by Jake Gray
I felt seen by Seneca. It never occurred to me that I was, in effect, wasting my time and my life by neglecting my present felicity.
When I was a child, the Great Recession ripped my family apart. Deprived of a permanent home, my mother dragged me from place to place. I had no time to dwell on the inevitability of death, but the fear never actually left my mind. I focused on being productive and securing a better future. Yet while I was doing things for future me, I forgot to bask in the present and find happiness in my day-to-day condition. In the words of Augustine, “I found myself heavily weighed down by a sense of being tired of living and scared of dying.” There was, in fact, a weird dysthymic satisfaction in this—as long as I continually hit the increasingly high standards I set for myself, I was “okay” with not being particularly happy.
The greater part of mankind, Paulinus, complains bitterly about the malice of Nature, in that we are born for a brief span of life, and even this allotted time rushes by so swiftly, so speedily, that with very few exceptions all find themselves abandoned by life just when they are preparing themselves to live.
Jake Gray a junior at Columbia College, majoring in philosophy. In graduate school, he hopes to specialize in moral and political philosophy, as well as existentialism. He is passionate about political activism, criminal justice reform, and social responsibility. You can follow him on Twitter here.
People often exalt “the gift of life” but express hostility towards the idea that they will ultimately die and lose this “gift.” But to cower in the face of nature, to declare death invalid, is to live an unreconciled reality. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, “Be free and look at things as a man, a human being, a citizen, a creature that must die.” Though not always successful, I’ve attempted to repurpose my thoughts on death, especially suicidal ones, in a way that invigorates my spirit. Because I treat this existence as my only possession, I see no reason to rush to its natural conclusion, no matter how fleeting existence may be. Remembering that I will die one day encourages me. I am no longer a prisoner of death; its bleakness no longer asphyxiates life. As Montaigne writes in On Experience, “A fool leads a thankless and anxious life given over wholly to the future. And yet I am resigned to lose it without regret, but as something whose nature it is to be lost … not to dislike the idea of dying is truly possible only in one who enjoys living. It needs good management to enjoy life.”
The fact that we will no longer exist in the future should encourage us to capitalize on the life we have now while we still possess it. “The life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it… our life is amply long for him who orders it properly,” Seneca writes. His words threw a cold glass of water on my face, awaking me from deep slumber. I rose and spent my time doing things that I genuinely enjoyed and felt worthwhile: walking on the beach, reading more philosophy, thrusting myself into meaningful social justice issues, and exercising.
Presumably, the subconscious motivation behind my ravenous ambition was that I would never have to come to terms with my own mortality or the miserable condition of my present circumstances if I was continually aiming to achieve ever-higher goals. But eschewing thoughts of death, or even neglecting to recognize death’s existence as a reality, creates this illusory feeling of a life without end. Eventually, the willful disdain of our own mortality will catch up with us.
But those who forget the past, ignore the present, and fear for the future have a life that is very brief and filled with anxiety: when they come to face death, the wretches understand too late that for such a long time they have busied themselves in doing nothing.
But my attitude changed during my freshman year of college, when I enrolled in a Hellenistic philosophy course. Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life transfixed me. The Stoic philosopher addressed it to Paulinus (likely Pompeius Paulinus, a Roman official and possibly Seneca’s father-in-law) the year he returned to Rome from exile in Corsica. He begins the essay:
Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Montaigne taught me that life is a lease contract. It’s something we borrow and return, not an eternal gift, so we must make a concerted effort to use it wisely. Think about the brevity of life so as not to waste any of it—only then will your life seem long.
So, let us not leave things conducive to our well-being to just the future, but rather pursue them in the here and now while also caring for our future selves—both are possible. Don’t slip into mindlessness and habit. Instead, live life deliberately with a vibrant urgency to flourish. Don’t waste time busying yourself needlessly and carve out ample leisure time to savor each day. Reflect on the life you’ve lived and all the memories you cherish while leaving room to enjoy new ones. As Seneca writes:
Growing up, I was adamantly afraid of death. I had a habit of leaving the TV on as I slept at night, so my thoughts wouldn’t drift towards my inevitable demise. The trailers I saw for the apocalyptic film 2012 left me hyperventilating and in tears. I was seven or eight at the time, and the thought that my loved ones and I would perish filled me with anguish. This, to my memory, was the beginning of what would become my practice of meditating on death. As I grew older, these episodes of existential anxiety decreased dramatically, because I had other things to worry about. Perhaps what’s most disgruntling about our demise is that it marks not only the end of our existence but also that of all our hopes and dreams for the future. We are thus compelled to confront an absence of closure: Upon death, one will never know how things ultimately turn out. We will never know if humanity figures out the ultimate secrets of the universe or propels itself out of the Milky Way to embark on a journey of intergalactic colonization. My great-great-great grandparents never knew of my existence—and could never hope to have known—in the same way that I won’t know whether my great-great-great grandchildren will succeed, fail, or even be born. It is eternal nonexistence coupled with eternal ignorance that haunts us.
by Jake Gray