Tolstoy and My Right Shoulder

In "How Much Land Does A Man Need?," a short story by Leo Tolstoy, the peasant Pahom comes upon the opportunity to buy some land. He's relieved to be out from under the heavy hand of a landowner who frequently imposed fines when, say, a cow would stray into her oats. His first harvest is good; Pahom is happy. His is special land.

In time, neighboring peasants and their cattle begin to trespass on his land, and Pahom tries to deal with this civilly, but to no avail. He fines the offenders, who begrudge his this and sometimes purposefully send some cows his way. More tension ensues, and Pahom becomes disgruntled. He's thinking a little more land would solve his troubles. He spends three years renting some extra land to sow wheat, saving up some money, and finally is about to cinch a deal to purchase quite a bit more land--1300 acres--for a cheap price (1500 roubles).

Just then, he meets up with a man who tells him about an amazing deal that is to be had far away, in the land of the Bashkirs. The man had just purchased 13,000 acres for 1000 roubles. The chiefs there are simple people, and you can bribe them easily into selling this land for cheap.

Pahom travels there and meets the Bashkirs. They seemed amused at his request, but he can't follow their native tongue well enough to know why. Finally, they offer a proposal:

"We sell it by the day. As much as you can go round on your feet in a day is yours, and the price is 1000 roubles a day."

"But there is one condition: If you don't return on the same day to the spot whence you started, your money is lost."

"All the land you cover will be yours."

They worked out the specifics, and Pahom set out the following day. This was virgin land, gorgeous fertile territory, and every step of the way Pahom found large tracts that he simply couldn't resist marking his way around. He daydreamed of the ox teams he'd buy, the people he'd hire to do the plowing. He would debate with himself as to whether to stop and rest, even when he was very thirsty. At times he knew he'd need to start heading back, but then he'd see another bit of beautiful land. And on and on it went throughout the day.

In time, Pahom's body began giving out on him, but by then he knew that if he stopped, he'd never make it back. The sun was low. He threw away all his belongings save his spade and started to run.

His heart was beating hard. The sun fell lower. He knew he couldn't stop running now, or he'd be thought a fool. But his heart! He knew he wouldn't reach the spot.

Just then, he realized that his starting place was lower on the hillside, and therefore the sun would not have set yet over there. This knowledge pushed him to continue, though he was terribly weak.

The Bashkirs saw him and began to cheer him on.

Pahom fell, his hands reaching forward just far enough to touch the place where he had begun. "Ah, that's a fine fellow!," said the chief. "He has gained much land!"

But--spoiler alert--Pahom was dead.

The Bashkirs "clicked their tongues to show their pity."

Pahom's servant picked up Pahom's spade, dug a grave, and buried his master.

Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.


My shoulder? My shoulder. Part of pushing your limits--addressed in an earlier post on weightlifting--is knowing your limits.

My right shoulder has limits. Sometimes I push these limits, and my shoulder will protest with a crack so loud it wakes my husband in the next room, just before I nearly pass out on the toilet. Sometimes I'm really stupid: I stretch the weak tendons too far, and then I can't do any shoulder work for several weeks. I hear that a snapped tendon takes about 6 months and maybe surgery to heal completely, and would erase all the work I've put in up to this point. How close have I come to that, I wonder?

Poor thing, you're thinking: She has to avoid chin-ups. But you know what? This is a form of greed, just like Pahom's greed. I tell myself I'm just trying to get strong, just working toward that next bench pressing competition in February. I'm young at the sport and certainly just an amateur, but I'd like to do my best, and up my best lift. But I'm also trying for a little more muscle, a little better body. Greed and pride. Coveting. And probably a few other vices thrown in for good measure.

There are lots of lessons in Tolstoy's tale. I think of it often, and for many different reasons. Probably an essay on weightlifting never made it into the major literary criticism books, but today, I'm thinking Tolstoy has something to say about my shoulder.

There's a fine line between noble goals and subtle greed. And you don't want to die trying to find it.


  1. uhmmmmm.... MRI perhaps? Just throwing that out there for you. :)

    Enjoyable post, just trying to help you out a bit.

  2. Nah, I'm just going to think positive thoughts, and then it will all get better.

  3. I just finished editing a whole book on greed, and wish this blog could be a chapter in it. Kudos.


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