“We don’t beat the Reaper by living longer. We beat the Reaper by living well.”— Randy Pausch (1960-2008), The Last Lecture at Carnegie Mellon
This week, one of my friends died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was in his early 30’s.
Several hours after I learned of his passing, I received an e-mail from my parents: the 10-year old daughter of a dear high school coach had been diagnosed with liver cancer. The Reaper does not discriminate. Too often, we spend time focusing on the trivial with people who contribute nothing but their own self-interest.
How do we balance protecting time with protecting relationships? How do we conquer guilt and do what is truly most important?
I often read “On The Shortness of Life,” one of Lucius Seneca‘s most famous letters, whenever I succumb to social pressure to treat time as less valuable than income, or whenever I find myself agreeing to help those who make unreasonable requests and get upset otherwise.
Seneca’s masterful diatribe hit me like a much-needed sledgehammer, and I’ve included it below. He soon became my favorite Stoic philosopher—to the point that I created The Tao of Seneca—and this will help you understand why…
For a quick 4-minute overview, read the bolded passages, which I highlighted when I read it the first time. That said, I implore you to print out the entire 12-page piece and read it over the weekend or one slow evening. I’ve found that each person identifies with different passages. Take the time — it is something you could well refer to for the rest of your life.
This version was translated by John W. Basore (London: William Heinemann, 1932) and is in the public domain. I’ve shortened and edited some passages to reflect more idiomatic modern English, but it is otherwise unchanged. My favorite translation, though it omits some outstanding anecdotes I’ve included here, is by C.D.N. Costa and featured in “Seneca: Dialogues and Letters.”
Time is non-renewable, and “On The Shortness of Life” helps put this in practical context with real situational examples, all as relevant now as during the reign of Nero.
I hope you find this as helpful as I have.
Total read time (bolded highlights): 4 minutes
Total read time (comprehensive): 25-30 minutes
On The Shortness of Life – Lucius Seneca
The majority of mortals, Paulinus, complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live.
Nor is it merely the common herd and the unthinking crowd that bemoan what is, as men deem it, an universal ill; the same feeling has called forth complaint also from men who were famous…
It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—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. Just as great and princely wealth is scattered in a moment when it comes into the hands of a bad owner, while wealth however limited, if it is entrusted to a good guardian, increases by use, so our life is amply long for him who orders it properly.
Why do we complain of Nature? She has shown herself kindly; life, if you know how to use it, is long. But one man is possessed by greed that is insatiable, another by a toilsome devotion to tasks that are useless; one man is besotted with wine, another is paralyzed by sloth; one man is exhausted by an ambition that always hangs upon the decision of others, another, driven on by the greed of the trader, is led over all lands and all seas by the hope of gain; some are tormented by a passion for war and are always either bent upon inflicting danger upon others or concerned about their own; some there are who are worn out by voluntary servitude in a thankless attendance upon the great; many are kept busy either in the pursuit of other men’s fortune or in complaining of their own; many, following no fixed aim, shifting and inconstant and dissatisfied, are plunged by their fickleness into plans that are ever new; some have no fixed principle by which to direct their course, but Fate takes them unawares while they loll and yawn—so surely does it happen that I cannot doubt the truth of that utterance which the greatest of poets delivered with all the seeming of an oracle: “The part of life we really live is small.” For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time.
Vices beset us and surround us on every side, and they do not permit us to rise anew and lift up our eyes for the discernment of truth, but they keep us down when once they have overwhelmed us and we are chained to lust. Their victims are never allowed to return to their true selves; if ever they chance to find some release, like the waters of the deep sea which continue to heave even after the storm is past, they are tossed about, and no rest from their lusts abides. Think you that I am speaking of the wretches whose evils are admitted? Look at those whose prosperity men flock to behold; they are smothered by their blessings. To how many are riches a burden! From how many do eloquence and the daily straining to display their powers draw forth blood! How many are pale from constant pleasures! To how many does the throng of clients that crowd about them leave no freedom! In short, run through the list of all these men from the lowest to the highest—this man desires an advocate, this one answers the call, that one is on trial, that one defends him, that one gives sentence; no one asserts his claim to himself, everyone is wasted for the sake of another. Ask about the men whose names are known by heart, and you will see that these are the marks that distinguish them: A cultivates B and B cultivates C; no one is his own master. And then certain men show the most senseless indignation—they complain of the insolence of their superiors, because they were too busy to see them when they wished an audience! But can anyone have the hardihood to complain of the pride of another when he himself has no time to attend to himself? After all, no matter who you are, the great man does sometimes look toward you even if his face is insolent, he does sometimes condescend to listen to your words, he permits you to appear at his side; but you never deign to look upon yourself, to give ear to yourself. There is no reason, therefore, to count anyone in debt for such services, seeing that, when you performed them, you had no wish for another’s company, but could not endure your own.
Though all the brilliant intellects of the ages were to concentrate upon this one theme, never could they adequately express their wonder at this dense darkness of the human mind. Men do not suffer anyone to seize their estates, and they rush to stones and arms if there is even the slightest dispute about the limit of their lands, yet they allow others to trespass upon their life—nay, they themselves even lead in those who will eventually possess it. No one is to be found who is willing to distribute his money, yet among how many does each one of us distribute his life! In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most prodigal. And so I should like to lay hold upon someone from the company of older men and say: “I see that you have reached the farthest limit of human life, you are pressing hard upon your hundredth year, or are even beyond it; come now, recall your life and make a reckoning. Consider how much of your time was taken up with a moneylender, how much with a mistress, how much with a patron, how much with a client, how much in wrangling with your wife, how much in punishing your slaves, how much in rushing about the city on social duties. Add the diseases which we have caused by our own acts, add, too, the time that has lain idle and unused; you will see that you have fewer years to your credit than you count. Look back in memory and consider when you ever had a fixed plan, how few days have passed as you had intended, when you were ever at your own disposal, when your face ever wore its natural expression, when your mind was ever unperturbed, what work you have achieved in so long a life, how many have robbed you of life when you were not aware of what you were losing, how much was taken up in useless sorrow, in foolish joy, in greedy desire, in the allurements of society, how little of yourself was left to you; you will perceive that you are dying before your season!” What, then, is the reason of this? You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last. You have all the fears of mortals and all the desires of immortals. You will hear many men saying: “After my fiftieth year I shall retire into leisure, my sixtieth year shall release me from public duties.” And what guarantee, pray, have you that your life will last longer? Who will suffer your course to be just as you plan it? Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart for wisdom only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live! What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!
You will see that the most powerful and highly placed men let drop remarks in which they long for leisure, acclaim it, and prefer it to all their blessings. They desire at times, if it could be with safety, to descend from their high pinnacle; for, though nothing from without should assail or shatter, Fortune of its very self comes crashing down.
The deified Augustus, to whom the gods vouchsafed more than to any other man, did not cease to pray for rest and to seek release from public affairs; all his conversation ever reverted to this subject—his hope of leisure. This was the sweet, even if vain, consolation with which he would gladden his labours—that he would one day live for himself. In a letter addressed to the senate, in which he had promised that his rest would not be devoid of dignity nor inconsistent with his former glory, I find these words: “But these matters can be shown better by deeds than by promises. Nevertheless, since the joyful reality is still far distant, my desire for that time most earnestly prayed for has led me to forestall some of its delight by the pleasure of words.” So desirable a thing did leisure seem that he anticipated it in thought because he could not attain it in reality. He who saw everything depending upon himself alone, who determined the fortune of individuals and of nations, thought most happily of that future day on which he should lay aside his greatness. He had discovered how much sweat those blessings that shone throughout all lands drew forth, how many secret worries they concealed. Forced to pit arms first against his countrymen, then against his colleagues, and lastly against his relatives, he shed blood on land and sea.
Through Macedonia, Sicily, Egypt, Syria, and Asia, and almost all countries he followed the path of battle, and when his troops were weary of shedding Roman blood, he turned them to foreign wars. While he was pacifying the Alpine regions, and subduing the enemies planted in the midst of a peaceful empire, while he was extending its bounds even beyond the Rhine and the Euphrates and the Danube, in Rome itself the swords of Murena, Caepio, Lepidus, Egnatius, and others were being whetted to slay him. Not yet had he escaped their plots, when his daughter and all the noble youths who were bound to her by adultery as by a sacred oath, oft alarmed his failing years—and there was Paulus, and a second time the need to fear a woman in league with an Antony. When be had cut away these ulcers together with the limbs themselves, others would grow in their place; just as in a body that was overburdened with blood, there was always a rupture somewhere. And so he longed for leisure, in the hope and thought of which he found relief for his labours. This was the prayer of one who was able to answer the prayers of mankind.
Marcus Cicero, long flung among men like Catiline and Clodius and Pompey and Crassus, some open enemies, others doubtful friends, as he is tossed to and fro along with the state and seeks to keep it from destruction, to be at last swept away, unable as he was to be restful in prosperity or patient in adversity—how many times does he curse that very consulship of his, which he had lauded without end, though not without reason! How tearful the words he uses in a letter written to Atticus, when Pompey the elder had been conquered, and the son was still trying to restore his shattered arms in Spain! “Do you ask,” he said, “what I am doing here? I am lingering in my Tusculan villa half a prisoner.” He then proceeds to other statements, in which he bewails his former life and complains of the present and despairs of the future. Cicero said that he was “half a prisoner.” But, in very truth, never will the wise man resort to so lowly a term, never will he be half a prisoner—he who always possesses an undiminished and stable liberty, being free and his own master and towering over all others. For what can possibly be above him who is above Fortune?
When Livius Drusus, a bold and energetic man, had with the support of a huge crowd drawn from all Italy proposed new laws and the evil measures of the Gracchi, seeing no way out for his policy, which he could neither carry through nor abandon when once started on, he is said to have complained bitterly against the life of unrest he had had from the cradle, and to have exclaimed that he was the only person who had never had a holiday even as a boy. For, while he was still a ward and wearing the dress of a boy, he had had the courage to commend to the favour of a jury those who were accused, and to make his influence felt in the law-courts, so powerfully, indeed, that it is very well known that in certain trials he forced a favourable verdict. To what lengths was not such premature ambition destined to go? One might have known that such precocious hardihood would result in great personal and public misfortune. And so it was too late for him to complain that he had never had a holiday when from boyhood he had been a trouble-maker and a nuisance in the forum. It is a question whether he died by his own hand; for he fell from a sudden wound received in his groin, some doubting whether his death was voluntary, no one, whether it was timely.
It would be superfluous to mention more who, though others deemed them the happiest of men, have expressed their loathing for every act of their years, and with their own lips have given true testimony against themselves; but by these complaints they changed neither themselves nor others. For when they have vented their feelings in words, they fall back into their usual round. Heaven knows! such lives as yours, though they should pass the limit of a thousand years, will shrink into the merest span; your vices will swallow up any amount of time. The space you have, which reason can prolong, although it naturally hurries away, of necessity escapes from you quickly; for you do not seize it, you neither hold it back, nor impose delay upon the swiftest thing in the world, but you allow it to slip away as if it were something superfluous and that could be replaced.
But among the worst I count also those who have time for nothing but wine and lust; for none have more shameful engrossments. The others, even if they are possessed by the empty dream of glory, nevertheless go astray in a seemly manner; though you should cite to me the men who are avaricious, the men who are wrathful, whether busied with unjust hatreds or with unjust wars, these all sin in more manly fashion. But those who are plunged into the pleasures of the belly and into lust bear a stain that is dishonourable. Search into the hours of all these people, see how much time they give to accounts, how much to laying snares, how much to fearing them, how much to paying court, how much to being courted, how much is taken up in giving or receiving bail, how much by banquets—for even these have now become a matter of business—, and you will see how their interests, whether you call them evil or good, do not allow them time to breathe.
