Joy and Despair
Today Bald Hills is essentially the opening paragraph of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it is the spring of hope, it is the winter of despair.
On team hope we have Pierre. His return home, writes Tolstoy, “was a joyful and important event and they all felt it to be so.” To pay for this joy Pierre no doubt Pierre draws from the bank of ever-replenishing spiritual capital he has lately acquired. The dividends from his expenditure are such that most of those in the household share in the joy. Nikolai, for instance, is said to be in a better mood when Pierre is around and as a result spends more time with the family rather than at work. Nikolenka, Prince Andrei’s son, also enjoys Pierre’s company. Pierre is actually a bit of a hero for the young teenager. Few things please Nikolenka more than to listen to Pierre’s stories.
But not everyone is cheered by Pierre’s presence. Old Countess Rostov, captaining team despair, falls into fits of irritability and frustration. Having attained old age and suffered plenty along the way she is now — how to put this? — ready to enjoy the blessed calm of nonexistence. That is, she’s ready to die. Until then, though, she’ll use any pretext to advertise her sadness.
The Rostovs and Bezukhovs use her dejection as a teaching moment:
The old lady’s condition was understood by the whole household, though no one ever spoke of it, and they all made every possible effort to satisfy her needs. Only by a rare glance exchanged with a sad smile between Nikolai, Pierre, Natasha, and Countess Marya, was the common understanding of her condition expressed.
But those glances expressed something more: they said that she had played her part in life, that what they now saw was not her whole self, that we must become like her, and that they were glad to yield to her, to restrain themselves for this once precious being, formerly as full of life as themselves but now so much to be pitied. ‘Memento mori’ said these glances.
Assuming an average lifespan, all will reach Countess Rostov’s station of age but they need not reach her station of deportment. If Natasha and Marya and Pierre and Nikolai can manage to retain and practice the transcendent and eternal lessons they’ve learned during the course of the novel they should be able to able to age gracefully with neither regret nor anger.
Joy gives us wings! In times of joy our strength is more vital, our intellect keener, and our understanding less clouded. We seem better able to cope with the world and to find our sphere of usefulness. But when sadness visits us we become weak, our strength leaves us, our comprehension is dim and our intelligence veiled. The actualities of life seem to elude our grasp, the eyes of our spirits fail to discover the sacred mysteries, and we become even as dead beings. There is no human being untouched by these two influences; but all the sorrow and the grief that exist come from the world of matter — the spiritual world bestows only the joy! If we suffer it is the outcome of material things, and all the trials and troubles come from this world of illusion.
`Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks