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On the shortness of Life

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” - Seneca

My quest for world philosophies on Life and happiness lead me to an encounter with a profoundly insightful book whose ideas are still as universal and applicable today as they were back when it was written more than two thousand years ago. The book is “On the shortness of life” by Seneca. He was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and—in one work—humorist of the Silver Age of Latin literature. As a tragedian, he is best-known for his Medea and Thyestes. He was a tutor and later advisor to emperor Nero. He was forced to take his life for alleged complicity in the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate Nero. (Wikipedia)

In the book, Seneca lays down in very simple terms and strong, solid logic his Stoic philosophy that teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions, and that to understand the universal reason, one must become clear and unbiased. His philosophy was Stoicism. It holds at the heart of its teachings that the path to happiness for humans can be found in:

  • Accepting the hands that we are being dealt.

  • Not allowing ourselves to be controlled by the desire for pleasure and the fear of pain.

  • Using our mind and its reasoning capacity to understand the workings of the natural world.

  • Collaborating with and treating all and one in a fair and just manner.

The book struck a chord deep within me as I realized that I have unknowingly been a stoic in my perception of life all along; my writings throughout the years would only confirm that. I pondered in astonishment how much impact could these teachings have on the lives of the multitudes desperately seeking happiness while complaining about the shortness and unfairness of life. My dominant thought was: “these are the teachings that children should learn in school.”

1-Today is the Day: “How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end!”

Seneca observed how people get quickly sucked into a long and destitute life of hard work. Wasting valuable time and energy on work that has little to no meaning for them, only to wake up one day with most of their lives behind them and death starting to loom from their then short and uncertain future, and they complain that life is short.

Death is an inevitability, and the sooner you come to terms with that the happier you will become, as you realize that this day may well be your last and it is all that you ever got left, use it well instead of squandering it complaining about a job you hate or a relationship you loathe. Instead, create every day a bit of what and how your ideal day should look like and build on that until you have created the day. Appreciating that the present moment is all that is real in your life will engage you in living it fully, oblivious of the regrets of the past and liberated of the worries and anxieties of the uncertain future. In the words of Seneca himself: “The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today… The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

2-Choose your attitude

Seneca was at the height of his power as the chief advisor to Nero, the emperor of Rome, then the most powerful man in the world, when he was exiled to a life of pettiness on a desolate island in the middle of nowhere. To everyone's surprise, here he is writing a very eloquent letter to his mother consoling her on the fact that she had to lose a son to exile! That is the ultimate power of the human minds and the last of the freedoms that no one can take away from you: the ability to choose your attitude, the way you react and respond to situations in a manner that best suits your overall wellbeing and happiness. Instead of stubbornly trying to adjust the world to our views, it is easier and far more rewarding to adjust one’s views to suit the changing world. Epictetus, another Stoic goes as far as to state that the happy Man is "sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.” Although he admits that this Man may not exist yet, however, he/she can be in the molding phase.

3-“Cease to hope, and you will cease to fear.”

The title of this paragraph is a quote by Seneca, he strongly advised against hope in the sense that it forces you only to envision the outcomes you hope for, that could dramatically decrease your chances of preparing to the inevitable occurrence of unwanted and undesired outcomes. He stipulates that the wise does not cling to hope. Instead, he/she labors at imagining the worst case scenarios and devise ways to handle them.

I get quite baffled sometimes by the bewildered surprise some people seem to exhibit in reaction to undesired events around them like death, war, disease, injustice, …etc. These things have been, are now, and will probably be for long, a part of the human condition, not anticipating and preparing for their eventuality is in a way quite ignorant and naive I would say, wouldn't you? A happy life is not necessarily a challenge-free life. The wise knows that many factors will come into play as he/she tries to achieve their desired outcomes and a lot of those factors fall outside our circle of influence. That does not deter the wise from his quest. Instead, he/she envisions all obstacles that might arise on the way and plan on how to deal with them, choosing up front how to think, feel, and act if and when they arise.

4-Flexibility leads to tranquility

There are many ways to be committed to an outcome, a hard way and a flexible one. Being determined to achieve an outcome is noble and is to be commended; having rigid sets of rules for the outcome is a sure recipe for frustration and anxiety. Adopting a flexible approach, to be prepared to change own beliefs, plans, and ways to go about achieving the outcome leads to certainty and therefore relief. That is practically done when you change how you perceive a situation, the meaning you give to it, to a different meaning that would alter the way in which you feel and respond to the same situation. In brain science, this is called “Cognitive reframing” and is the most used tool for coaching, managing emotions, and conflict resolution.

The wise is like the water; it takes the shape of the container that it is in, and in that is tranquility of mind. A calm mind is the ultimate coveted state of the wise, hence the last teaching.

5-Relax the mind Work hard and unwind well

Hard work is noble and is what a wise should devote time on. The allocated time cannot be as such as leaving little or no time for the body to rest and the mind to unwind and roam free in quiet contemplation. The wise knows that both mind and body perform optimally with sufficient periods of rest and stimulation, calibrating the time allocated for each becomes an art to the wise as he/she realizes as Seneca did two thousand years ago, that “presence is infinitely more rewarding than productivity.”

How about you? How do you lead your life? Do you have a fixed perception and understanding of reality or do you have a flexible and accommodating attitude? How easier would your life be if you lived by the above teachings? Why not try it for size, you may like it, wouldn't you?

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