Finally, everybody agrees that no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is preoccupied with many things—eloquence cannot, nor the liberal studies—since the mind, when distracted, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it. There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn. Of the other arts there are many teachers everywhere; some of them we have seen that mere boys have mastered so thoroughly that they could even play the master. It takes the whole of life to learn how to live, and—what will perhaps make you wonder more—it takes the whole of life to learn how to die. Many very great men, having laid aside all their encumbrances, having renounced riches, business, and pleasures, have made it their one aim up to the very end of life to know how to live; yet the greater number of them have departed from life confessing that they did not yet know—still less do those others know. Believe me, it takes a great man and one who has risen far above human weaknesses not to allow any of his time to be filched from him, and it follows that the life of such a man is very long because he has devoted wholly to himself whatever time he has had. None of it lay neglected and idle; none of it was under the control of another, for, guarding it most grudgingly, he found nothing that was worthy to be taken in exchange for his time. And so that man had time enough, but those who have been robbed of much of their life by the public, have necessarily had too little of it.
And there is no reason for you to suppose that these people are not sometimes aware of their loss. Indeed, you will hear many of those who are burdened by great prosperity cry out at times in the midst of their throngs of clients, or their pleadings in court, or their other glorious miseries: “I have no chance to live.” Of course you have no chance! All those who summon you to themselves, turn you away from your own self. Of how many days has that defendant robbed you? Of how many that candidate? Of how many that old woman wearied with burying her heirs? Of how many that man who is shamming sickness for the purpose of exciting the greed of the legacy-hunters? Of how many that very powerful friend who has you and your like on the list, not of his friends, but of his retinue? Check off, I say, and review the days of your life; you will see that very few, and those the refuse. have been left for you. That man who had prayed for the fasces, when he attains them, desires to lay them aside and says over and over: “When will this year be over!” That man gives games, and, after setting great value on gaining the chance to give them, now says: “When shall I be rid of them?” That advocate is lionized throughout the whole forum, and fills all the place with a great crowd that stretches farther than he can be heard, yet he says: “When will vacation time come?” Everyone hurries his life on and suffers from a yearning for the future and a weariness of the present. But he who bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow. For what new pleasure is there that any hour can now bring? They are all known, all have been enjoyed to the full. Mistress Fortune may deal out the rest as she likes; his life has already found safety. Something may be added to it, but nothing taken from it, and he will take any addition as the man who is satisfied and filled takes the food which he does not desire and yet can hold. And so there is no reason for you to think that any man has lived long because he has grey hairs or wrinkles; he has not lived long—he has existed long. For what if you should think that that man had had a long voyage who had been caught by a fierce storm as soon as he left harbour, and, swept hither and thither by a succession of winds that raged from different quarters, had been driven in a circle around the same course? Not much voyaging did he have, but much tossing about.
I am often filled with wonder when I see some men demanding the time of others and those from whom they ask it most indulgent. Both of them fix their eyes on the object of the request for time, neither of them on the time itself; just as if what is asked were nothing, what is given, nothing. Men trifle with the most precious thing in the world; but they are blind to it because it is an incorporeal thing, because it does not come beneath the sight of the eyes, and for this reason it is counted a very cheap thing—nay, of almost no value at all. Men set very great store by pensions and doles, and for these they hire out their labour or service or effort. But no one sets a value on time; all use it lavishly as if it cost nothing. But see how these same people clasp the knees of physicians if they fall ill and the danger of death draws nearer, see how ready they are, if threatened with capital punishment, to spend all their possessions in order to live! So great is the inconsistency of their feelings. But if each one could have the number of his future years set before him as is possible in the case of the years that have passed, how alarmed those would be who saw only a few remaining, how sparing of them would they be! And yet it is easy to dispense an amount that is assured, no matter how small it may be; but that must be guarded more carefully which will fail you know not when.
Yet there is no reason for you to suppose that these people do not know how precious a thing time is; for to those whom they love most devotedly they have a habit of saying that they are ready to give them a part of their own years. And they do give it, without realizing it; but the result of their giving is that they themselves suffer loss without adding to the years of their dear ones. But the very thing they do not know is whether they are suffering loss; therefore, the removal of something that is lost without being noticed they find is bearable. Yet no one will bring back the years, no one will bestow you once more on yourself. Life will follow the path it started upon, and will neither reverse nor check its course; it will make no noise, it will not remind you of its swiftness. Silent it will glide on; it will not prolong itself at the command of a king, or at the applause of the populace. Just as it was started on its first day, so it will run; nowhere will it turn aside, nowhere will it delay. And what will be the result? You have been engrossed, life hastens by; meanwhile death will be at hand, for which, willy nilly, you must find leisure.
Can anything be sillier than the point of view of certain people—I mean those who boast of their foresight? They keep themselves very busily engaged in order that they may be able to live better; they spend life in making ready to live! They form their purposes with a view to the distant future; yet postponement is the greatest waste of life; it deprives them of each day as it comes, it snatches from them the present by promising something hereafter. The greatest hindrance to living is expectancy, which depends upon the morrow and wastes to-day. You dispose of that which lies in the hands of Fortune, you let go that which lies in your own. Whither do you look? At what goal do you aim? All things that are still to come lie in uncertainty; live straightway! See how the greatest of bards cries out, and, as if inspired with divine utterance, sings the saving strain:
The fairest day in hapless mortals’ life
Is ever first to flee.
“Why do you delay,” says he, “Why are you idle? Unless you seize the day, it flees.” Even though you seize it, it still will flee; therefore you must vie with time’s swiftness in the speed of using it, and, as from a torrent that rushes by and will not always flow, you must drink quickly. And, too, the utterance of the bard is most admirably worded to cast censure upon infinite delay, in that he says, not “the fairest age,” but “the fairest day.” Why, to whatever length your greed inclines, do you stretch before yourself months and years in long array, unconcerned and slow though time flies so fast? The poet speaks to you about the day, and about this very day that is flying. Is there, then, any doubt that for hapless mortals, that is, for men who are engrossed, the fairest day is ever the first to flee? Old age surprises them while their minds are still childish, and they come to it unprepared and unarmed, for they have made no provision for it; they have stumbled upon it suddenly and unexpectedly, they did not notice that it was drawing nearer day by day. Even as conversation or reading or deep meditation on some subject beguiles the traveller, and he finds that he has reached the end of his journey before he was aware that he was approaching it, just so with this unceasing and most swift journey of life, which we make at the same pace whether waking or sleeping; those who are engrossed become aware of it only at the end.
Should I choose to divide my subject into heads with their separate proofs, many arguments will occur to me by which I could prove that busy men find life very short. But Fabianus, who was none of your lecture-room philosophers of to-day, but one of the genuine and old-fashioned kind, used to say that we must fight against the passions with main force, not with artifice, and that the battle-line must be turned by a bold attack, not by inflicting pinpricks; that sophistry is not serviceable, for the passions must be, not nipped, but crushed. Yet, in order that the victims of them nay be censured, each for his own particular fault, I say that they must be instructed, not merely wept over.
Life is divided into three periods—that which has been, that which is, that which will be. Of these the present time is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain. For the last is the one over which Fortune has lost control, is the one which cannot be brought back under any man’s power. But men who are engrossed lose this; for they have no time to look back upon the past, and even if they should have, it is not pleasant to recall something they must view with regret. They are, therefore, unwilling to direct their thoughts backward to ill-spent hours, and those whose vices become obvious if they review the past, even the vices which were disguised under some allurement of momentary pleasure, do not have the courage to revert to those hours. No one willingly turns his thought back to the past, unless all his acts have been submitted to the censorship of his conscience, which is never deceived; he who has ambitiously coveted, proudly scorned, recklessly conquered, treacherously betrayed, greedily seized, or lavishly squandered, must needs fear his own memory. And yet this is the part of our time that is sacred and set apart, put beyond the reach of all human mishaps, and removed from the dominion of Fortune, the part which is disquieted by no want, by no fear, by no attacks of disease; this can neither be troubled nor be snatched away—it is an everlasting and unanxious possession. The present offers only one day at a time, and each by minutes; but all the days of past time will appear when you bid them, they will suffer you to behold them and keep them at your will—a thing which those who are engrossed have no time to do. The mind that is untroubled and tranquil has the power to roam into all the parts of its life; but the minds of the engrossed, just as if weighted by a yoke, cannot turn and look behind. And so their life vanishes into an abyss; and as it does no good, no matter how much water you pour into a vessel, if there is no bottom to receive and hold it, so with time—it makes no difference how much is given; if there is nothing for it to settle upon, it passes out through the chinks and holes of the mind. Present time is very brief, so brief, indeed, that to some there seems to be none; for it is always in motion, it ever flows and hurries on; it ceases to be before it has come, and can no more brook delay than the firmament or the stars, whose ever unresting movement never lets them abide in the same track. The engrossed, therefore, are concerned with present time alone, and it is so brief that it cannot be grasped, and even this is filched away from them, distracted as they are among many things.
In a word, do you want to know how they do not “live long”? See how eager they are to live long! Decrepit old men beg in their prayers for the addition of a few more years; they pretend that they are younger than they are; they comfort themselves with a falsehood, and are as pleased to deceive themselves as if they deceived Fate at the same time. But when at last some infirmity has reminded them of their mortality, in what terror do they die, feeling that they are being dragged out of life, and not merely leaving it. They cry out that they have been fools, because they have not really lived, and that they will live henceforth in leisure if only they escape from this illness; then at last they reflect how uselessly they have striven for things which they did not enjoy, and how all their toil has gone for nothing. But for those whose life is passed remote from all business, why should it not be ample? None of it is assigned to another, none of it is scattered in this direction and that, none of it is committed to Fortune, none of it perishes from neglect, none is subtracted by wasteful giving, none of it is unused; the whole of it, so to speak, yields income. And so, however small the amount of it, it is abundantly sufficient, and therefore, whenever his last day shall come, the wise man will not hesitate to go to meet death with steady step.
Perhaps you ask whom I would call “the preoccupied”? There is no reason for you to suppose that I mean only those whom the dogs that have at length been let in drive out from the law-court, those whom you see either gloriously crushed in their own crowd of followers, or scornfully in someone else’s, those whom social duties call forth from their own homes to bump them against someone else’s doors, or whom the praetor’s hammer keeps busy in seeking gain that is disreputable and that will one day fester. Even the leisure of some men is engrossed; in their villa or on their couch, in the midst of solitude, although they have withdrawn from all others, they are themselves the source of their own worry; we should say that these are living, not in leisure, but in idle preoccupation. Would you say that that man is at leisure who arranges with finical care his Corinthian bronzes, that the mania of a few makes costly, and spends the greater part of each day upon rusty bits of copper? Who sits in a public wrestling-place (for, to our shame I we labour with vices that are not even Roman) watching the wrangling of lads? Who sorts out the herds of his pack-mules into pairs of the same age and colour? Who feeds all the newest athletes? Tell me, would you say that those men are at leisure who pass many hours at the barber’s while they are being stripped of whatever grew out the night before? while a solemn debate is held over each separate hair? while either disarranged locks are restored to their place or thinning ones drawn from this side and that toward the forehead? How angry they get if the barber has been a bit too careless, just as if he were shearing a real man! How they flare up if any of their mane is lopped off, if any of it lies out of order, if it does not all fall into its proper ringlets! Who of these would not rather have the state disordered than his hair? Who is not more concerned to have his head trim rather than safe? Who would not rather be well barbered than upright? Would you say that these are at leisure who are occupied with the comb and the mirror? And what of those who are engaged in composing, hearing, and learning songs, while they twist the voice, whose best and simplest movement Nature designed to be straightforward, into the meanderings of some indolent tune, who are always snapping their fingers as they beat time to some song they have in their head, who are overheard humming a tune when they have been summoned to serious, often even melancholy, matters? These have not leisure, but idle occupation. And their banquets, Heaven knows! I cannot reckon among their unoccupied hours, since I see how anxiously they set out their silver plate, how diligently they tie up the tunics of their pretty slave-boys, how breathlessly they watch to see in what style the wild boar issues from the hands of the cook, with what speed at a given signal smooth-faced boys hurry to perform their duties, with what skill the birds are carved into portions all according to rule, how carefully unhappy little lads wipe up the spittle of drunkards. By such means they seek the reputation for elegance and good taste, and to such an extent do their evils follow them into all the privacies of life that they can neither eat nor drink without ostentation.
