Thank You Tolstoy

In August of 2009, I moved to Morocco for a job teaching English Comp at a university. This university claims to be a based on the “liberal arts” model of the American University system. And although it is  indeed a “liberal”  university by Moroccan standards, Morocco is still a predominantly Muslim country, so one should take this perceived “liberalness” with a grain of salt (or perhaps sand).

I found myself sharing an office with a colleague, we’ll call him Dr. Sharif, who had spent ten years in the U.S. pursuing his graduate education. We quickly became friends, played music together occasionally, and I sometimes shared dinner with him and his family. The subject of religion, unsurprisingly, came up from time to time. Most often it was while we were spending an afternoon in our office, our eyes exhausted from correcting essays, and he would ask me all of those “what if” questions. “What if your mother was dying? Would you pray?” or “What if you had a child and that child was sick. Would you pray?” For each of these, I had a response. “No. If my mom was dying I wouldn’t pray. I know she prays enough for the both of us,” and, “No. I would probably find a better doctor.”

For each of these questions, I had a response. One day, Dr. Sharif asked me one of those questions to which I had no honest response. “If you were in a plane and that plane were crashing, would you pray then?”

I love traveling, but I am horrified of flying. The thought of a plane crash honestly terrifies me. My stomach churns when I enter the plane. I take my seat as quickly as possible and try to pace my breath, try not to panic. I grip the arms of the seat. My palms sweat. When the cabin door closes and the plane begins to taxi the runway, I try to clench every muscle in my body and then relax it. I do this over and over again, trying not to picture the plane blowing up in midair and trying not to vomit.

“I don’t know,” I said to him. “Maybe then. Maybe I would. I really don’t know.”

A few years ago, I found that if I could read during takeoffs and landings, I flew much better and was more relaxed because I would gradually lose myself in the book. The rest of it–the plane, the people, the beeps and noises, the stale smell of recycled air–all became a sort of defocused background.

It was lost in War and Peace when the plane was descending into Frankfurt that January. Pierre had just saved a little girl from the fires of Moscow only to be arrested by the French and Princess Marya was about to be transformed into resembling something of a beauty, to the chagrin of Mlle Bourienne and the delight of Nikolai. I was stuck on a line that resonated with me, “…all we see in the past is the general historical interest of the time, and we do not see all those personal, human interests that the people of that time had.”

I have a note to myself in this edition, a paperback Pevear/Volokhonsky translation from 2009, questioning myself. “Isn’t this always the same? The narratives, the news, the magazines, are all caught up creating a grand narrative at the expense of reality.”

My seat jolted. I almost dropped the book.

“Oh fuck!” an American sitting next to me shouted. “Ohshitoffuckohshitohchrist.” I looked around the cabin. People wore panicked faces. Eyes were dilated. Mouths were open wide. Couples were holding each other, mothers and fathers gripping their children. We should be landing, but the plane was plummeting and rising violently. I looked out of the window. The ground was quickly approaching and the plane, it seemed, was out of control.

This was my worst fear come to life. There I was, perhaps moments from death, and it was there that I found the answer to Dr. Sharif’s question. I put my nose back into my book and said to myself, “There are worse ways to die than reading a good book. If Tolstoy can’t save me, then nothing else probably will.”

Shortly after, the thrusters came to life and we flew by the airport. We had not touched down. The pilot was going to need another try. The next time, the plane landing was perfect. As the airplane taxied into the terminal, the pilot apologized for the little scare, citing something about unforeseen turbulence at this altitude. The passengers hugged each other, kissed and laughed at the “close call.” We arrived at our destination and life went on.

A few weeks later, I found myself back in Morocco chatting with Dr. Sharif in our office. I told him about the plane and how I just kept reading my book. He laughed and told me that I was a “real lost cause.” Which sounded strange to me because I felt found.


Thank You Tolstoy — 4 Comments

  1. My take on prayer is that it can work but only internally, not at a distance.
    If you have a sick child and pray to find the strength to carry on and do the best you can do in the situation, then praying will probably be of benefit. But if you pray for your sister to be able to find the strength to carry on in her situation, it will have no effect.
    Also, iff at the end of the day, you set aside a time to review your actions and performance during the day and then pray to do better the next, that too could be of benefit. But if you pray for your boss or spouse or the guy at the gas station to change his ways, it is not going to result in any change in his behavior.
    Most devout religious people suffer a loss of faith when a loved one dies before his time, especially if it was a lingering death and the person spent a great deal of time in prayer for the loved one to get well.

  2. That’s an interesting viewpoint! I suppose that I never think of imploring one’s self to do something as praying; my mind somehow reserves praying for the godly kind, though definitionally that is not necessary. I do sometimes entreat with myself to do better, and I suppose that could be considered praying, in a way. Perhaps it is the same mental trick that I do with ethics and morals, just replacing those with sel-motivation and praying…

  3. Michael,
    I can see how you would take that from my what I wrote. When I was talking of prayer, I did mean the godly kind, but what I am saying is that “God” has nothing to do with the results.
    If you pray to God to help you find your inner strength it may help because you have set that focus in your mind, given your mind that task, not because an external God actually heard you and answered your prayer. An internal God, . . . . perhaps. Depends on how you define God, doesn’t it.

  4. Yes, I got that. What I had never thought about was “prayer” meaning any other kind of prayer, such as when you say “you set aside a time to review your actions and performance during the day and then pray to do better the next, that too could be of benefit.” In that situation, I just would not use the word pray, since once you separate self-motivation and prayer, the latter does not make any sense (to me) in that situation.

Leave a Reply