A good travel buddy of mine introduced me to Stoicism a few years ago and ever since I’ve started dipping my toe into various other philosophers’ writings. Lately, I’ve been reading Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life: Life Is Long if You Know How to Use It. The title itself was enough to rattle me, let alone the content inside. It’s a tiny book small enough to fit in your back pocket, yet it’s filled with punchy observations that splash yo ur face with a proverbial bucket of icy water and make you think: Thank God I picked this up now, before it’s too late.
Like most stoic philosophers, Seneca cuts to the chase. He doesn’t sugarcoat any aspect of how we humans take our liberties with this gift most of the time. The Stoics think very pragmatically, logically, in a detached fashion, which is perhaps how they’ve gained a pejorative reputation of being emotionless – when in reality emotions don’t have anything to do with their beliefs at all. In this book in particular, Seneca asks the difficult questions of why we waste so much of our time, knowing that we really are only here for a brief moment, because it could end at any second. And stripped of semantics, it is as simple as that.
One quote which inspired me to write this was: ‘Learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die’ (p. 10).
At one point, he uses the adjective ‘arrogant’, which threw me too. But I found that I agreed: We really are a bunch of arrogant humans to believe that we are all going to live ’til our mid-80s. When Seneca attaches the ego to our mortality in this context, it is very sobering indeed. Because supposing that you’re going to live to see your old age as a given is actually a very bold claim, isn’t it? Assuming that you are going to Iive out a long life with your family and friends is quite ridiculous, and yes, arrogant isn’t it? What Seneca is saying with this particular adjective is that no one on this planet is guaranteed anything, so how egotistical is it to assume that you will live out a long, full life? That you or one of your loved ones, may not die tomorrow or next week? This isn’t a dig on anyone’s sense of morality, but an earnest observation.
To live in such an abstract future so as to miss your entire life because you believe that your life will last forever – you will end up missing out on all of the truly beautiful moments: talking on the phone to your Grandpa, cooking with your mother, conversations in the car after your dad’s picked you up from the station, listening to the radio with your grandmother. All of those precious moments – because your loved ones are here and still alive – seem meaningless and even boring when we think everyone we love is immortal.
Seneca, like the above thought, is quite a savage, but to sum this up:
“You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply – though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last… You will hear many people saying: ‘When I am fifty I shall retire into leisure; when I am sixty I shall give up public duties.’ And what guarantee do you have of a longer life?”
This is the chief point he is getting at here: we are so attached to the idea that – unconsciously – we believe that and behave as if we exist in the future, that the present is worthless. We are so preoccupied with the longevity of life that we forget completely that we could die at any given moment. Someone you love could drop dead of a freak aneurysm in the next five minutes; a close friend could be hit by a drunk driver next week; maybe a colleague is suffering from a fatal heart attack right this second – and the list goes on. It’s a terrible tragedy that we humans don’t realise is a tragedy until it’s too late – and ain’t that just the way of human nature? Seneca couldn’t have said it any better when he notes that ‘the preoccupied become aware of it only when it is over’ (p. 14).
The main problem here is that we do this unconsciously – we assume, we bank on, we rely on, we believe that our life will last ‘forever’. But while this is an arrogant act, we don’t consciously attach this ego to our mortality; we don’t maliciously live our lives with this recklessness because we can (although, some do). We are just naive to the shortness of life and indeed, to the simplicity of it all. We want to protect ourselves by believing that we are safe, because we have so much time. But once that lightbulb pings on, we realise that actually, we have no time at all – it isn’t possible. As a classic example of irony, it’s at that moment when your days and moments begin to expand, each second becoming richer than the last, when you realise the gravity of your mortality.
This idea links to another stoic mantra Memento Mori – which roughly translates to ‘meditate on your mortality’ – remember that you or any of your loved ones will eventually die. As morbid as it sounds, it is sobering as hell. It may sound depressing, but meditating on this fact every day instils a great load of gratitude. Said phone calls with your grandpa are suddenly worth more than any nugget of gold on this planet; those interactions with your grandma on Facebook are one of the most precious things on earth; a simple text message from your mother asking what you’d like for dinner is enough to burst your heart. Because you know that they – including you – could go at any moment. And thus, you take none of it – the previously mundane, even annoying things – for granted.
And when you are that present, not stuck in the future, your life becomes the beautiful 3-dimensional piece of art it has always been. Seneca says that we are too busy ‘arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in ours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately’ (p.13). As soon as you abandon the anxiety attached to living in the future, you will start living: really living.
So (within reason) live as if you may die tomorrow, love as if you may lose your close ones at any moment – because life is long, if you know how to use it and as Seneca says: ‘our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly’.