And I would not count these among the leisured class either—the men who have themselves borne hither and thither in a sedan-chair and a litter, and are punctual at the hours for their rides as if it were unlawful to omit them, who are reminded by someone else when they must bathe, when they must swim, when they must dine; so enfeebled are they by the excessive lassitude of a pampered mind that they cannot find out by themselves whether they are hungry! I hear that one of these pampered people—provided that you can call it pampering to unlearn the habits of human life—when he had been lifted by hands from the bath and placed in his sedan-chair, said questioningly: “Am I now seated?” Do you think that this man, who does not know whether he is sitting, knows whether he is alive, whether he sees, whether he is at leisure? I find it hard to say whether I pity him more if he really did not know, or if he pretended not to know this. They really are subject to forgetfulness of many things, but they also pretend forgetfulness of many. Some vices delight them as being proofs of their prosperity; it seems the part of a man who is very lowly and despicable to know what he is doing. After this imagine that the mimes fabricate many things to make a mock of luxury! In very truth, they pass over more than they invent, and such a multitude of unbelievable vices has come forth in this age, so clever in this one direction, that by now we can charge the mimes with neglect. To think that there is anyone who is so lost in luxury that he takes another’s word as to whether he is sitting down! This man, then, is not at leisure, you must apply to him a different term—he is sick, nay, he is dead; that man is at leisure, who has also a perception of his leisure. But this other who is half alive, who, in order that he may know the postures of his own body, needs someone to tell him—how can he be the master of any of his time?
It would be tedious to mention all the different men who have spent the whole of their life over chess or ball or the practice of baking their bodies in the sun. They are not unoccupied whose pleasures are made a busy occupation. For instance, no one will have any doubt that those are laborious triflers who spend their time on useless literary problems, of whom even among the Romans there is now a great number. It was once a foible confined to the Greeks to inquire into what number of rowers Ulysses had, whether the Iliad or the Odyssey was written first, whether moreover they belong to the same author, and various other matters of this stamp, which, if you keep them to yourself, in no way pleasure your secret soul, and, if you publish them, make you seem more of a bore than a scholar. But now this vain passion for learning useless things has assailed the Romans also. In the last few days I heard someone telling who was the first Roman general to do this or that; Duilius was the first who won a naval battle, Curius Dentatus was the first who had elephants led in his triumph. Still, these matters, even if they add nothing to real glory, are nevertheless concerned with signal services to the state; there will be no profit in such knowledge, nevertheless it wins our attention by reason of the attractiveness of an empty subject. We may excuse also those who inquire into this—who first induced the Romans to go on board ship. It was Claudius, and this was the very reason he was surnamed Caudex, because among the ancients a structure formed by joining together several boards was called a caudex, whence also the Tables of the Law are called codices, and, in the ancient fashion, boats that carry provisions up the Tiber are even to-day called codicariae. Doubtless this too may have some point—the fact that Valerius Corvinus was the first to conquer Messana, and was the first of the family of the Valerii to bear the surname Messana because be had transferred the name of the conquered city to himself, and was later called Messala after the gradual corruption of the name in the popular speech. Perhaps you will permit someone to be interested also in this—the fact that Lucius Sulla was the first to exhibit loosed lions in the Circus, though at other times they were exhibited in chains, and that javelin-throwers were sent by King Bocchus to despatch them? And, doubtless, this too may find some excuse—but does it serve any useful purpose to know that Pompey was the first to exhibit the slaughter of eighteen elephants in the Circus, pitting criminals against them in a mimic battle? He, a leader of the state and one who, according to report, was conspicuous among the leaders of old for the kindness of his heart, thought it a notable kind of spectacle to kill human beings after a new fashion. Do they fight to the death? That is not enough! Are they torn to pieces? That is not enough! Let them be crushed by animals of monstrous bulk! Better would it be that these things pass into oblivion lest hereafter some all-powerful man should learn them and be jealous of an act that was nowise human. O, what blindness does great prosperity cast upon our minds! When he was casting so many troops of wretched human beings to wild beasts born under a different sky, when he was proclaiming war between creatures so ill matched, when he was shedding so much blood before the eyes of the Roman people, who itself was soon to be forced to shed more. he then believed that he was beyond the power of Nature. But later this same man, betrayed by Alexandrine treachery, offered himself to the dagger of the vilest slave, and then at last discovered what an empty boast his surname was.
But to return to the point from which I have digressed, and to show that some people bestow useless pains upon these same matters—the man I mentioned related that Metellus, when he triumphed after his victory over the Carthaginians in Sicily, was the only one of all the Romans who had caused a hundred and twenty captured elephants to be led before his car; that Sulla was the last of the Roman’s who extended the pomerium, which in old times it was customary to extend after the acquisition of Italian but never of provincial, territory. Is it more profitable to know this than that Mount Aventine, according to him, is outside the pomerium for one of two reasons, either because that was the place to which the plebeians had seceded, or because the birds had not been favourable when Remus took his auspices on that spot—and, in turn, countless other reports that are either crammed with falsehood or are of the same sort? For though you grant that they tell these things in good faith, though they pledge themselves for the truth of what they write, still whose mistakes will be made fewer by such stories? Whose passions will they restrain? Whom will they make more brave, whom more just, whom more noble-minded? My friend Fabianus used to say that at times he was doubtful whether it was not better not to apply oneself to any studies than to become entangled in these.
Of all men they alone are at leisure who take time for philosophy, they alone really live; for they are not content to be good guardians of their own lifetime only. They annex ever age to their own; all the years that have gone ore them are an addition to their store. Unless we are most ungrateful, all those men, glorious fashioners of holy thoughts, were born for us; for us they have prepared a way of life. By other men’s labours we are led to the sight of things most beautiful that have been wrested from darkness and brought into light; from no age are we shut out, we have access to all ages, and if it is our wish, by greatness of mind, to pass beyond the narrow limits of human weakness, there is a great stretch of time through which we may roam. We may argue with Socrates, we may doubt with Carneades, find peace with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, exceed it with the Cynics. Since Nature allows us to enter into fellowship with every age, why should we not turn from this paltry and fleeting span of time and surrender ourselves with all our soul to the past, which is boundless, which is eternal, which we share with our betters?
Those who rush about in the performance of social duties, who give themselves and others no rest, when they have fully indulged their madness, when they have every day crossed everybody’s threshold, and have left no open door unvisited, when they have carried around their venal greeting to houses that are very far apart—out of a city so huge and torn by such varied desires, how few will they be able to see? How many will there be who either from sleep or self-indulgence or rudeness will keep them out! How many who, when they have tortured them with long waiting, will rush by, pretending to be in a hurry! How many will avoid passing out through a hall that is crowded with clients, and will make their escape through some concealed door as if it were not more discourteous to deceive than to exclude. How many, still half asleep and sluggish from last night’s debauch, scarcely lifting their lips in the midst of a most insolent yawn, manage to bestow on yonder poor wretches, who break their own slumber in order to wait on that of another, the right name only after it has been whispered to them a thousand times!
But we may fairly say that they alone are engaged in the true duties of life who shall wish to have Zeno, Pythagoras, Democritus, and all the other high priests of liberal studies, and Aristotle and Theophrastus, as their most intimate friends every day. No one of these will be “not at home,” no one of these will fail to have his visitor leave more happy and more devoted to himself than when he came, no one of these will allow anyone to leave him with empty hands; all mortals can meet with them by night or by day.
No one of these will force you to die, but all will teach you how to die; no one of these will wear out your years, but each will add his own years to yours; conversations with no one of these will bring you peril, the friendship of none will endanger your life, the courting of none will tax your purse. From them you will take whatever you wish; it will be no fault of theirs if you do not draw the utmost that you can desire. What happiness, what a fair old age awaits him who has offered himself as a client to these! He will have friends from whom he may seek counsel on matters great and small, whom he may consult every day about himself, from whom he may hear truth without insult, praise without flattery, and after whose likeness he may fashion himself.
We are wont to say that it was not in our power to choose the parents who fell to our lot, that they have been given to men by chance; yet we may be the sons of whomsoever we will. Households there are of noblest intellects; choose the one into which you wish to be adopted; you will inherit not merely their name, but even their property, which there will be no need to guard in a mean or niggardly spirit; the more persons you share it with, the greater it will become. These will open to you the path to immortality, and will raise you to a height from which no one is cast down. This is the only way of prolonging mortality—nay, of turning it into immortality. Honours, monuments, all that ambition has commanded by decrees or reared in works of stone, quickly sink to ruin; there is nothing that the lapse of time does not tear down and remove. But the works which philosophy has consecrated cannot be harmed; no age will destroy them, no age reduce them; the following and each succeeding age will but increase the reverence for them, since envy works upon what is close at hand, and things that are far off we are more free to admire. The life of the philosopher, therefore, has wide range, and he is not confined by the same bounds that shut others in. He alone is freed from the limitations of the human race; all ages serve him as if a god. Has some time passed by? This he embraces by recollection. Is time present? This he uses. Is it still to come? This he anticipates. He makes his life long by combining all times into one.
But those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear for the future have a life that is very brief and troubled; when they have reached the end of it, the poor wretches perceive too late that for such a long while they have been busied in doing nothing. Nor because they sometimes invoke death, have you any reason to think it any proof that they find life long. In their folly they are harassed by shifting emotions which rush them into the very things they dread; they often pray for death because they fear it. And, too, you have no reason to think that this is any proof that they are living a long time—the fact that the day often seems to them long, the fact that they complain that the hours pass slowly until the time set for dinner arrives; for, whenever their distractions fail them, they are restless because they are left with nothing to do, and they do not know how to dispose of their leisure or to drag out the time. And so they strive for something else to occupy them, and all the intervening time is irksome; exactly as they do when a gladiatorial exhibition is been announced, or when they are waiting for the appointed time of some other show or amusement, they want to skip over the days that lie between. All postponement of something they hope for seems long to them. Yet the time which they enjoy is short and swift, and it is made much shorter by their own fault; for they flee from one pleasure to another and cannot remain fixed in one desire. Their days are not long to them, but hateful; yet, on the other hand, how scanty seem the nights which they spend in the arms of a harlot or in wine! It is this also that accounts for the madness of poets in fostering human frailties by the tales in which they represent that Jupiter under the enticement of the pleasures of a lover doubled the length of the night. For what is it but to inflame our vices to inscribe the name of the gods as their sponsors, and to present the excused indulgence of divinity as an example to our own weakness? Can the nights which they pay for so dearly fail to seem all too short to these men? They lose the day in expectation of the night, and the night in fear of the dawn.
