Some children couldn’t take their minds off the marshmallow there in front of them; they ate it as quickly as possible. On the other hand, some were good at distracting themselves. Years later, during follow-up studies, the researcher found that in general, the children who showed self-discipline and waited had a higher level of well-being. Here, mind-wandering was positive. Therefore, being able to think about the future might not be as devastating as some self-help gurus claim.

Conversely, in other circumstances, mind-wandering may be considered a waste of time; that is, lacking benefit. Again, this comes down to whether we’re able to distinguish between long-term and short-term rewards and whether we agree on the value of those rewards. For example, in most Western countries, young people are often encouraged to drop the sabbatical year and finish school as quickly as possible, in order to become “real” citizens with jobs. However, for some, a year of travelling, reflection, or doing nothing may help them find their true vocation. The point is, we seldom know the outcome beforehand. Life is an experiment. We don’t formulate questions before we face something that makes us think.

In the “Marshmallow Experiment,” the children knew the consequences, but for many aspects of life, we don’t know. At times, we distract ourselves because we don’t dare face ourselves. To truly know ourselves, we must have the courage to take care of ourselves—stretch our comfort zones. The process of maturing, therefore, requires patience.

Thus, whether mind-wandering is beneficial or not depends on our capacity to distinguish between profit and benefit, with the former belonging to the capitalistic sphere and the latter to the existential realm. The main difference between profit and benefit is that someone else can always carry out activities that produce profit (the definition of economy is the organization of scarcity; that is, competition), whereas what’s beneficial to me depends on my experience of moments I don’t wish to outsource.

The problem with Ivan Ilyich in Leo Tolstoy’s masterful story is that his wandering mind isn’t beneficial to him. His mind wanders because he doesn’t want to live his life, although no one else can do it for him. Not only does Ivan Ilyich neglect living in the present moment, he also seems to be disconnected within himself. He lives as if he doesn’t have faith in life. He lives as if he’s already out of this world: dead.

The man who never seems to live

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the story of a man who, throughout most parts of his life, never seems to live.

One day, when climbing a stepladder, Ivan Ilyich slips and falls. He passes off the accident as “only a bruise.” Yet, the bruise is the beginning of him becoming aware of his own death, as the bruise turns into an unbearable pain that slowly drags all the energy out of him. In the late stages of his undiagnosed illness, he wonders whether he has actually lived a happy life and whether his present suffering is a result of his careless lifestyle. It becomes apparent that his general lack of trust in life’s events makes him doubtful and insecure. He hasn’t been paying attention to his life.

Tolstoy doesn’t present us with concrete answers to the existential and spiritual questions the story raises regarding how we should live. On the contrary, he shows us that dying an unhappy and unpeaceful death is the result of not living as fully as possible.

Ivan Ilyich simply has too many doubts. Has he been living a life of ignorance, without seeing, knowing, or even being aware that life one day ends? As Tolstoy writes, “All his life the syllogism he had learned from Kiesewetter’s logic—Julius Caesar is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caesar is mortal—had always seemed to him to be true only when applied to Caesar, certainly not to him.”

Like many others, Ilyich forgets or finds it difficult to accept that he, too, is a mortal being. He seems to neglect the fact that he doesn’t own his life, regardless of the amount of material possessions and titles he gathers.

Life passes through us, changing us, and there are no certainties in life except death. All we can do is protect and care for the joyful interactions that we have with life in the best way possible, depending on our circumstances and our capacity to do so.

We learn from overcoming obstacles; for instance, distracting ourselves from the marshmallow. Yet, we can also learn from investigating or unfolding the moment; that is, seeing our own reactions to the marshmallow as the object of our investigation. What are we capable of? Why should we not eat it now? If we hate marshmallows, then eating one is, after all, better than eating five!

A life worth living

Experiencing a happy death is to avoid an ending like that of Ivan Ilyich, who can’t stop wondering whether, “I’ve been wrong in the way I’ve lived my life.”

Has he? Have I? Have you? How can we enhance the likelihood that our deaths will be peaceful and serene, and not be burdened by regret and remorse? How can each of us become more likely to live a life worth living?

These questions are fundamental to Tolstoy’s story and at the heart of all philosophical thinking and practice. The tentative answer is to experience death as part of living. It requires attention (and perhaps, also, a little less self-deception!) to notice that the wrinkles are already there.

We are dying because we are living. Death is never really our death. It comes from the outside, yet it awaits us all.

First published in The Mindful Word

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