War and Peace

Growing up the biggest book in the house was always the Holy Bible. The Bible stood above all other books in its shear mass – the thinness of the pages, the small font, and the endless footnotes made it formidable. Of course the Bible is in a class of its own but my third classic, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, gives it some competition in the size department: 1,400 pages of 19th-century Russian Literature. I always viewed War and Peace as the ultimate ego-trip – imagine some hipster guy walking down the street holding a copy while curling his mustache and listening to a Walkman. In all honesty, this book almost destroyed my sight; halfway through I bought a magnifying glass from Amazon that had in the description, “GREAT FOR GRANDMA AND GRANDPA.” It took me over three weeks to finish and I felt like a man waiting for his wife to give birth when the doctor says it will take all night – initial excitement, tears at the vending machine at 3:00 AM, and finally exhausted delirium at sunrise. Instead of a crying baby I was rewarded with a new found perspective of what art in the form of writing truly represents. War and Peace is not a novel but rather a philosophical treatise that has the added benefit of a great story. The general plot takes place in Russia from 1805 to 1820 and follows the family life of  a few Russians during the Napoleonic Wars. So what makes this book so great? The complexity of the characters mix with the backdrop of war to form a multilayered cake of delicious metaphor, behavior, and historical understanding.

As the title suggests, War and Peace, is all about contrast. The characters juggle life’s myriad curve balls: young love transforms into mature friendship, an engagement fails after an unexpected affair, happy families suffer with untimely deaths, once bountiful fortunes turn to meager incomes. The backdrop to these life events is a war that sweeps up the individual characters and the nation as whole. War that once seemed so glorious becomes surreal as the years progress. The war symbolizes both destruction and birth: taking the lives of some while bringing together people who may have never met. The philosophical theme throughout the book aims to better understand the meaning of life and man’s ability to express free will. The purpose of life, which is best expressed by the characters who suffered the most, is simply to “live” – every expression is a manifestation and glorification of God. This conclusion is simple on the surface but hard to practice: people seek money, respect, power, and control as their purpose, while “just” living seems inadequate. This purpose is mirrored by man’s desire to express free will while simultaneously being drawn by others into actions that are counter to life – war. Tolstoy makes the point that free will is not an absolute, just as inevitability (no choice at all) is also not an absolute. Thus, Napoleon – with his genius – did not impact his soldiers and the battle’s outcomes as much as he or everyone else thought. The same is true of the individual soldier’s free will – time, space, history, and infinite circumstances swinging the pendulum of choice. History, is not decided by the powerful few but is decided by a irreducible power which is wielded by innumerable individuals – always susceptible to the curve ball of life.

“If everyone fought for their own convictions there would be no war.”
-Leo Tolstoy War and Peace

Chihuahua Super Powers

Max, our pea-brain chihuahua, has been a member of our family for almost two months now. I wrote about Max in a earlier post and since then our friendship has grown significantly. Initially, I saw our friendship as one sided-being that I fed and loved the dog on a regularly basis. But over time, Max has returned the favor by teaching me a key life lesson-contentment. It is hard to be content in this world that always tells us we need “more.”  Max has a very simple life and for all intents and purposes seems quite happy. He is either in a complete state of relaxation on the couch or in a complete state of ecstasy while eating-especially when its tortilla chips. From my observations he never thinks about anything except what is happening right in the present moment. If he is on the couch, he owns that couch. If he is on a walk, he doesn’t even know the couch exists. Max is a master at being present. Now, this may be because his tiny brain can’t handle too much thought but nevertheless it is a skill that I am learning from my new friend. At any given moment I am trying to get somewhere, do something, or thinking about the future. It is rare that I am actually a witness of the present and fully taking in my surroundings.

When Max eats a tortilla chip, his one neuron must be overwhelmed by all its intricate details-the saltiness, the crunchiness, the deliciousness, the sheer heaven that is fried corn. When I eat a tortilla chip I usually am not thinking about the chip but rather how fat I will feel after eating the whole bag and whether it is weird to be eating them while taking a shower. When Max goes on walks it is like he is running through a field filled with magical grass and hypnotic trees. When I take a walk, I am thinking about tomorrow’s schedule and questioning whether or not I had pooped that day. My point being, Max is content and I am not. If I were content I would take in each moment and not feel the need to have “more.” I wouldn’t be constantly worrying about the future or trying to upgrade my material possessions. I would be happier and more at peace because all I would need would be the present moment. The next time you eat a tortilla chip, try not to think about anything else, use your “Chihuahua Super Powers” of thoughtlessness. Take a bite and see how much better it tastes. It may be the first time that you have ever consciously tasted something. Who would have thought that my dog, who I thought would never teach me anything, is now helping me see the world in a better way? Thanks Max for your limited mental capabilities, they are helping me to find greater contentment.