This letter resonates deeply with me. I'm in my mid-40's as I write this commentary. Over half my career is behind me. Many people experience what is called a mid-life crisis at this age. I think it stems from the fact that one feels the pressing weight of time beginning to bear down on them. And if they've not achieved their goals which they've set for themselves while they were in their 20's, they begin to feel they have a chance to start over and accomplish them. Some wish to re-gain their youthful vigor through exercise regimens, plastic surgery or new friends, while others strive to preserve what they already gained. Regardless the approach, the one common denominator is time. The older one gets, the more acutely aware he is of this precious commodity. Seneca discusses time and other important values, which too many of us trade cheaply.
But before we get to that, Seneca starts off the letter by warning Lucilius of people who say they are good men. This is a red flag. He observes:
it is impossible in so short a time for one either to become good or be known as such. ... if he knew what it meant to be "a good man," he would not yet believe himself such ... In the case of many men, their vices, being powerless, escape notice ... These men simply lack the means whereby they may unfold their wickedness.
Therefore, be weary of people who say they are good and to 'follow me.' The truly good man is exceptionally rare. I presume Seneca is referring to the sage, and that sages are as rare as the phoenix.
For one of the first class perhaps springs into existence, like the phoenix, only once in five hundred years. And it is not surprising, either, that greatness develops only at long intervals; Fortune often brings into being commonplace powers, which are born to please the mob; but she holds up for our approval that which is extraordinary by the very fact that she makes it rare.
In the second half of the letter, Seneca analyzes value. Have you thought about this? What do we value and how do we value it?
Just the other night, the world observed Saturn and Jupiter align almost perfectly, making the appearance of a 'new star.' Honestly, it wasn't much to behold if you are used to seeing the night sky - all the celestial bodies are simply glittering lights in the dark sky. But because these two planets had not aligned like this for 800 years, people were awash with anxiety to see it. If you missed it, and you're fairly young, don't worry; you'll see them this close in the year 2080.
But what about with regard to the indifferents we pursue in life? Are there hidden costs? Do we not see the other values lost when we pursue them?
with regard to the objects which we pursue, and for which we strive with great effort, we should note this truth; either there is nothing desirable in them, or the undesirable is preponderant. Some objects are superfluous; others are not worth the price we pay for them. But we do not see this clearly, and we regard things as free gifts when they really cost us very dear.
Don't think of 'buying' only in terms of hard cash. Rather, think of the aspects of your very self that you spend in pursuit of objects.
we are eager to attain them at the cost of anxiety, of danger, and of lost honour, personal freedom, and time; so true it is that each man regards nothing as cheaper than himself.
This is where I worry most at my age. It feels as though I'm constantly analyzing the cost-benefit analysis of all my activities. Am I really getting benefit out of this activity? Is this work useful and a wise expenditure of time? Am I wasting away myself in a certain pursuit?
There was a time, when I was younger, when I would never leave a meeting until it ended. But now, when I think of all the work I have to accomplish and the time wasted by people blathering on about nothing important, I feel the sting of time slipping out of my hands. Sometimes I do quietly leave a meeting and never regret it. But I also feel the sting of broken relationships. These are largely built on time; simply talking and getting familiar with each other. Therefore, I have to find a balance.
I think the key point Seneca is trying to make, is for each of us to consider our time, anxiety, danger, honor and freedom when we are deciding how to live. I've focused a lot on time, as I think it is the most precious. But we can also consider freedom, which is closely related to time.
Consider a person who moves upwards through the corporate ranks and acquires wealth, expensive cars, prestige, a large home, a vacation home and so forth. At some point, they have really acquired golden handcuffs. At some point, they lose real freedom. They don't have much say in the matter of how they spend their time. Their choices are limited and they are no better off than a slave.
Have you ever seen the couple who has so much wealth, that the children expect it to be given to them? The children's growth is stunted as they've been given everything. The parents begin to resent their children who won't stand on their own, as the kids hold out their hands for more. The whole relationship is a sad state of affairs.
I believe there is a medium that many can achieve. We don't have to be paupers or slaves. But we also don't have to be executives. We can also help our kids holistically by striving for wisdom, rather than ease.
Seneca offers some advice when deciding if our very selves are worth the expense. We should be stingy with our time as if we were stingy with our money if a "huckster" approached us trying to sell us something.
Let us therefore act, in all our plans and conduct, just as we are accustomed to act whenever we approach a huckster who has certain wares for sale; let us see how much we must pay for that which we crave. Very often the things that cost nothing cost us the most heavily; I can show you many objects the quest and acquisition of which have wrested freedom from our hands. We should belong to ourselves, if only these things did not belong to us.
The same goes for things that we may lose! If we lose money, or home, or other possessions, we should also not spend our anxiety or time by wringing our hands over a loss. There is always a silver lining to look for, if you but look. If you lose money, then you will have less worry; if you lose influence, you will have less envy.
Look about you and note the things that drive us mad, which we lose with a flood of tears; you will perceive that it is not the loss that troubles us with reference to these things, but a notion of loss. No one feels that they have been lost, but his mind tells him that it has been so. He that owns himself has lost nothing. But how few men are blessed with ownership of self!