The very pleasures of such men are uneasy and disquieted by alarms of various sorts, and at the very moment of rejoicing the anxious thought comes over them: “How long will these things last?” This feeling has led kings to weep over the power they possessed, and they have not so much delighted in the greatness of their fortune, as they have viewed with terror the end to which it must some time come. When the King of Persia, in all the insolence of his pride, spread his army over the vast plains and could not grasp its number but simply its measure, he shed copious tears because inside of a hundred years not a man of such a mighty army would be alive. But he who wept was to bring upon them their fate, was to give some to their doom on the sea, some on the land, some in battle, some in flight, and within a short time was to destroy all those for whose hundredth year he had such fear. And why is it that even their joys are uneasy from fear? Because they do not rest on stable causes, but are perturbed as groundlessly as they are born. But of what sort do you think those times are which even by their own confession are wretched, since even the joys by which they are exalted and lifted above mankind are by no means pure? All the greatest blessings are a source of anxiety, and at no time should fortune be less trusted than when it is best; to maintain prosperity there is need of other prosperity, and in behalf of the prayers that have turned out well we must make still other prayers. For everything that comes to us from chance is unstable, and the higher it rises, the more liable it is to fall. Moreover, what is doomed to perish brings pleasure to no one; very wretched, therefore, and not merely short, must the life of those be who work hard to gain what they must work harder to keep. By great toil they attain what they wish, and with anxiety hold what they have attained; meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return. New distractions take the place of the old, hope leads to new hope, ambition to new ambition. They do not seek an end of their wretchedness, but change the cause. Have we been tormented by our own public honours? Those of others take more of our time. Have we ceased to labour as candidates? We begin to canvass for others. Have we got rid of the troubles of a prosecutor? We find those of a judge. Has a man ceased to be a judge? He becomes president of a court. Has he become infirm in managing the property of others at a salary? He is perplexed by caring for his own wealth. Have the barracks set Marius free? The consulship keeps him busy. Does Quintius hasten to get to the end of his dictatorship? He will be called back to it from the plough. Scipio will go against the Carthaginians before he is ripe for so great an undertaking; victorious over Hannibal, victorious over Antiochus, the glory of his own consulship, the surety for his brother’s, did he not stand in his own way, he would be set beside Jove; but the discord of civilians will vex their preserver, and, when as a young man he had scorned honours that rivalled those of the gods, at length, when he is old, his ambition will lake delight in stubborn exile. Reasons for anxiety will never be lacking, whether born of prosperity or of wretchedness; life pushes on in a succession of engrossments. We shall always pray for leisure, but never enjoy it.
And so, my dearest Paulinus, tear yourself away from the crowd, and, too much storm-tossed for the time you have lived, at length withdraw into a peaceful harbour. Think of how many waves you have encountered, how many storms, on the one hand, you have sustained in private life, how many, on the other, you have brought upon yourself in public life; long enough has your virtue been displayed in laborious and unceasing proofs—try how it will behave in leisure. The greater part of your life, certainly the better part of it, has been given to the state; take now some part of your time for yourself as well. And I do not summon you to slothful or idle inaction, or to drown all your native energy in slumbers and the pleasures that are dear to the crowd. That is not to rest; you will find far greater works than all those you have hitherto performed so energetically, to occupy you in the midst of your release and retirement. You, I know, manage the accounts of the whole world as honestly as you would a stranger’s, as carefully as you would your own, as conscientiously as you would the state’s. You win love in an office in which it is difficult to avoid hatred; but nevertheless believe me, it is better to have knowledge of the ledger of one’s own life than of the corn-market. Recall that keen mind of yours, which is most competent to cope with the greatest subjects, from a service that is indeed honourable but hardly adapted to the happy life, and reflect that in all your training in the liberal studies, extending from your earliest years, you were not aiming at this—that it might be safe to entrust many thousand pecks of corn to your charge; you gave hope of something greater and more lofty. There will be no lack of men of tested worth and painstaking industry. But plodding oxen are much more suited to carrying heavy loads than thoroughbred horses, and who ever hampers the fleetness of such high-born creatures with a heavy pack? Reflect, besides, how much worry you have in subjecting yourself to such a great burden; your dealings are with the belly of man. A hungry people neither listens to reason, nor is appeased by justice, nor is bent by any entreaty. Very recently within those few day’s after Gaius Caesar died—still grieving most deeply (if the dead have any feeling) because he knew that the Roman people were alive and had enough food left for at any rate seven or eight days while he was building his bridges of boats and playing with the resources of the empire, we were threatened with the worst evil that can befall men even during a siege—the lack of provisions; his imitation of a mad and foreign and misproud king was very nearly at the cost of the city’s destruction and famine and the general revolution that follows famine. What then must have been the feeling of those who had charge of the corn-market, and had to face stones, the sword, fire—and a Caligula? By the greatest subterfuge they concealed the great evil that lurked in the vitals of the state—with good reason, you may be sure. For certain maladies must be treated while the patient is kept in ignorance; knowledge of their disease has caused the death of many.
Do you retire to these quieter, safer, greater things! Think you that it is just the same whether you are concerned in having corn from oversea poured into the granaries, unhurt either by the dishonesty or the neglect of those who transport it, in seeing that it does not become heated and spoiled by collecting moisture and tallies in weight and measure, or whether you enter upon these sacred and lofty studies with the purpose of discovering what substance, what pleasure, what mode of life, what shape God has; what fate awaits your soul; where Nature lays us to rest When we are freed from the body; what the principle is that upholds all the heaviest matter in the centre of this world, suspends the light on high, carries fire to the topmost part, summons the stars to their proper changes—and ether matters, in turn, full of mighty wonders? You really must leave the ground and turn your mind’s eye upon these things! Now while the blood is hot, we must enter with brisk step upon the better course. In this kind of life there awaits much that is good to know—the love and practice of the virtues, forgetfulness of the passions, knowledge of living and dying, and a life of deep repose.
The condition of all who are preoccupied is wretched, but most wretched is the condition of those who labour at preoccupations that are not even their own, who regulate their sleep by that of another, their walk by the pace of another, who are under orders in case of the freest things in the world—loving and hating. If these wish to know how short their life is, let them reflect how small a part of it is their own.
And so when you see a man often wearing the robe of office, when you see one whose name is famous in the Forum, do not envy him; those things are bought at the price of life. They will waste all their years, in order that they may have one year reckoned by their name. Life has left some in the midst of their first struggles, before they could climb up to the height of their ambition; some, when they have crawled up through a thousand indignities to the crowning dignity, have been possessed by the unhappy thought that they have but toiled for an inscription on a tomb; some who have come to extreme old age, while they adjusted it to new hopes as if it were youth, have had it fail from sheer weakness in the midst of their great and shameless endeavours. Shameful is he whose breath leaves him in the midst of a trial when, advanced in years and still courting the applause of an ignorant circle, he is pleading for some litigant who is the veriest stranger; disgraceful is he who, exhausted more quickly by his mode of living than by his labour, collapses in the very midst of his duties; disgraceful is he who dies in the act of receiving payments on account, and draws a smile from his long delayed heir. I cannot pass over an instance which occurs to me. Sextus Turannius was an old man of long tested diligence, who, after his ninetieth year, having received release from the duties of his office by Gaius Caesar’s own act, ordered himself to be laid out on his bed and to be mourned by the assembled household as if he were dead. The whole house bemoaned the leisure of its old master, and did not end its sorrow until his accustomed work was restored to him. Is it really such pleasure for a man to die in harness? Yet very many have the same feeling; their desire for their labour lasts longer than their ability; they fight against the weakness of the body, they judge old age to be a hardship on no other score than because it puts them aside. The law does not draft a soldier after his fiftieth year, it does not call a senator after his sixtieth; it is more difficult for men to obtain leisure from themselves than from the law. Meantime, while they rob and are being robbed, while they break up each other’s repose, while they make each other wretched, their life is without profit, without pleasure, without any improvement of the mind. No one keeps death in view, no one refrains from far-reaching hopes; some men, indeed, even arrange for things that lie beyond life—huge masses of tombs and dedications of public works and gifts for their funeral-pyres and ostentatious funerals.
But, in very truth, the funerals of such men ought to be conducted by the light of torches and wax tapers, as though they had lived but the tiniest span.
“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”
-Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Related and Suggested Posts and Resources:
The Tao of Seneca: Practical Letters from a Stoic Master
Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs
Seneca on Trial: The Case of the Opulent Stoic The Classic Journal, Vol. 61, No. 6 (1966)
Harnessing Entrepreneurial Manic-Depression: Making the Rollercoaster Work for You
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339 Replies to “On The Shortness of Life: An Introduction to Seneca”
I like this quote- “life is short, eat dessert first.” -jacques torres
To me, it is also saying, do what you enjoy now, pursue your dreams, don’t wait until retirement, don’t have any regrets.
Per Twitter- I too had inflammation and nerve impingement, but on C-5&6. It happend on Jan and April of 2008. It was verrry painful. I did not do the injection, but took the steriod pills. I wish you well and quick recovery!
I didn’t notice the wake-up call until the second time it happened. I finally realized life is short and I need to take better care of myself and take actions on my dreams. I am now eating healthier, exercising, doing yoga, meditating, doing breathing exercise, saying “no” more, ignoring any negativity and staying optimistic and happy.
Unfortunately for some of us, it takes life tragedy to open our eyes.
I read your book, reading your blog, following you on Twitter- thanks for being so inspirational and expanding my mind Tim!!!
Great stuff! Helps you realize what’s more important in life.
I am nearly finished reading T4HWW and it has already had a major impact on my life. It was recommended to me (actually he gave me a copy and insisted that I read it) by a good friend who is a freelance writer who works from home and spends half the year whitewater kayaking in California and the other half kayaking in New Zealand. He is truly living the “New Rich” lifestyle thanks to you. I’m already a huge fan of this blog of yours. Keep the great info coming. Thanks for the twitter add (TolleRocks).
The questions raised by Seneca are important ones, however he seems to fail to give an answer on what to do with the time “gained” from withholding it from all the supposed distractions.
At the end of the day, it comes down to what one values. Some people value being in contact with a large number of people. Are they therefore wrong? Or are relationships ultimately all that matters? (Clearly quality should have preference over quantity in this regard, or should it? Should Mother Theresa have helped fewer people more thoroughly? Who knows…)
A mentor of mine may have put it best: “When it is time for you to leave here, what is your answer to the question, did you love enough?”
Wonderfully thought provoking.
One thing that comes to mind that I believe a lot of people struggle with:
Will the creativity manifest itself if there is no pressure? As a creative graphic artist that works very well with a tight deadline I tend to push on other items as well to achieve results or measure something.
So if we sit back and just be… will we lose the ideas, concepts, and process that enables composition and success? Or will the added clarity truly aid and/or speed up the process?
Through the process of art therapy I believe I have found the answer (at least for myself). And that answer is simply that we are an expression of a greater energy than ourselves – and the more we sit around and fret about things, the harder it is to be true to this point
Your post speaks to this in many ways – I never knew what Stoicism was before your posts – just thought it was pessimistic attitude.
Thanks for the effort – and the bolding made it better than ever to skim or dive in –
Here’s a question for you: have you ever done a George Bailey on yourself and thought about your effect and what the lack of it would have been? I bet you have literally saved hundreds from the bridge…
I’m so sorry for the loss and the challenges in your life. My thoughts are with you.
On Easter morning my housemates’ mother passed away, and I was left without words: graduation is in a month, from the institution in my mail address. So in my desperation to understand life, the divine, and the finer things of life, I ended up buying a rose for the girl I liked the next morning: Monday morning. I think I’ll remember it for a long time.
Seneca the younger wrote, “many who, when they have tortured them with long waiting, will rush by, pretending to be in a hurry!”
Tim, I do not want to rush by anymore, and my wish is that all people will one day actualize themselves to live life to the fullest.
Captured by your approach to life, more and more I find my life philosophy coinciding with yours. I think it would be interesting to ask you why you value the contemplative life. I mean, i.e. Aristotle thinks the contemplative life is the virtuous life, fulfilled in politics. What do you find in learning new things?
Now I’m going to completely switch gears: I will gamble on you writing back to me. As an entrepreneurial type I hadn’t realized you were an angel investor till today when I read up the wikipedia on you: I have business ideas based on applying original principles of operations research, modeling and control theory to create bigger and better social entrepreneurial enterprises.
