Leo Tolstoy’s classic short story, The Death of Ivan Ilych, opens with a group of lawyers debating the legal niceties of a lawsuit when they learn their friend and colleague, Ivan Ilych, has died. While they’re shocked and saddened by the news, each one secretly feels relief that it is Ivan Ilych and not himself who is dead, and they quickly turn their conversation back to their business affairs.
As the story unfolds and the full circle of Ilych’s family and friends is encountered, we learn that for all of them life goes on and their daily mundane tasks and petty ambitions recapture their attention. After all, it is Ivan Ilych who is dead, not them.
The reader’s first response to their attitude is one of shock at their selfishness, though as the story unfolds it becomes clear that these characters are not, in fact, selfish or heartless by any reasonable standard. Rather, the story’s greatest shock is that of self-recognition when we look into the mirror which Tolstoy holds up. Each of the characters is us, frightened of and seeking to deny our own inevitable deaths. He confronts us with the plainest, yet most difficult truth of all: Death comes for us all, and the world continues on without us. Like any absolute truth, the fact of our own mortality can be depressing. However, it can also be a moment of insight and grace, when we come to a deeper understanding of who we are and how we should live in light of that.
If we are to die and leave this life — and make no mistake, we all will — what do we want to leave behind? Financial security for our families? Perhaps, though inherited wealth can be as much a curse as a blessing. A reputation for shrewdness in business and a keen eye for opportunity? Naturally, though success breeds envy, which in turn produces as many criticisms as it does compliments (and usually many more). A dominant position in the market which guarantees future business growth? For every Apple there is a Kodak, and for every Walmart a Montgomery Ward. In the words of Ecclesiastes, “All is vanity! … A bad business God has given to human beings to be busied with” (1:2, 13).
Despite all our authority in a company, our ability to shape the world in which it operates is vanishingly small. As countless entrepreneurs have been reminded since 2008, often we cannot control or even anticipate events that will bring our best-laid plans to naught. Were it permitted, we should bring our articles of incorporation with us on Ash Wednesday so that the priest might say to them as well, “Remember, O Corporation, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shall return.” And when that inevitably happens, others will mourn publicly, while thinking privately, “It is Lehman Brothers (or Enron or Bethlehem Steel or …) and not me who is dead.”
Given this unpleasant reality, what should we do? If a wise person is one who knows the truth and lives in accordance with it, there is much wisdom to be had in accepting our mortality and managing our businesses in light of it. While we cannot choose our fates, we can choose our principles and adhere to them through good times and bad. And while we cannot control the global marketplace, we can create a corporate culture that reflects our values and an organizational chart to achieve them. A sincere respect for the dignity of our employees, a commitment to serving our customers faithfully, an unflinching demand for financial integrity are not just “best business practices”; they are (or should be) living expressions of our deepest principles.
By living out these principles and requiring others to do so as well, we shape our coworkers for the better and, in a very real sense, live on through them and continue to serve the Lord even after we die. By creating a work environment grounded in dignity, respect, and honesty, we do not guarantee that our individual businesses will flourish or even survive us. In fact, adherence to these principles may even disadvantage us against less scrupulous competitors. Indeed, at times such failure may even be required of us. But as Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24).
Death comes to every man, woman and business eventually, but for those who believe — and ground their companies in that faith — it is not death but life that has the final word.
LANCE RICHEY is the dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind.