On the Futility of Planning Ahead
This is a somewhat timely letter to read. I was just talking to my wife about this subject. I venture to guess that most people are highly motivated to suck the marrow out of life by pursuit of health, fame, career, wife, husband, children, family, and fortune. And to be clear - none of these are bad per se; rather they are indifferents. But the majority of people don't view them as indifferents; rather they view them as goods to pursue. And in their pursuit of them, they forget to contemplate their death.
what a nothing we are, and [time reminds] us with some fresh evidence that we have forgotten our weakness; then, as we plan for eternity, [time compels] us to look over our shoulders at Death.
Seneca then recounts a man who was good at making money and keeping it and who "lived most simply, careful of health and wealth."
But then, he
was suddenly seized with an acute attack of quinsy, and, with the breath clogged tightly in his swollen throat, barely lived until daybreak. So within a very few hours after the time when he had been performing all the duties of a sound and healthy man, he passed away.
This is life.
Now, back to what my wife and I were talking about. Having done a lot of contemplating of my own death, as well as practicing the view from above, I find myself able to very, very quickly pivot from being concerned or anxious or fearful of some aspect of life, and pivot towards acceptance of my fate and even my death. For example, I might have a bit of motivation for progressing in my career, but after a spell of bad days and even a poor performance ranking, instead of becoming upset, I very quickly realize these outcomes were not up to me and that ultimately I am a miniscule speck in the vast expanse of the cosmos and that I soon will be dust in that chasm of space and void.
This thinking has the intended effect of not letting circumstances upset me. But, at times, I don't quite stop there and I spin into this cycle of thinking that since nothing really matters in time and space, why should I try to have motivation at all? But this way of thinking is folly too. Therefore, I have to 'tap the breaks' a bit and recall the aim of life - demonstration of excellence of character.
And even when some of my motivation wanes in pursuit of arete, there is this notion of: "I have lived!" This comes from Montaigne and I found it while reading Hadot. Montaigne "imagines a person who had done nothing all day long, and he responds, 'What, you have done nothing, but have you not lived! Is that not the most illustrious of your preoccupations!'" (see The Present Alone is our Happiness, p. 125). "I have lived!" Life is tough and simply having lived is sometimes enough - it is a valid way to survive. Don't remain stuck there, but grant yourself the acceptance when you need it.
Between these two poles: existence and non-existence I must find the balance. The practices of memento mori and 'view from above' keep me grounded in reality. But I cannot live at that pole. And the reminder to carpe diem and to 'suck-the-marrow-out-of-life' can lead to a life of overblown expectations. Therefore, keeping these two in tension becomes my task. Personally, I drift very easily toward memento mori and therefore, I have to exert a bit more effort to steer my motivations back toward carpe diem. I call this memento vivere.
To me, it seems in this 101st letter from Seneca, he is addressing the majority of people who are constantly clawing their way towards what they think is the good, while ignoring the present moment. We need to go about with our lives, but with our eyes wide open.
how foolish it is to set out one's life, when one is not even owner of the morrow! ... everything is doubtful, even for those who are prosperous.
We must live for the present moment; not in a hedonistic sense, but in a fulfilling, satisfied, wise sense. As if our life were a work of art and each day we are putting the finishing touches on it.
Therefore, let us so order our minds as if we had come to the very end. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life's account every day. The greatest flaw in life is that it is always imperfect, and that a certain part of it is postponed. One who daily puts the finishing touches to his life is never in want of time.
Have we paid the dues owed to our soul? Have we reconciled our divine nature with the Whole? If so, then we can say,
I have paid my soul its due, when a soundly-balanced mind knows that a day differs not a whit from eternity – whatever days or problems the future may bring – then the soul looks forth from lofty heights and laughs heartily to itself when it thinks upon the ceaseless succession of the ages.
Each day becomes a life unto itself,
whose daily life has been a rounded whole, is easy in his mind; but those who live for hope alone find that the immediate future always slips from their grasp and that greed steals along in its place, and the fear of death, a curse which lays a curse upon everything else.
The point is, not how long you live, but how nobly you live.
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