Now having said this, might I move to ask you for advice? A mentor and potential investor? It intrigues me to think about how these ideas might go towards fixing disparate internal structures here in the US, e.g. secondary education. I would found a business based on simplicity, farming/outsourcing, self-organization, and a quick return: your new rich approach.
So I ask: when can we start a dialogue about a future collaboration? Do you have other ideas for start-up or mezzanine financing in this environment? Yes, I have other goals in life too: I love dance almost as much as you and one day I want to choreograph for my own ballet company. Might you help me get to this stage in life?
Again Tim, it is a real pleasure you share your thoughts with the world.
Seneca lost me when he started criticizing composers. Seems to me he’s gazing down the length of his nose at the activities of others. What *is* worth doing according to Seneca? Writing lengthy diatribes perhaps. Who is to say which pursuits are trivial and which are not? That’s a decision for each individual to make according to their own values and their own whims.
On your homepage video, you talk about the advantage of gaining time by passing off some of your busywork to people in India for low cost. Here in this blog, you mention Seneca who says that our life is wasted with always working for someone else. In hiring out your work to people in countries such as India, aren’t you just passing your busywork on to them, i.e. making them waste their lives working on your behalf? Doesn’t that disturb your sense of morality?
The people in India, or elsewhere I delegate/assign work (including the US), choose to work for me and do well. It doesn’t disturb my sense of morality in the least. They have free will, choose to work with specific companies, and live better than most white-collar workers here.
I think Zorba was a Stoic.
I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free.
I was looking into my husband’s eyes telling him I loved him when he closed them for the last time. While I waited for the nurse to pronounce what I already knew, I climbed into the bed and held George in my arms. It was the first time in weeks that I could do that because his pain had been so great that a hug was too much.
Is this sad? Yes and no. Yes, because I miss his voice, his laughter – his protection. And no, because in his death, I experienced one of the most beautiful love stories on the planet and learned four truths that are my guiding lights.
1. Mastering Life (big “L”) is empowerment through surrender. During George’s illness I bargained with God to endure a million fears rather than face ‘the big one’. I live in a world of holistic healing where ‘miracles’ happen. I felt cheated because I couldn’t ‘save’ George. I had to learn that true healing doesn’t always mean getting well. Once I surrendered to what was, my fear crumbled like the illusion it is and I could be present and look calmly into his eyes with love. Courage, strength, and mastery over anything – even death – can only come from embracing and experiencing the difficult. As Shakespeare said, “A coward dies and thousand deaths, a hero only one.”
2. We are all going to die. If we calculate back just 14 generations we have several thousand ancestors. The miracle of probabilities is that we were born who we are. That we will die is an absolute. We each have our exit script – crib death, car accident or cancer. There are no ‘untimely’ deaths. Death is not a mistake or a punishment. The fullness of expressing our unique gifts in the time we have – without knowing the time allotment – is our true purpose and our contribution to the evolution of the human species. Not knowing when we will die out of this life is a gift in a way and reason to spend our days wisely – in doing what only we can do – be our authentic self.
3. Love like there is no tomorrow. Because there isn’t. On the day of his father’s funeral, my older son, then 20 said, “People will think we are nuts because we aren’t sad – but we have no regrets.” While it is gut wrenching to see someone you love suffer, we did have the privilege of time. And we used that time to stop all extraneous activity and just love with all our might. If we choose what we truly love, in work, romance or any undertaking and give of ourselves unreservedly two things will happen. We will choose only that which enriches us leaving all people, things, and activities that do not bring out our best alone. And, when that chosen relationship ends suddenly or by choice, we are complete because we gave our all. We have no regrets and we can let it go. We are always free.
4. Love is all there is. The quote about the rich man and the camel through the eye of a needle isn’t about the vagaries of wealth – it’s the statement of fact that we go out of this life in the stripped down version of ourselves – we leave the body and everything else behind. So as we look forward or imagine looking back to that moment of truth in death, is it what we accomplished, accumulated or how we loved that will make that moment meaningful. How did we love and honour the earth, our friends, ourselves? It may seem cruel that a child gets cancer – but witness the amazing and inevitable expansion of love that will envelope all who are touched by this – including we who read your blog sharing your grief. Love is like water. It will find all the cracks and little spaces and fill them.
I read this quote yesterday and it is what compelled me to reply to this particular blog. “Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time –and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Georgia O’Keefe
You have become an awesome friend to so many you don’t even know. Thanks for sharing your vulnerabilities as well as your adventures. You are a true warrior!
It would be so good if everyone were to understand the simple truth about life being short. Maybe it is too simple, or we just don’t want to think about it. It seems to be very clear that we are just travelers, passing through – what a great thing.
The people I train tell me that you have gotten them interested in the stoics and that it is much like what I/we do. Thank you for your straight talk on death. I think that is what we all really need in this world – straight talk.
Its not rocket science – even rocket science isn’t rocket science.
This is the short reflection on the nature of time I made while reading this post.
In a nutshell:
The only time we ever experience is the present.
Time does not exist (it is a psychological illusion).
I have come to the recent consideration that time might not exist as a physical reality; rather, it may be nothing more than a psychological construct. I think this new approach makes much more sense than the traditional one, in which we simply assume the existence of time without realizing that we have no sensory tools to confirm its very existence. Over the course of evolution, we have simply developed the concept of time because it is a practical “concept shortcut” to understanding the way the world works. However, if we want to understand the world more deeply than what we initially evolved for, we must not take these concept shortcuts for granted.
The only “time” that we ever experience is what people call the “present”. We do not experience the “past” or the “future”, we only think about it. The past and the future are psychological concepts that our brain builds in a logical fashion around our experience of the “present”: the “past” is what we think has already happened before the moment in which we are thinking (in accordance with our assumption that there exists a time continuum – which, in my opinion, is an illusion, a misconception) and which we cannot modify, and the “future” is what we think is going to happen after the moment in which we are thinking, which we think we can modify.
We can only draw joy/pleasure from the “present moment”. We cannot draw emotions directly from the “past” or “future”; we can only draw emotions from these concepts while we are thinking about them, in the “present moment”. Therefore, living our life to the fullest depends on whether we choose to focus our attention on the “present moment”, the “past” or the “future”.
Some people focus more on the “past” (esp. the old), others on the “future” (esp. the young), others on the “present” (esp. the very young). It’s all about which focus brings you the most pleasure.
Focusing on the present enables us to enjoy direct, crude sensations of pleasure (such as the pleasure of eating a good meal, or giving someone a big hug), whereas focusing on the past or future only permits mere memories/watered-down versions of these sensations and are mostly limited to cerebral pleasure. As adults, we have a tendency to focus on either the past or the future, and to neglect the present. I think that it is important to realize this and to try to dedicate more time to the appreciation of the present, for it is in many ways richer its intensity and diversity of sensations and experiences than the other two.
Very interesting and good suggestion!
I will read it. I agree that time is one of the most precious resources we have in our life and is not renewable. The idea of wasting my time is one of the thing I feared most. Unluckily modern society tries to make people do so in many different ways: TV, useless debates, void news and gossip, entertainments from which we can get nothing…
Time is more preciuos than gold but often we don’t understand until it’s too late. Seneca’s work can remember us not to do so. Time should be invest wisely…We should live without forgetting the value of each single experience in order to acquire knowledge. Time passed by but the knowledge we gain don’t.
“An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest”
Incredible article. Thanks for continuing to push me.
Fantastic post – its about the quality of things, not about getting bogged down in the things that don’t matter. The pancreatic cancer tragedy at the beginning of the story was sad but we can learn from that and try to cherish what we have as humanity finds a way to beat these hideous illnesses.
Thank you so much for the incredible comments. I sometimes feel guilty because there are so many of you who write better comments than my posts themselves!
In all cases, to answer a common question:
Do I agree with Seneca that the goal of life should be philosophical reflection and discussion?
Answer: no, not necessarily. I think this introspection is necessary for a fulfilled life, but it’s necessary and not sufficient. The ingredients for each life and each definition of “success” are different, but I don’t agree with Seneca that this is the sole objective.
I didn’t want to cut from the piece and affect the integrity, but there you have it!
All the best,
I just discovered Stoic philosophy a few months ago thanks to Marcus Aurelius and ‘Letters from a Stoic’ is now in my ever-growing queue of books.
What strikes me the most in the letter above is (as you mentioned) how relevant it is even though it was written nearly 2000 years ago. We may have iPhones and satellites now but what it means to be human hasn’t really changed.
I am dumbfounded that I’d never heard of Marcus Aurelius or Seneca until recently. Because, now that I’m becoming familiar with their writings, their philosophies make so much sense to me and they get right to the core of so many issues that are rarely discussed. I cringe when thinking of all the poor choices and wasted effort I could have avoided if only someone had handed me a copy of ‘Meditations’ or ‘Letters from a Stoic’ before I headed off to college.
Why were we all taught Greek and Roman mythology and not Greek and Roman philosophy?
Hey! There’s an idea for your plan to revolutionize the American education system: Figure out how to get this kind of thing taught in public schools. Teach kids some *real* critical thinking skills, give them the tools to make truly informed decisions and not just memorize facts which will be forgotten moments after the test is completed. If you could do that, I think you’d have a good chance of changing the world.
On a completely unrelated note… I’m looking forward to your talk in Atlanta this Friday. Hopefully I can bounce a few philosophy questions off of you. 🙂
There must be a reason for everything. I bought this book Saturday at B&N. I needed a little clarity and was pulled to Seneca. Now, you post the whole thing here. The answers I need must be in there. Thanks
The philosophers – like poets – synthesize truths – in posing and discussing the questions, “what is the meaning of life?’ or ‘ why are we here?’ Fortunately for us, those who find their life work in pondering this leave their writings as a map of sorts.
I agree with you Tim, that introspection is necessary – but not sufficient. It is how we apply deeper wisdom in our daily round – whatever we choose that to be – that propels or decreases the trajectory of human evolution. Our every choice counts not only for us personally but for the collective. There is no ‘they’ there is only ‘we’.
As the cartoon character, Pogo, said many years ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Thanks again Tim for your candor.
Love your blog. I have cut and pasted your blogs URL in emails countless times by request of workmates, friends and family after yarning about your posts at a social outing (especially the ‘how to build the perfect fire’ post, a good metaphor for what you teach as well).
I’ve just gone to a 4 day work week myself, not 4 hours but a step in the right direction. 🙂
I just want to say Seneca disagrees with “lying in the arms of a harlot” as a waste of time. I would like to voice my objection and state that company with a harlot adds to the spice of life which is why I’m probably more of a hedonist that a stoic.
There are 2 aspects to the path: the direction or the destination and the path itself.
I guess Seneca spoke more about a way to walk the path and a little bit less about the destination.
Change can be in the way you walk but it can also be a change in the direction.
Seneca points to a truth that is found all over … “The road is better than the inn”… And paying more attention to the path, to the way you walk the path, one is able to “see” the path, to recognize it. And if it is a good path, he or she will continue down the path… if it is a bad path…. change will happen automatically and effortlessly.
Being aware of the path will take care of its destination. For Seneca, the destination was the path. For others…. well… maybe they have a passion for shortcuts 😉 or a passion for pointing out somewhere far into the distance and saying “Look how beautiful it is the road THAT way”.
Many thanks for this, Tim.
I find Seneca very inspiring (right next to Dao de ching ???) esp. the letters to Lucilius (“Epistulae morales ad Lucilium”). Unfortunately he did not cross my way at school despite the fact that I had Latin for seven year (not the best language choice I would say today). I wish more people would have access to this great philosopher and the web can help here. Most of Seneca’s writings seems to be available in Latin at Wikisource but unfortunately there are only parts of them translated into contemporary languages in Wikisource. So see this as a call to everybody – if you have proper (non copyright protected) translations – please add this to Wikisource or make it available under a free license (e.g. Creative Commons incenses).
