“This book will make you feel better about your own life”

I’ve been feeling a bit like a prisoner in my own home lately. And you? Tired of reading article..article…article…article…, I knew I needed a shot of bigger perspective.

So I picked up a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time–One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Written by Russian Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn and based on his own experience in the Gulag, Siberia’s network of “corrective labor camps,” I thought it might afford me a bit of a reality check on what it really means to feel like a prisoner.

And it has. But not by pounding me with horrific word pictures of torture, despair and madness.

Rather, with the artistry of understatement, irony and even wit, One Day, while written in big print and prison slang, offers great thoughts and deep meanings that gently percolate in my mind throughout the day–so different from the jangle of texts, Facebook posts and articles that leave us feeling over-stimulated and unfocused.

One Day is an easy read with a psychologically gripping ending I never saw coming. It makes me think. And give thanks.

Researching it a little more online, I discovered that when a movie based on the book was released in ’76, the narrator of the trailer hooked me with exactly what I was looking for: “This movie will make you feel better about your life.” So will the book. Much better.

The story focuses on Ivan, a Russian Everyman peasant, who, right as World War II broke out, had the misfortune of being captured by the Germans. Upon escaping and returning to the Russian lines, he was charged (without evidence) with being a German spy and sentenced to ten years hard labor in the Gulag.

Drawing on the details of his own experience, Solzhenitsyn shows, rather than tells, what it was like to work 14+ hours a day in a Siberian winter, unless the prisoners were saved by a blizzard that would sink the mercury south of forty degrees below zero. They prayed for blizzards.

Freezing Cold and Hunger

On the one day featured in the story, as reveille sounds at 5 a.m., the thermometer registers 17 below, so the prisoners trudge to work through the snow. “How could anyone get warm here,” Ivan wonders, “With the ice piled up on the window and a white cobweb of frost running along the whole barracks where the walls joined the ceiling?”

With his blanket and his quilted overcoat pulled up over his head and his feet stuffed down one sleeve and his whole body “still one big ache,” Ivan decides to try to get himself on the sick list. But only two people from each gang are allowed, and by the time he makes it to the medic those two places were taken.

The only physical enemy more “viscious” than the cold was hunger. Most of the men ate their thin gruel “chasing bits of rotten fish among the cabbage leaves and spitting bones out on the table…the worst time was July, when they put shredded nettles in the cauldron.” In addition to even thinner gruel at noon and dinnertime, the men were granted six-ounce servings of bread. For lunch they were usually served magara, a mixture of flour and water.

How different from our lives here in South Carolina…Often over the last few weeks I’ve thanked God for the exploding beauty of springtime—a mercifully ironic setting to a Pandemic of sickness and death. With so much time for cleaning up wintry yard trash, mulching, and planting flowers, the yards on our street have never looked so good.

Our back yard falls away downhill and we look out into a green belt of rustling leaves—a vivid canopy growing more lush and shaded every day. Highs have been in the 60’s and 70’s–a delicious time to sit on the back porch, eat dinner on the deck, and watch the azaleas bloom and the birds party in their bath.

We’ve also had time to cook healthy and fun meals—always a pot of soup to heat up, as well as street tacos, shrimp salads, smoked ribs, cinnamon rolls for Easter, and our favorite take outs whenever we want them. We enjoy so much variety and savory goodness, and cool, beautiful evenings to help walk off the calories. The prisoners battle freezing temps and stabbing hunger all day. We are blessed.

Injustice and Loss of Freedom

Ivan had completed 8 years of his 10-year sentence. But he had no idea if he would be released at the end of ten years. Others with three years had had another five years slapped onto their sentence. “They [the communists] twisted the law any way they wanted. So you just went on living like this, with your eyes on the ground, and you had no time to think about how you got in and when you’d get out.” Once in a while Ivan thought that perhaps one day he might actually walk out of there. But he couldn’t let those thoughts sit around in his head.

Besides, there wasn’t much time to consider them. Beyond the long days of work they had 10 minutes at breakfast, 5 minutes at lunch and 5 minutes at dinner. An hour between reveille and lining up for work. Forty-five minutes after dinner. Sundays they might have off, but would probably work at least one, maybe two Sundays a month.

The loss and isolation of this pandemic is hardly worthy to be compared to the pain and injustice of the Gulag. But our sack of troubles is still our own. It’s quite real. It still hurts. We may never again suffer such a loss of freedom in our lifetimes.

As I wrote in the last post, the worst loss for me is worship together at church. And seeing my friends and visiting my family. May I never take them for granted again. Since Jack had surgery weeks before lock down, we’ve clocked sixty-two days in isolation so far. A special blessing to those of you who are enduring this alone.

Here at home we still enjoy great freedom to structure our work and play and virtually connect with others as we choose. We don’t have to set a morning alarm. We cook the meals we choose. Connect with family and friends by phone, text and Zoom as we choose. I work in my home and yard and on my writing as I choose. We spend our leisure time as we choose—reading this book (and Joel Rosenburg’s latest trilogy), watching TV, movies and news, emailing and texting. We even worked a 1000-piece puzzle. Even under lock down, compared to the tyranny that Ivan and his fellow-prisoners endure I am blessed.

