“With most people happiness is something that is always just a day off. But I have made it a rule never to put off being happy till tomorrow.” — George Horace Lorimer
I don’t live an extravagant life. I’m not well known or filled to the brim with resources to get whatever I want. I don’t come from a line of monarchs, so I’m not part of a succession to take any throne. I quit drinking alcohol and enjoy simple things like running and books. If anything, I often aim for the quiet life on purpose. Yet, when I look around, some sort of perfect looks back at me.
When spring blooms and nature shows her face in ways that seem like only the heavens could create, all I feel is gratitude. A thankfulness for what things are, regardless of whether or not they will ever improve. But I also feel armed with a faith that whatever does happen, I can endure. “Demand not that things happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do, and you will go on well,” as Epictetus would say.
Life is difficult. The sages claimed it is suffering. In James Romm’s Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero, he summarizes the philosopher Seneca’s grim view of life poignantly:
“Is life on a battlefield, or on death row, worth living? Seneca seems to be of two minds. At one point, he extols the beauty of the world, the joys that outweigh all suffering. At another, he reckons up the pains of mortal life and claims that, were we offered it as a gift instead of being thrust into it, we would decline. In either case, life, properly regarded, is only a journey toward death. We wrongly say that the old and sick are “dying,” when infants and youths are doing so just as certainly. We are dying every day, all of us.”
If life is a drama riddled with malevolence, despair, and suffering, the only mitigation strategy would be to do what we can to offset the difficulties. We can do this by embracing the burden of life and accepting things that offset the harsh realities, like meaningful toil, the cultivation of virtue, and contributing as best as we can to the whole. Accomplishment, power, wealth, status, and the external world fade. Reputation and virtue stay with us forever. As Phaedous wrote, “Unless what we do is useful, glory is foolish,” though sometimes the virtuous path does coincide with the glorious.
Marketers, salesmen, and PR gurus remind us of the success that’s waiting around every corner if we buy the right products, say the right things, or read the right books. But it’s never mentioned what’s on the other side of success. The other side of success is often an ingratitude and pursuit of more. Politicians want more power. Billionaires want to corner the competition and make more money. Writers want to outsell other famous authors even after they’ve done the unthinkable and become writers.
If we aren’t careful, our own successes become self-created purgatories, like video games that have no end or final boss, ones which can’t be beaten and end up being played forever. Seneca’s father said, “The things one hopes for are also the things one must fear.”
We’re hoping for what could be next. We set our eyes and agendas and tasks in ways that allow us to capitalize and move into uncharted territories. And to a certain degree, it’s biological. It’s hardwired into us. Humans are made for goal pursuit, for the doing rather than the completing. But amid our frantic pace, do we forget to look around and realize it’s possible that this is as good as it ever gets? If all we’re left is wanting more regardless of what happens, what difference is there between then and now? What difference is there, especially if we catalog our lives as a march toward the inevitable — death.
Marcus Aurelius would write, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Why’s it so hard to apply that advice? Why’s it so hard to sit with someone we care about, or any human, and not appreciate the time that has been allotted to enjoy these moments?
Epictetus lived as a slave with physical impairments. He’d write, “You are only to doze for a moment, for ruin and salvation both have their source inside of you.” I heard recently of a woman hearing of her father’s death while she was at work. “I can’t remember the last thing I said to him,” she cried out. How quickly all is lost. And despite the reality, can many of us say we live as if this were actually true?
We’re Racing Toward the End
The phrase that one is “passing time” is interesting to me. If we broke it down, it seems like an existential admission that the things we do are simply means to pass time until we’re gone. It’s a grim interpretation (and I think our allotted time is a blessing), but it seems like that’s what the phrase implies. There is truth to that grim perspective. Our lives are a death march. There’s no escaping that fact. Death is simply what’s at the end of our personal timelines.
People don’t like to think about death. The topic causes strong emotions that range from fear to sadness to regret. We usually ignore the topic. We pretend as though it isn’t a reality that will one day come. I can’t fault the strategy. Who wants to wrestle with a metaphysical, and for all intents and purposes, permanent reality?
But death is with us at every moment. That abrupt stop you had to make in traffic because you were playing on your phone. The turbulence in the airplane. The backpacking trip in Europe where the situation became dangerous. We escape death often, many times failing to realize our own escape took place. But death is what gives life meaning. We can’t have one without the other. Montaigne believed that philosophizing is to learn to die. He is hardly the only notable thinker who made his aim to contemplate the infinite.
It wouldn’t be healthy to walk around with death on your mind at every moment. I’m not necessarily a believer in that dramatic an exercise, especially if it becomes more a cause for concern than a tool to aid your perspective. Periodically contemplating the infinite can serve to enforce a sense of urgency and gratefulness. But once the thought exercise is complete, there’s much to do, and we’re blessed with the opportunity of life to get it done.
Despite political turmoil and technological advances whose ramifications are yet to be known, we do live in societies — in the western world — that have been granted unprecedented access to resources, food, technological achievements, and life expectancy that the world hadn’t seen until now.
We often overlook this fact and meditate on the dreadful of modern life. I’m not any less guilty. But I do hope that I can avoid what Seneca called out when he said, “it is no surprise that among the large number of extremely grave vices, none is more common than those stemming from an ungrateful mind.”
It’s no simple task to choose gratitude in the face of what we endure in life. The choice asks a lot out of us. But what a beautiful opportunity we have to be a part of this society, at this point in time, and in this life. Along with that comes a great responsibility for us to do our part to give back — even if it’s something as simple as a smile or a hug.
Patrick Flynn, the lead singer of Have Heart, a favorite childhood band of mine, expressed this sentiment well during their farewell tour. He said there’s an ocean of need and suffering in the world. The band could do more than just playing shows to help the corners of the world that have been forgotten about. In the song “The Same Sun,” the band writes, “While you wallow and wait in your tower of ivory, your sisters are starving, your brothers are begging.”
Western culture dwells on the problems of our civilization. But most of us live in ivory towers. Towers that many in the western world don’t have the luxury of, and towers that much of the rest of the world doesn’t have access to. As Pat Flynn said at the farewell show, it’s about getting out of our brains, the ones that we often think are the only ones in the world, and doing our part for the whole. To me, that’s as good as it gets.