Tennyson said: “I must lose myself in action, lest I wither in despair.”
At the time, he was suffering the loss of a dear friend, and found that the serving of others helped him forget his grief and helped him to heal.
I’m going to pick up a copy of Letters from a Stoic off Amazon in the next few days – is there a particular translation that you would recommend? I know Ryan really recommends the Hays translation of The Meditations, which I already have. Just wondering if you’d read any different translations, and which one you like best.
aww, sorry to hear that. I consider you my friend, thx for all you have done!
@Tim and readers:
I’d like to share the English translation of a very well-known short poem written by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. This piece is for me, up to now, the BEST SYNTHESIS of a stoic posture.
= The God Abandons Antony =
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
* * *
I would like to call your attention, in special, to this part:
“listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward”
Stoicism IS NOT about suppressing emotions, or becoming insensitive, detached robots. It is much more about how you face and deal with them.
By the way, as I later came to know through Nicholas Taleb, this poem was read in the funeral of Jackie Onassis by Maurice Tempelsman, her companion.
Bon Jour TIm:
I was in Barnes & Noble at the help desk this past Saturday April 25th, waiting for an employee to get a book for me (Tropic of Cancer if you must know). While I was waiting, I noticed a copy of 4-Hour Workweek on the counter that someone else had ordered. Not one to be shy, I reached over the counter and started reading their copy. As you might guess, I had the employee go back and get me my own copy. Haven’t finished Tropic of Cancer but finished your book …
… On Monday I got a yes when I asked my boss to work 2 days remotely per week. I start next week.
On Monday I also booked the most stunning apartment in Paris for the month of September, at a cost of half of the rent I pay in Southern California. I plan to increase my remote time now through August so that September will be an easy ask to leave for remote work. If the answer happens to be no (which I now doubt), I will be prepared to quit my job.
Now at work on my Income Autopilot project.
Tim: amazing. My life has changed in 3 days. (Plus, your book was funny as hell.) Thank you!!!!!!
Native Indian cultures throughout North/Central/South America have circular patterns in their religious beliefs. With the central understanding that WE are not the center of the universe.
They understood time as seasonal i.e. for planting and harvesting. They understood time as being circular.
I wonder if we are have lost our sense of time due to our emphasize on Christian culture and the linear way of telling time?
Do you think natives tribes thought their lives were wasted? Such wonderful cultures have been destroyed in the name of GOD.
ps. Great read. Thanks for using your time to present this to us.
I’m glad you wrote that last comment. I like a lot of Seneca’s ideas but something doesn’t fire for me here.
The overall message and the bolded stuff is great out of context. But reading the whole thing doesn’t sit right.
Don’t waste time yes, obviously. But it feels like Seneca would rather I did nothing at all. If I try to accomplish a goal it’s a fools mission and I’m doing it to please society and not myself. I don’t know what Seneca believes is a worthy pursuit besides philosophizing.
I’ve been pondering this topic the past few months. One excersize I’ve taken up is looking back on my life and recording my perfect days. Like the day I climbed Mt. Fuji and certain days when I woke up early and just let the day unfold with no plan in mind. A key ingredient to a perfect day for me is being in the moment and being sponateous. Having perfect days is harder for me now, but this excersize is helping me train myself to be more in the moment, even while working.
I’ve also asked people around me what their perfect days are and some people can just rattle them off while others tend to struggle. It’s an interesting excersize.
I agree and disagree with the claims.
The part I agree with is that we waste much of our time. That is certainly true for many, including me.
The part I disagree with is that by not wasting our time life’s shortness will somehow stop bothering us. I know it will never stop bothering me, until humans are able to live forever. In fact, the more purpose you have in life, the more repulsive the idea of eternal inexistence will become.
The only solution to this dilemma is to extend the time we have on this planet (or others). Eternity is what ultimately gives true meaning to things.
Thinking that keeping busy and doing important things in life will somehow prevent the fact that currently, everyone will deteriorate and die, is an illusion.
And how do we change this terrible fate? Click on the link on my name to read my blog post “How to live forever – 5 steps to immortality”.
Yes, time is one of our most precious commodities
Tim…just recently became aware of you and your work (thanks to the Diggnation guys) and just read your book and the Seneca post which reminded me that wisdom is not a 21st century invention. Anyway, thanks from a 57-year old who is not too old to learn to live better
Thanks to you and all of you for joining in and adding to the dialogue! I look forward to learning from you.
All the best,
Tim, that was a great post. Thanks for sharing.
This is just brilliant. Thank you so much for sharing the entire letter. It is astonishing how long we have been grappling with the issues of time! I am a huge fan of your book and the principles in it. And, this post is very timely for me – preparing a presentation to a network of working moms. Now, I have even more meat to offer them.
Thanks again (and I am sorry for your loss)
Maybe I just don’t get it. I think the bolded parts are great philosophies for contemplating how you choose to spend your time, essentially waking up to the reality that most of your “working” life is centered on doing the bidding of others. But the rest of it seems to suggest that ALL of life is wasted on things that Seneca views as “preoccupations”, suggesting the only way to really experience life is to philosphize about it. I also sense a little bitterness, given that he seems to rail on the lifestyles of those who’ve achieved great fortune and/or popularity.
Nonetheless, I’m intriguied and will probably dig a little deeper into his work.
I just would like to say that I’m very happy to have stumbled upon your blog and found this. I’ve been pretty down the past few days and this is just the inspiration I need. Thank you very much for sharing this. Very inspiring!
This is a great article to read and it has the ability to inspire anyone.
Thanks for sharing and i hope that you will share more inspirational articles further.
Came across this quote – hits the nail on the spot.
“The time is always right to do what is right.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
Tim, want to thank you for you great deeds and sharing your life views with people. I immigrated USA a year ago, and read your book recently, now I think that’s where changes really starting =).
Great post.. been thinking of this as of late. I sometimes think “what the hell does this tim guy know about real life.. he is single and floating about with no responsibility..” I think this post helped me realize my assumptions were wrong. It goes way beyond “responsibilties” into how you view those responsibilities and treat each of them as opportunities for experience.. or a waste of time. Apologies for the disjointed thoughts.
Hey Tim, are you going to the Berkshire Hathaway meeting this year? If you want a free personal tour of Omaha I’ve been here most my life. I promise not to annoy with questions either 😉
PS. This tour will include the best steaks in all of Nebraska (I would like to say these will be right up there with anything you’ve had in Argentina).
So if you are going to the Annual Meeting, let me know.
I’ve just received your book! I can’t stop reading it! There are some parts I’m not sure I’ll be able to use any time soon, however … single mom and son around the world – that sounds very tempting!!!
All the best from Slovenia!
Now back to Seneca 🙂
What I realized after recently listening to Corinthians and the Gospels on audiobook is that Jesus, Paul and possibly some of the Gospel writers were Lucius’ contemporaries.
They all breathed at the same time and lived under the Roman empire.
It is amazing that both Jesus and Seneca despite different locations within the Empire (Seneca in Rome, Jesus in the Middle East) arrived at such caring, wise philosophies….(although, I have read that Seneca may not have walked the Stoic walk with the ladies…the sirens may have been a little too loud for him…although this is unconfirmed wikipedia info…;))
Anyway, I found this revelatory and contextual.
Thank you for your service,
Thanks for the bolded passage quick read section. It was a great way to skim the material. Then later I went back and read more thoroughly. A good speed reading for comprehension tactic.
gracias tim and everyone. about 20 min ago, i got mustard on my pants, dropped my mac and it broke, lost my wallet and have a meeting in an hour to prepare for. upset until i came here. its like my mind mecca.
tim, necesitamos nombrarte algo en espanol….un apodo…de veras…timito? 🙂
I’ve been reading the blog via google reader for the past year or so and stopped by today to pick up some PPC docs up from your resources pages. From reading the comments in this post i’m reminded how much value I also used to get from the people that gravitate around your ideas and writing. Reader is like a black and white tv version of a full color widescreen show with THX surround sound. I’ll be back.
Finally I finished reading the post 🙂
However, one cannot but think that it is too long a ‘letter’, for a person who seems to value time so much, don’t you think?
One has to read it almost till the end to find out what the author proposes to do with the time we manage to rescue from others and ourselves: think.
There is a quote I’m using quite often that sums it all up really well I think:
” If each of your breaths is a priceless jewel, be not like the deceived fools who are joyous because each day their wealth increases while their life grows ever shorter. ” ( Al-Ghazali )
At this point, I think that we all agree that time is priceless. However, it is quite another question what can be considered as a ‘meaningful’ way to use our time …
Thanks for much for writing this. It comes during a week when I have had a former colleague pass away unexpectedly and a friend hospitalized for a very bad virus. Both situations reminded me of the limited amount of time we have here, no matter how long we live, and how important health and balance is.
I’ve been reading your book, and I’m working on starting a work from home plan, and will not take no for an answer. I hope this will help me gain back the balance I had, as in all honesty, no matter how much they pay me… the time suck is not worth it. Not even a little bit.
Sorry for your loss Tim. I have also learned today that one of my best friends is not in good shape. This person however always has lived life to the fullest.
and has been an inspiration to me in that way.
One thing about reading works from this era is we are looking at things from our perspective and he was writing to a specific audience in his time that understood the nuances of what he is saying that in these times the phrasing may confuse us. It is great fun to read these texts in Latin or Greek and sometimes your own translation can take on additional meaning.
Thanks for another great post.
I took this philosophy class back in college called, “Classical Political Theory”. I remember reading some of Seneca’s works and engaging in some heavy discourse with fellow classmates and our Scottish professor afterwards. Needless to say, I left the classroom feeling new.
Glad you posted this one Tim – great choice.
Was watching 80’s movie film ‘Innerspace’ (Martin Short, Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan).
Bear with me, this is going somewhere.
Without Tim’s post the in film phrase “The cowboy is well known for his stoicism” would have gone straight over my head.
Funny, i’ve seen that movie so many times yet never noticed that line before.
Synchronicity manifests in the strangest ways. heh. 😛
I gotta be honest, when I first saw the length of your post I was tempted to skip it and “come back when I have more time” I am glad that I did not do that but chose to read it in its entirety right now. What a wonderful gift to share with your readers. Thank you.
So very sorry about the loss of your friend. I, like many other readers I’m sure, will send positive, peaceful thoughts in the direction of your other friend’s daughter.
In the Google Chrome browser the backdrop to the text (the white) does not appear, resulting in light grey text over a black background. This also occurs on the “How to lose 20lbs of fat in 30 days…” post.
I read the piece quickly, so I’ll apologize in advance if anything I have to say sounds inattentive to the text. I’m going to take issue with the interpretation of the text that I’m getting from the bold quotes.
Suppose that “living” from Seneca’s perspective is not merely attending to and enjoying the present (since some things really shouldn’t be enjoyed, like theft, arson, etc), but attending to the present from a certain moral and life-plan perspective. It would still seem that this conception of “living” is deficient, since you also need to include action commensurate with that perspective. In that case, “living” is doing what you truly believe you ought to do (while avoiding worry).
There is a deep challenge confronting anyone who wants to do what they truly believe they ought to do: most people don’t have a very good idea of what they want (at least what they want in the instrumental sense). People systematically, inaccurately represent their past experiences of pleasure and displeasure and fail to predict what will give them satisfaction in the future. See Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness for a review of the empirical literature on this topic. People feel guilty and regret doing things that they actually enjoy. They believe that they had a satisfying experience after the fact, when on a moment to moment basis they did not enjoy what they were doing. And, there are variables that predict when these distortions of memory will occur that are fairly arbitrary (primacy and recency effects, for example).
