That question is pertinent to our exploration of Death of Ivan Il'ich, and the following quote synthesizes, in very simple terms, Tolstoy's best response to it. The language of the essay strikes me as highly idiomatic and conversational, as though Tolstoy were talking through the problem with a friend. I've tried to preserve his tone.
One trouble with my translation is coping with Tolstoy's frequent use of the word zhalko (something like twenty times in the passage), a conversational but very powerful word which most often means "this makes me feel sorrow and regret," but also has overtones of shame (Kak tebe ne zhalko!), pity towards, contempt for, and begrudging something. It is directly related to the words "to complain" and "to sting."
***I imagine that I will die, and with that my life will end, and this idea torments and terrifies me, because I feel sorry for myself. But what dies? What is it that I regret? What am I, from the most ordinary point of view? I am first and foremost flesh. Well, and so what? That is why I am afraid? I mourn for that? No, it turns out that is not it: A body, a substance can never disappear, nowhere, not even the tiniest bit of it. So it turns out that that part of me has been taken care of, there is no reason for me to fear for that part. Everything will remain unharmed.
But no, not for that do I grieve. What I pity is myself, Lev Nikolaevich [Tolstoy's full name], or Ivan Semyonovich... Yes, but isn't it true that each of us is not who we were twenty years ago, and that every day we become someone different? So what is it again that I pity, what am I sorry for? What I mourn, what I feel sorry for, is my consciousness of myself, my "I."
Yes, but even this consciousness of yours wasn't ever one thing, but it was instead various things: It was something different a year ago, and even more different ten years ago and entirely different before that. For as long as you remember, it has forever gone on changing. So, why then is it that you like your present consciousness, why is it that you mourn losing it? Had it always been one and the same thing, then it would make sense. But it has never done anything but change. You cannot see nor discover its beginning, and yet here you are suddenly wanting it never to end, wishing that this consciousness that is now within you would never ever change. For as long as you can remember yourself, you've been on the move. You came into this life, not knowing how; but you know that you came in this special "I" which you are, then off you went, going on, going on, until you have reached the middle. And suddenly, not quite rejoicing and not quite fearing, you balk, and you do not want to budge, you don't want to continue further because you cannot see what lies ahead. And yet you didn't see the place from which you've just come, and yet you made it. You entered through the entrance, yet you don't want to exit from the exit.
Your entire life has been a journey through physical existence. Onward you've gone, hurrying along your way, and suddenly you start regretting that what you have always been doing, continues to happen.
What seems terrible to you is a significant change in your situation that occurs with carnal, physical death. But isn't it true that the same kind of change happened to you at your birth, and nothing bad came of that; on the contrary, what happened was so good that you don't want to part with it.
What can scare you? You say that you will miss that you, with its current feelings, thoughts, with a certain way of looking at the world, with its present relationship with the world. You fear losing your relationship with the world? What exactly is this relationship? What does it consist of? If it's that you who drinks, eats, reproduces, builds your home, gets dressed -- the particular way that you relate to other people and creatures. Well, all of that is really just the relationship of each human, as a rationalizing creature, to life, and this relationship in no way can disappear. There are, have been, and will be millions of such relationships, and their species will be preserved, probably just as doubtlessly as each and every atom will be preserved. The instinct for preservation of the species is instilled in animals so strongly, and is therefore so durable, that there is no reason to worry about it. If you are an animal, then there is nothing for you to fear; if you are physical matter, then you are even more guaranteed in your eternalness.
But if what you afraid of losing is not something animal, then you are afraid of losing your personal, rational [spiritual] relationship to the world — that with which you entered into existence. But you know that that thing arose not with your birth. It existed independent of your being born as animal, and therefore it cannot be dependent on the death of your animal nature. (My fairly loose translation, from the beginning of Chapter XXXII)