Monday, April 5, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 61 - On Meeting Death Cheerfully

On Meeting Death Cheerfully

While a brief letter, it is packed with wisdom!  I'll take the entire letter in chunks and share a bit of my thoughts on each part.

Let us cease to desire that which we have been desiring. I, at least, am doing this: in my old age I have ceased to desire what I desired when a boy. To this single end my days and my nights are passed; this is my task, this the object of my thoughts, – to put an end to my chronic ills.

With age comes wisdom.  As children, we focused largely on pursuing and getting various Stoic indifferents.  Some of us, myself included, continue the struggle of this pursuit well into our adult years.  We want to be famous, to wear nice clothes, to be popular, to have a great body, to drive a nice car, land a great job or career, make lots of money, buy better cars, a nice home, the latest technology or tools, to dine at the best restaurants.  The list of desires is endless.

But with the pursuit of wisdom, your eyes open a bit more and the more you think about it, the more you realize how short life is and how much time is wasted on stuff that doesn't matter.

It seems that, even in his old age, Seneca realizes there are still "chronic ills" he has to end.

I am endeavouring to live every day as if it were a complete life. I do not indeed snatch it up as if it were my last; I do regard it, however, as if it might even be my last.  The present letter is written to you with this in mind, – as if death were about to call me away in the very act of writing. I am ready to depart, and I shall enjoy life just because I am not over-anxious as to the future date of my departure.

In his late years, his practice of memento mori is even sharper and pronounced.  Indeed, any day could be his last.  I recall the many friends and acquaintances who have died suddenly.  From the man who hired me (who died from a heart attack after parking in his driveway; who was going to retire in a few days), to my son's soccer coach (who died of a stroke at around the age of 40, who was the epitome of fitness), I have witnessed death come unannounced and unexpected.  If such can be the fate of those near me, it can be mine too.

Therefore, we must suck the marrow out of each day.  We must not forget the fragility of life and instead, place emphasis on what matters most.  And we must be ready to depart at a moment's notice.  This is what makes philosophy all the more urgent and why so many suffer terribly.  But if we can get to the point of welcoming death and are ready, then we may be in a good spot.

Before I became old I tried to live well; now that I am old, I shall try to die well; but dying well means dying gladly. See to it that you never do anything unwillingly.  That which is bound to be a necessity if you rebel, is not a necessity if you desire it. This is what I mean: he who takes his orders gladly, escapes the bitterest part of slavery, – doing what one does not want to do. The man who does something under orders is not unhappy; he is unhappy who does something against his will. Let us therefore so set our minds in order that we may desire whatever is demanded of us by circumstances, and above all that we may reflect upon our end without sadness

Some people will remember the dog and the cart analogy.  The dog is tied to the cart and there is nothing the dog can do about getting the rope cut.  What is left to him is to decide whether to be dragged behind the cart or to go along willingly.  If you can *want* to do what fate demands, then you will be like the dog who willingly walks along with the cart.

This concept is the essence of amor fati.  When the Stoics say 'live according to Nature' in one sense it means accepting one's fate and that the Stoic accepts and even loves the events of the Universe.  A.A. Long makes an interesting point about this concept.

If Nature's providence is all-embracing then any event which causes injury or suffering has to be interpreted as something which, if all the facts were known, would be recognized as beneficial by rational men. As Pope, following Shaftesbury, wrote: 'All discord, harmony not understood, all partial evil, universal good.' But all the facts cannot be known and therefore the supposed value of much that happens must be taken on trust. This optimistic attitude towards natural events, no matter how terrible they may seem, is one of the least palatable features of Stoicism. It is one thing to say that human vision is limited, unable to grasp the full cosmic perspective. But even at its noblest, in the writings of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, there is something chilling and insensitive about the Stoic's faith that all will turn out well in the end. They were the only Greek philosophers who tried to find a rationale for everything within their concept of a perfect, all-embracing Nature. (Hellenistic Philosophy, p. 170).

Long aptly notes that the concept of amor fati requires "trust" and "faith."  When I first read this passage, I had this sinking feeling that I was turning to religion again!  I have had too much experience in life to quickly believe anyone who says "trust me."  Yet, that is kind of what the Stoics are saying with this concept of amor fati.  Long calls it "chilling and insensitive" and I cannot disagree.  My response to all this is: this is a brutal truth.  In other words, we are dogs tied to a cart and there is not a damn thing we can do about certain things (death, causes and effects, etc.).  But what is 'up to us' is our attitude and reaction to these things.  And in this space, we can either take a bitter, harsh attitude about events or we can make the pivot and attempt to make the best out of a given situation and take a positive attitude about circumstances.  And if my purpose is to demonstrate an excellent character at all times, then, when I think 'excellence,' I think positive, not negative.

We must make ready for death before we make ready for life. Life is well enough furnished, but we are too greedy with regard to its furnishings; something always seems to us lacking, and will always seem lacking. To have lived long enough depends neither upon our years nor upon our days, but upon our minds. I have lived, my dear friend Lucilius, long enough. I have had my fill; I await death. Farewell.

Whether you call it "lowering your expectations" or "looking for the silver lining" the idea is the same.  When we recognize a minimum appreciation, it makes everything else savory.  If you think on death often and become comfortable with the idea, then every added day of life is all the much more appreciated.  This is the purpose of the movie "A Wonderful Life" as George Bailey gets to see what life is like without him in it!  And when he realizes this, even though his circumstances remain unchanged, his attitude did not.  He made the pivot from the negative to the positive.

Several years ago, when I was a huge NBA fan and avidly followed the Dallas Mavericks, I often found myself upset when they lost.  But upon reflection, I came to realize that the best part of the game was in the middle of it while I was enjoying the tension and suspense.  I just needed to figure out how to not be disappointed by something out of my control.  I discovered this little mind trick: if it was a close game and it was uncertain if 'my team' was going to win or not, I would pause and reflect about how entertaining the game has been up to that point.  And I would tell myself: "I am satisfied; the entertainment has been good."  Then regardless if my team won or lost, I found an appreciation for the time I invested in it.  I think this is similar to what Seneca is attempting to point out when he says, "I have lived ... long enough.  I have had my fill."

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