Which leads to the deeper issue: you can have all of the motivation in the world to seize the day, but if you don’t know what you want to get out of the day (or how to tell when you’ve gotten it) you may still lead a very regrettable life. This is why Seneca recommends doing philosophy, which in his time meant something more like the “pursuit of knowledge” than what we now regard as philosophy. The ancient conception of philosophy potentially encompassed all of science. At some point in time, every field that we now regard as a science was regarded as a form of philosophy. For example, Isaac Newton was regarded as a Natural Philosopher for his work in physics.
When Seneca says: “Of all men they alone are at leisure who take time for philosophy, they alone really live; for they are not content to be good guardians of their own lifetime only. They annex ever age to their own; all the years that have gone ore them are an addition to their store.” He’s saying that to truly live you have to pursue knowledge.
Aristotle taught that a good life is not merely good from the inside, from within a person’s self-assessment, but from the perspective of history–good from within your own skin and good from the perspective of what benefits the world. You have to not only understand yourself but to understand the world, which is a very challenging task. There is a lot to know and the good life depends on a great deal of good luck. But if you take Seneca’s comment about philosophy seriously, truly living is not simply going out and starting that new business or breaking up with your girlfriend or learning to treat a menial job like an exercise in Kung Fu. From the looks of things, it’s doing whatever you need to do to pursue knowledge of what’s important.
I’m going to make this point again in a different way and in a shorter comment, so that it hopefully does not get lost. Seneca probably did not mean the same thing by “philosophy” that we mean today. Literally, the word means “love of wisdom” and might have been used by Socrates to distinguish himself from the sophists, who were simply professional advisers. Socrates didn’t like the idea of people making money off of secret knowledge. (Maybe like an ancient Richard Stallman.) He wanted wisdom to be public and free, so he attempted to discredit professional advisers by challenging them to public debates. Whatever the case, when Seneca was using the word, he probably did not mean exactly what Socrates meant either. He probably meant something more like the pursuit of “scientia” or knowledge, with the qualification that the knowledge would be of the most important things. It is doubtful that Seneca meant that leisure/philosophy is anything like contemporary academic philosophy or the anorexic popular conception of philosophy. If someone said to you that “living” is pursuing the understanding of the most important things in life, it would sound a lot less ridiculous than if they simply said “doing philosophy” is most important. It would also make it easier to understand what Seneca is complaining about when he refers to our preoccupation with various distractions. Distractions are distractions because they do not concern what is most important… So, what is the most important stuff that people are supposed to be attending to? Presumably there is a separate essay on that topic?
My favourite passage was written by Diogenes. I’ve tried to adhere to it for the past 20 or so years.
“Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend.”
As I come up on the 15th year anniversary of losing my mom unexpectedly, and the 1st year anniversary of losing a long-time family friend, Seneca’s thoughts are especially reinforcing. Some of the concepts are similar to what I’ve learned from Buddhism, yet with a different angle.
Thanks for sharing your bolded version, Tim!
Always good to keep the big picture in mind. We often need a reminder of that. I just watched this video of you, Tim, enjoying wine on the Thunder Show:
Seneca has my favorite quote:
“Death by starvation comes gently, gluttony makes men explode”.
Along the lines of maximizing time, I have a question regarding food. How can you feed yourself with the absolute minimum cost and preparation time. Is it possible to eat nothing but rice and water, or something like that. I would love a post on that topic, with which you must have had some experience in your time as a lifestyle-designer.
For instance, let’s say I want a life organized around reading. I would need a place to read, food to eat, and the books I want to read. How do we minimize the time and money costs of organizing such a lifestyle? A good first idea is to eliminate the cost of food as much as possible. What is the least amount of money and time we can spend on food while maintaining our health?
A related question I would like to have answered regards performance. How can you spend next to nothing on food, spend as little time preparing it as possible, and still get enough proteins and fats to maintain a high-performance constitution. Anyway, I hope you discover this comment and someday write a post about that. I’m sure you would be helping a lot of people.
Seeing the picture at the top of this post made me think about the Japanese character for “busy.” The character for “busy” is formed by combining together the characters for “heart” and “to be lost.” The character for “to be lost” can also mean “to pass away.” So, in Japanese being busy literally means having a lost heart.
I used to share that with students as a mnemonic device for remembering kanji when I was teaching Japanese. Thinking about it in this context gives me a fresh perspective. Thanks!
Way back in high school, as a confused and foundering youth, a friend’s mom took me aside and told me this.
“If there’s something you want to do, don’t wait. If you wait too long, and then try to do it, you’ll find the desire has left you.”
Time does not exist on a spirit level. But the body can’t tell the difference between what I’m seeing now and what I’m thinking now. I can experience the past and the future and the present by closing my eyes and seeing the pain and loss in my friend’s mom’s eyes as she urged me to leave Los Angeles.
Many years and many adventures later, a man told me, “These are the memories that will warm you in the winter of life.”
I wonder what winter is that?
Hey Tim, great article.
By the way, what do you (and the commeters here) think about the 10,000 Hour “Rule”. You know the ones that “states” that it takes 10,000 hours to become a master at anything?
Thanks for the question. Personally, no big surprise, I disagree with the 10,000-hour rule of Outliers. Then again, it all depends on how one defines “world-class”. That said, if we can agree that one hour of rote practice is not the same as thoughtful planned practice, then the idea of a clean 10,000 hours being a minimum standard for all people begins to look unlikely.
Sorry to hear your loss Tim. This post is terrific.
I’ve been wrestling my mind about this subject for the last 6 months. Im fresh out of college and have been slammed in the face by realizations of how greedy, superficial, mediocre, overworked, unhappy or just plain out of time 90% of people are.
Your book, your blog, ryan holiday’s and a couple of others have been pivotal in keeping my mind clear from all the BS flying around. Stoicism is amazing. I love how it’s not designed to be argued in classrooms, but applied in everyday life. I love how it doesnt offer any “magic bullets”, no “3 step program” to happiness, no saccharine fallacies nor “hacks” to attain happiness. It makes it impossible to sell to most of your acquaintances, but it’s genuine for it.
The only things i dont fully agree with is this concept of philosophy being the only path to happiness. I’ve know bread bakers in the argentinian patagonia that havent read a single word written by any philosopher – ever – yet are possibly the happiest and most in-the-moment people i’ll ever meet.
I must admit that i also once met a 70-year-old craftsman that had read almost every philosopher know to man and was absurdly happy. And anyone with two eyes would tell you that his happiness had little to do with his bank account. Little in his attitude would change if he were to loose it all in this economic crisis. He’d laugh it off, buy cheaper clothes and start making his crafts out of recycled stuff instead of freshly cut wood.
The thing i think made him and the bread bakers unique is that, as some reader said above already, they’re already a stripped down version of themselves. Death can rob them of nothing.
Since their happiness doesnt depend on their bank accounts or sports cars or having more clients or some illusion of leisure beginning when they retire, death makes no difference to them. If a truck runs them over in the next 10 minutes their biggest lament would be “Damnit, Mrs Smith wont have her freshly baked bread in time”.
I honestly dont know the recipe for such a life is, much less in the neurotic, fast-paced white-collar ivy-league-loving enviroment that im throwing myself into. But im going to find it and live it out.
Much respect to what you do Tim, keep up the good stuff.
Thank you so much for this posting, for your blog, and book. I am in the process of reading it and am deeply inspired.
My post is to give you some information to pass along to your friend whose daughter has cancer if you see fit. I imagine if you’ve traveled far afield into the health and optimum performance worlds of Pavel Tsatsouline and the resources involved in formulating Brainquicken, this information will not sound too far out to you. I hope it is helpful and that she heals quickly however they choose to treat her. I am very sad for your loss for your friend with pancreatic.
Apologies for not pretty-fying the info below–just wanted to get it to you fast–I excerpted it from emails I’ve sent out to other friends/acquaintances who are diagnosed with C. I came up with this information during my own quest for help with Lyme Disease.
Hi there health-challenged friends and friends of health-challenged friends,
I’ve been sent a number of emails out about cancer resources I know of. In this email, I am re-capping and consolidating them for myself and for you.
1. My practictioner can’t take on any more intensive cancer patients. I asked her recommendations–she highly regarded an herbalist in Ashland, OR, named Johnathan Treasure who is stellar with cancer–teh centere specializes in it. He also worked with the lyme patient who was dying of lymphoma a year ago I have mentioned. She worked with him and my practictioner and is doing great.
http://www.centrehealing.com is his healing practice
http://www.herbological.com/ here’s his own herb web site
here are my notes from calling them:
Aggressive herbal protocols. Includes nutritional work. Can work in conjunction with radiation and chemo. New appointments possible within 2 weeks.
Initial consult $340 1.5 phone or in person consult
protocol for herbs and supplements range from $500-1000/month.
follow up appointments $190/hr
Insurance will only be billable if it covers nutritionists.
Supplements are a tax write-off if you file a long form you can take it as a health deduction. based on percentage of your income.
My practictioner also said that she has found Paw Paw by Nature’s Sunshine taken in conjunction with PhytoCyto by Johnathan Treasure to be outstanding in eradicating extensive tumors. Not that you want to get into self-treating at this point, but just in case it reaches that point!
my take: i would add a consult with Treasure into any anti-cancer actions I was taking. he’s relatively inexpensive compared to the rest.
2. sanoviv.com per my friend Michelle who used to work there “if any of your friends dealing with cancer could go to Sanoviv, it would be between $26,000 and $40,000. I would call down there and ask to talk to Erika (1800-726-6848). They have a new medical director and I hear things are going really well.” She is not sure if they currently accept Stage IV patients or not. Pretty renowned center in Mexico.
3. the kelley/Gonzalez protocol — An intensive nutritionaldetox protocol with deep testing for current physiological/nutritional deficiences/imbalances. I think you can do some chemo/radiation and do this too. If I had cancer, given my current level of information, this is what I would choose to do to address it, perhaps in conjunction with some allopathic route, and herbs from the Oregon herbalist.
NIH site describing the study they funded:
description of the Kelly protocol that Dr. Gonzalez bases his work off of:
Gonzalez/Kelly protocol – spoke to Gonzalez’s office this AM and was told it is possible to get an appointment within 2 weeks of Gonzalez saying that you fit his profile of patients.
here’s a link to costs:
here’s a link to what you need to send to him asap (i’d fedex it)
http://www.dr-gonzalez.com/becoming_a_patient.htm ( there is no cost for him to evaluate these records).
4. Simonton Technique — a strong visualization adjunct to whatever treatment you choose. http://www.cancerbackup.org.uk/QAs/TreatmentsQAs/ComplementarytherapiesQAs/Visualisation/related_faqs/QAs/1069 breif description of it.
http://www.simonton.de/die_simonton_methode_-_simonton_training.php?setlang=en Simonton website
5. hippocrates institute — http://www.hippocratesinstitute.org. She could go there jsut for detox and nutritional support and stay on her drug regimen–not much medical oversight though. also optimum health institute in CA does same thing. Hippocrates sells a supplement called Chemozin to help assist detox from chemo. Their raw vegan/detox approach works amazingly for some–know of pancreatic and stage IV patients who are now over a decade into health post-hippocrates. No in-depth medical oversight though, and a pretty chaotic facility. Contact me if you choose to go there. I will debrief you on how to best navigate their services. Went there for 8 weeks myself or help with Lyme Disease and it helped me tremendously. from $4,500 to $12,000 for 3 weeks, depending on level of housing you choose. does not include adjunct services or supplements. Could easily tack on another $3,000- $8,000 to your costs.
6. from City of Hope, CA (a cancer facility?) The drug is a Pfizer trial drug that is the next generation of Tarceva. The first path to take is Tarceva, which an FDA approved drug. Tarceva is a pill that is taken once a day, and is pretty darn expensive. my friend’s mother with 8 brain tumors and lung cancer has been using to good effect. I don’t have contact info, just the conversation with my friend about her mother getting care at City of Hope. Should be relatively traceable.
