October 25, 2011

Finding the Blessing of Life in Solitary Confinement


We live in a world, of course, that is skewed, a world that is deviated, a world that knows little of true value. We live in a world where people pursue all the wrong stuff. And that massive overpowering pursuit that is all around us encroaches on our lives and gets us caught up in the very pursuit of things which mean nothing or should mean nothing to us.

The attitude of most worldly people in terms of their pursuit is exposed ably by Anton Chekhov's(??) classic short story called "The Bet." Chekhov was a Russian writer who wrote in the 1800's.

This story gives us insight into the value system of most people.

The plot involves a wager, a bet between two educated men. And it was a bet over the issue of solitary confinement. A wealthy middle-aged banker believed that the death penalty was a more humane punishment than solitary confinement because an executioner kills at once, solitary confinement kills gradually.

One of his guests at a party, a young lawyer of 25, disagreed saying, "To live under any conditions is better than not to live at all." Angered the banker impulsively responded with a bet of two million rubles, a fortune. He bet that the younger man could not last five years in solitary confinement. The lawyer was so convinced of his endurance and so eager for the two million that he announced that he would stay fifteen years instead of five to make his point.

The arrangements were made and the young man moved into a separate building on the grounds of the banker's large estate. He was allowed no visitors and no newspapers. He could write letters but receive none.

There were guards watching to make sure he never violated the agreement but they were placed so that he could never see another human being. He received his food in silence through a small opening where he couldn't see those who served him. Everything else he wanted, books, certain foods, musical instruments, was granted by his own special written request.

The story develops with a description of the things the lawyer asked for through the years and the occasional glances of the observant guardians who delivered some of them while he slept. During the first year the piano could be heard at almost any hour and he asked for many books, mostly novels and light reading. The next year the music ceased the works of various classical authors were requested. In the sixth year of his isolation he began to study languages and soon wrote that he had mastered six languages. After the tenth year of his confinement the prisoner sat motionless at the table and read the New Testament. After more than a year's saturation of the Bible he began to study theology.

The second half of the story focuses on the night before the noon deadline when the lawyer will win the bet. The banker is now at the end of his career. His risky speculations and impetuosity had gradually undermined his business. The once self-confident millionaire was now a second-rate banker and to pay off the wager would destroy him. Angry at his foolishness and jealous of the soon to be wealthy man who was now only forty, the old banker determined to kill his opponent and frame the guard with the murder.

Slipping into the man's room, he found him asleep at the table. Before he could kill him he noticed a letter the lawyer had written to him. He picked it up, this is what he read. "Tomorrow at twelve o'clock I shall be free. But before leaving this room I find it necessary to say a few words to you. With a clear conscience and before God who sees me I declare to you that I despise freedom and life and health and all that your books call the joys of this world. I know I am wiser than you all and I despise all your books. I despise all earthly blessings and wisdom, all is worthless and false, hallow and deceiving like the mirage. You may be proud, wise and beautiful, but death will wipe you away from the face of the earth as it does the mice that live beneath your floor. And your heirs, your history, your immortal geniuses will burn with the destruction of the earth. You have gone mad and are not following the right path. You take falsehood for truth, and deformity for beauty. To prove to you how I despise all that you value, I renounce the two million on which I looked at one time as the opening of paradise for me and which I now scorn. And to deprive myself of the right to receive the two million, I will leave my prison five hours before the appointed time and by so doing break the terms of our compact." And he signed his name.

The banker read the lines, replaced the paper on the table, kissed the strange sleeping man. And with tears in his eyes, quietly left the house. Chekhov writes, "Never before, not even after sustaining serious losses had he despised himself as he did at that moment." His tears kept him awake the rest of the night and at seven the next morning he was informed by the watchmen that they had seen the man crawl through a window and go to the gate and disappear.

Some people have to learn the hard way what is the right stuff. And some people never learn.

An excerpt from the sermon Praying the Right Things, Part 1 by Pastor John MacArthur

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