To the editor ...
I too had the pleasure of working, as well as playing, with Don Lavoie. And I too am deeply saddened by his death.
Don and I discussed Polanyi at some length. I first read Polanyi while a member of a reading group, and at our very first session on the first chapter of Personal Knowledge I remarked, "Polanyi is going to make a case for the existence of God." My colleagues laughed, but by the time we reached the end of the book, it was clear that Polanyi was indeed making an admirably subtle case, if not for the Catholic Church, then certainly for the possibility of the existence of something we might call God.
I went to visit Don after I heard he'd been diagnosed with cancer, and I brought him a gift Tolstoy's A Confession. I chose the book because I suspected Don would admire Tolstoy's anarchistic leanings and his fiercely anti-war sentiments, but also because the book is in some ways similar to Personal Knowledge, which Don and I both admired so. Tolstoy begins his confession by acknowledging that he is the most respected writer of his time and that he has a large, loving family and immense wealth. Nonetheless, he admits that he does not carry his gun with him when he walks his land for fear that he will turn it upon himself. At the abyss of his own existential crisis, Tolstoy proceeds to search for meaning. Scientists, he concludes, don't ask the question "Why?" Philosophers, while continually asking the question, provide no answers. And while the deeply religious serfs walk about merrily despite their arduous existence, Tolstoy in the end refuses to engage in absurd religious rituals because it would mean compromising his reason. All is but vanity and vexation.
Ultimately, however, Tolstoy reads the words of Jesus in the Gospels, and he finds that the message resonates within him not unlike Polanyi's passionate scientist who knows he has had a breakthrough not because experiments have confirmed his hypothesis but rather because the hypothesis all at once rings of truth. "Love your brothers and love your God. The kingdom of heaven is within you" that message of love resonated with Tolstoy, and he embraced that nebulous idea, becoming a Christian anarchist deeply antagonistic toward governments and institutionalized forms of religion. His writings ultimately had a profound influence on the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The last time I saw Don he thanked me for the book. He said that as his end was drawing near one of the things that had been troubling him was that he was having difficulty talking about things eternal with his wife, Mary, who is deeply religious. He said that reading Tolstoy provided him with a language that enabled him to engage Mary about concepts such as eternal life and prayer.
Ever open to new ideas and eager to embrace different ways of thinking, Don was a man who internalized his own philosophy he prized freedom so greatly, perhaps, precisely because freedom enables us all to experience the myriad wonders of life, to learn from people with different worldviews, to carve out our own paths while accepting the alternative paths of others.
To Mr. Neff's article