Whether living with the soul-crushing loss of freedom in the Gulag or isolated at home by a pandemic, both feel wrong–the consequences of living in a fallen world ruled by an enemy who is always seeking to destroy us. Satan’s schemes–whether inflicting misery on more than 18 million in the Gulag or releasing havoc through an unseen enemy that infects over 2 million, are unjust. And one day God will bring him to account. He will be judged and punished in horrific pain. Justice will ultimately prevail for us, for Solzhenitsyn, and all the Ivans in the Gulag.

Reading “One Day” makes my own life feel better not only because I am spared the suffering Ivan faced, but because his story reminds me of the blessings we both share…

The meaningfulness of work well done

In all his years in the system, Ivan had never given or taken a bribe. He preferred the “good feeling you get when you really earn” your money. In the camps, you didn’t work for money. You worked for rations. On this “One day” Ivan, a carpenter, and one of the best workers in his gang, was assigned laying bricks–finishing a wall, working on scaffolding four levels up. The hoist was broken and the bricks had to be thrown up, one layer of scaffolding to the next. What with all the prep and throwing bricks and hauling mortar by hand, they didn’t get started laying bricks till after lunch.

So they worked until well past the quitting signal. Ivan’s trowel flew along the bricks. He worked until he feared he might get the rest of his gang in trouble and finally “ran back to have a last look. Not bad. He went up and looked over the wall from left to right. His eye was true as a level. The wall was straight as a die. His hands were still good for something!”

Those of us without a job are all realizing —we are made to work. Before the fall, God put Adam and Eve in the garden and told them to rule and subdue the earth. Build and grow things. God told Moses that his people were to work six days and then rest one. Not the other way around. Too much leisure and we feel bored and restless. When we survey our work that is well done, even in a labor camp like Ivan, we are wired to feel that sense of pride and accomplishment.

Not only do the yards in our neighborhood look so beautiful, but like me, I think many of my neighbors are cleaning out and organizing. Going through stacks of papers lying around. Sorting through drawers, cabinets and closets, even rooms and garages. Friends told us that they had never seen such a line of cars waiting to turn into the dump.

Like Ivan, I feel more alive from that same sense of working hard and moving forward. Whether it’s sweeping my deck, cooking tortilla soup or writing this blog, I find more joy in doing the work God has given me to do than in unlimited stretches of leisure. Now that Jack and I are retired, we do enjoy more leisure time than when he was working. But my life is richer when I am working with the time, talent and gifts God has given me. Can you relate?

And finally, another blessing I share with Ivan…

Reaching out to others in empathy and kindness

The camps dehumanized the prisoners–starving them, overworking them, strip-searching them in sub-zero weather, substituting numbers for their names. Throwing them into the cooler where their teeth chattered all night for small violations of the rules.

Even so, Ivan didn’t let the system destroy his humanity. He felt compassion for his fellow-prisoners, one of whom was a captain of the Soviet navy, sentenced because a British officer sent him a gift of appreciation for a service rendered. On the “One day” he is also caught wearing an extra vest against the cold and punished with ten days in the cooler. When an extra bowl of mush was handed to the Captain at lunch, to Ivan’s way of thinking it was only right. “The time would come when he would learn the ropes, but as it was he didn’t know his way around yet.”

And later, “He nudged Senka in the ribs for him to take [his cigarette butt], poor devil. He gave it to him in his wooden holder. Let him have a draw on it. It didn’t matter.” Ivan was moved with compassion for the suffering of his fellow gang members and his day was filled with creative initiatives to help others.

I too am feeling very tender towards others–my 88-year old Mom locked down in her independent living facility, calling her every day. I’m reaching out with zoom and calls to other family and friends. Also zooming prayer times with others in our small groups at church.

Jesus challenges us to share the gospel. To tend his lambs and sheep. Everyone needs a touch, especially in these difficult times. May God give us sharp antennae to sense when someone is lonely and needs a touch. May we be intentional and strategic about reaching out with phone calls, texts, social media. Sharing books and puzzles. Planning a porch-sit, social distancing birthday visit. Delivering flowers or care packages. Helping others who need a portion of our relief checks more than we do.

I read this book and I am deeply grateful I don’t live in an authoritarian, socialist state. As we are isolating at home, we may need time to lament, as I mentioned in my last post. But we also need to give thanks. We have so much more time, food, freedom and opportunity to bless others than many. Our circumstances may make us feel like we are in lock down. But in Christ we have every liberty to love well and work creatively to overcome our circumstances. God’s mercies are new every morning.

Are you feeling like a prisoner on lock down? What helps give you a larger perspective? Please share in the comments below…

Lael writes and speaks about faith and culture and how God renews our vision and desire for Him and his Kingdom. She earned a master's degree (MAT) in the history of ideas from the University of Texas at Dallas, and has taught Western culture and apologetics at secular and Christian schools and colleges. Her long-term experience with rheumatoid arthritis and being a pastor’s wife has deepened her desire to minister to the whole person—mind, heart, soul and spirit. Lael has co-hosted a talk radio program, The Things That Matter Most, on secular stations in Houston and Dallas about what we believe and why we believe it with guests as diverse as Dr. Deepak Chopra, atheist Sam Harris and VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer. (Programs are archived on the website.) Lael has authored four books, including a March 2011 soft paper edition of A Faith and Culture Devotional (now titled Faith and Culture: A Guide to a Culture Shaped by Faith), Godsight, and Worldproofing Your Kids. Lael’s writing has also been featured in Focus on the Family and World magazines, and she has appeared on many national radio and television programs. Lael and her husband, Jack, now make their home in South Carolina.

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