7. another nutritonal/detox approach is Gerson Therapy. the author of “30 & Terminal” writes about it, and I have spoken with others who undertook it. incredibly rigorous, but you could look into it. You will be married to a juicer for a number of years, even more so thatn with the Hippocrates protocol. Worth a look. http://www.gerson.org/
8 .books/DVD’s– Chris CArr “Crazy Sexy Cancer” http://www.crazysexycancer.com (could be really inspiring for young people with cance). John Wagner “30 & Terminal”
Hope this helps,
As that *other* great philosopher, Woody Allen, said “I don’t want to be immortal because of my work. I want to be immortal because of not dying.”
very good article.
thanks for the great post.
I was just talking about this very topic with my Grandmother. She is eighty years old and in perfect health. Her outlook on life is so so positive and has never feared death. I asked her how she does it. “Well if the doctor told me that I had 6 weeks to live then that would be ok with me. I just don’t see death as being a bad thing.”
@timferris hey tim I wanted to express the relief that you have given me. I never comment and I am a new reader to your blog. I want to say you have opened my eyes and I found myself wanting to become wealthy and spending almost 4,000 on coaching. You have given me this opportunity in less than 19.95. Tim you have helped me create a great income and for that I am greatful. It is because of you I don’t have to make costly mistakes because of your great research. You are a great person and a great silent mentor. I want to choke some of these idiots around the net disclaiming your book, I guess these are the idiots you are talking about? Don’t want to go on long, but you are the reason I left my job and for that I thank you, If people only followed your book and actually did it, they don’t realize how much they could actually make. Another thing I never had a mentor in my life, and when I ask someone to mentor me they always turn me down or want thousands of dollars. I am only 22 years old, and to know your only 30 years old gives me enough hope to know I can create wealth and travel the world. Thanks for being a silent mentor. I can’t wait for your next book tim, I’m gonna keep pushing your book around, people need this in their life, your great friend Justin. 🙂 🙂
When we started out as entrepreneurs last year, we spent 5 months building a business plan and doing market research. We wanted to get funding, and you know what, no Angel or VC wanted to fund us.
We then decided to do consulting work to fund our own startup, which was great, but soon we became slaves to our clients. I soon spend more time on client work than on the startup company, which meant the startup was going no where.
It’s post like this Tim that really help me when times get tough. When I’m working 100+ hours a week, I read over your posts again so that I am reminded that it’s not how much I work, but my effectiveness.
I am now spending more time with my girlfriend and family. I’m still working hard, don’t get me wrong, but I have a new conviction of what I must do.
Our Beta launches next week! After months of working and working, hopefully our startup dreams will become a realization.
Thanks for all of your inspiration Tim
– Jun Loayza
Have read meditations 2x. I keep hearing Marcus Aurelius saying to me Life is too short. Take the world and own it. Because of reading this book. I am sitting at the Calgary International Airport 1 hour away from travelling to Berlin. I am living a childhood dream come true.
For all those who read this, take the world and own it. Find your passions and live each day as if you were about to die. Life is too short. Life Love Laugh.
Your section on how to “test the muse” turned out to be my muse! I took your ideas about using Adwords to test market potential and am now offering it as a service. I create web pages for clients and use internet traffic as a forecasting tool to dictate how likely a product is to succeed. Thanks for the wonderful book and philosophies, it gave me the courage to get this off the ground. …
Awesome post Tim!
It just inspired me to put in another couple of hours on the stuff I was going to leave to tomorrow.
Happy Cinco de Mayo!
The idea of the bolding key points and telling us how many minutes it would take to read is hilariously un-Seneca. But props for bringing the classics back with a relevant spin! Personally I would just bold the entire essay and tell people to stop with their twitter to read the whole thing…
This is a GREAT blog with PERFECT timing! I myself have been pondering what you wrote: “How do we balance protecting time with protecting relationships? How do we conquer guilt and do what is truly most important?” My family is first and foremost, and yet work tends to dominate my time. I don’t just mean my normal 40+ hour work week (I am trying to get that to 4!), but all of the “extras” … events, meetings, etc …. each of which are important in their own right, but in the BIG picture, my family is MY top priority and while we need to work to pay the bills, it means nothing if there is tension at home. Anyhow, your book and site have definitely inspired me and a friend to start our own business venture on the side, which we plan to turn into our 4-hours total of work each week … resulting in more family time. Thank you for your inspiration!
A good friend of mine was also diagnosed with a stage 4 cancer and given 6 months to live, perhaps 8 months with Chemo. He was 29 years old and had two young kids so it seemed very unfair to all concerned.
He had no siblings so a bone marrow transplant was out; he did not see the point of going through the discomfort of chemo for the sake of 2 months. Like many men, he ignored signs (lumps) and lived a hedonistic lifestyle (he was on tour).
He was very lucky to find out about something called the Gerson therapy, I was sceptical at first, expecting them to be trying to get some money out of him. Well he had no money and all the kit he needed was lent to him so that was no the angle that I could see.
He was told that people who had chemo and Gerson usually died but Gerson by itself had saved many. For most people going against doctors advice would be taking a big risk but he had little to lose. His Doctors were more than sceptical and told him to get serious about preparing his family for his death and not to give them false hope..
Following the programme was very difficult; it involved having numerous enemas every day and making drinks from organic vegetables every half hour, so he needed a carer. His meals were also totally organic.
The basis of Gerson is boosting the immune system so your body can defeat the cancer, this is completely the opposite of what chemo does in poisoning your body and the cancer. So chemo makes things worse and it is a roll of the dice; how strong is the cancer how weak is the immune system.
He took the treatment and for a while it seemed to be working, his blood results improved considerably and the doctors could not explain it and went into a denial mode. Well the therapy kept him alive for 18 months at which time he relaxed the regime because it seemed to be doing so well, this led to a reversal of the improvement in his bloods and he rapidly went back to the full regime.
It was difficult following the regime because he really could not leave the house and after 18 months he was fed up with being in a self imposed prison. Well it has now been over 3 years and he has been able to reduce the regime without detrimental effect on his bloods. He is now able to make trips and even go on holiday.
He survived and his approach to life has changed completely.
Reading your blog made me think back to when he was first diagnosed, we all thought he was going to die and he came so close.
Sorry for your loss.
Hi Tim und alle die deutsch verstehen.
Ein echter Mann braucht kein doppelten Boden oder einen
Rettungsanker. Das ist was für Bausparer
Stell dich dem Leben wie ein Fels in der Brandung,
nämlich wahrhaftig, mutig und mit all deiner Kraft.
Die Welt gehört denen, die sich der Gegenwart und dem
was da ist mit voller Liebe und Aufmerksamkeit stellen.
Es gibt keine Sicherheit nur Lebendigkeit. So verstehe ich Seneca.
Fantastic read, excellent resources, and awesome inspiration. Thank you and rock on. I’ve been living mini-retirements for quite some time on a wing and a prayer and now ready to create a product, give back, and get traveling and exploring again!
On that note, I just posted on Elance for a VA but really want to try WMII that Tim mentions. Anyone have their website? I have audio book and might have heard it incorrectly.
Thanks a bunch and best to you! Live, laugh, love large.
Great Post Tim,
I have started reading all the comments now, at first I was a bit overwhelmed but a lot of the readers have some powerful insight and it’s great to learn from everyone.
Pura Vida Siempre!!!!!!!
Cool post tim thank you.
I write from month 3 of a 3 month “mini-retirement” (Europe 4 weeks, USA 6 weeks, UK 2 weeks) inspired by you and shared with my amazing Wife and 20 month old daughter! A life lived at last.
It’s like you’ve been reading my emails and reviewing my calendar.
Thanks for the whack.
Joy for the journey,
Dude, perfect timing
I read almost the entire post, it hit me right between the eyes!!! In a good way, Im making it my mission to stop the time wasters. I enjoyed this reading very much, Keep the insights coming (as long as it doesnt become a time waster)
Thanks so much for revealing this impactful information.
Great Post Tim!! I recently read Mr Paush’s Last lecture and it was a life altering experience. His optimistic view in such times of crisis and ability to enhance not only himself but those around him made me reconsider conflicts occurring in my life and those close to me. It also made me reconsider what dreams I have had in that have been put aside or forgotten about–> still a work in process. What makes this book special for me is how I came to read it. It was recommended by one of my Professor’s, Bob Goode, Professor Emeritus from the University of Toronto. However, a few months after the conclusion of the course Professor Goode passed away, a great educator who like Randy was a great motivator. This brought back into focus the fragility of life and how lucky we all are.
This reading by Seneca is nice reminder about how we must reconsider how we spend our time or as he stated:
“Life will follow the path it started upon, and will neither reverse nor check its course; it will make no noise, it will not remind you of its swiftness. Silent it will glide on; it will not prolong itself… And what will be the result? by; meanwhile death will be at hand, for which, willy nilly, you must find leisure.
I am in the process of reading your book (4 hour work week) and enjoying it profusely. It seems like a lot of people, especially in North America, have forgotten the proper balance between work and leisure. Hopefully more people will read your book and reeducate themselves. Keep up the great posts
Tim, thank you, thank you, thank you. I have read your stuff since someone first pimped it out awhile ago and I haven’t been disappointed since. I needed to read this today.
Speaking of the shortness of life, here’s an activity that made it onto my “before I die” list within less than 3 seconds:
Skiing, but with flying abilities you can (usually) only enjoy in your dreams…
It’s not every day that you see such elevating content on the web. It was an excellent reminder to go out and do things that matter to me, like climbing mountains and cuddling babies. Oh, and helping people, too… I stopped “working” years ago – I still get paid, but I love what I do, so it’s not work.
Logically, I skipped most of the text, since surfing the internet or watching today’s television programs falls squarely into the “wasted” category.
Internet addicts, please visit the website 🙂
very good, but I don’t like the black background, hard to read
“Every man dies – Not every man really lives.”
William Ross Wallace
Thank you Tim for this wonderful post.
Reading this blog is such an amazing coincidence as I have been thinking about death and the meaning of life this morning, not in a morbid way but rather after hearing someone using a common euphemism when talking about someone’s death: ” He passed away”.
There seems to be this taboo when talking of death, death is the one thing we can all be certain of, rich or poor, skinny or fat, black or white we all will die.
I want to live in gratefulness with a song in my heart and a spring in my step and when it is my time to push up the daisies I will do so with gladness.
Thank you also for your book, it has started me on this blogging adventure.
God and I in space alone . . .
and nobody else in view . . .
“And where are all the people,
Oh Lord” I said,
“the earth below
and the sky overhead
and the dead that I once knew?”
“That was a dream,” God smiled
and said: “The dream that seemed to
be true; there were no people
living or dead; there was no earth,
and no sky overhead,
there was only myself in you.”
“Why do I feel no fear?” I asked,
“Meeting you here in this way?
For I have sinned, I know full well
and is there heaven and is there hell,
and is this Judgment Day?”
“Nay, those were but dreams”
the Great God said, “dreams that have ceased to
There are no such things as fear and sin;
there is no you . . . you never have been.
There is nothing at all but me.”
Ella Wheeler Wilcox [American poet and writer 1850-1919]
I printed this out when I got the blog post in my inbox, and just now finally sat down and read it all. Loved it – few people realize that we have so many different means by which we might waste our lives. The pursuit of fame and wealth, as Seneca discusses, are two of the ways in which we might most mistakenly (and disappointingly) waste our time in this life. I constantly have to battle this temptation – I’m working increasingly with the media as an expert, have just written a book, and am now speaking on the international circuit. All this is the “dream” for many, but can come with a great price if not pursued (and monitored) thoughtfully.
Ironically, I first got “noticed” because of a very original, and very fulfilling life that I had created for myself (for four years, I commuted between my work as a doctor in Canada and my “ideal” life performing in my own flamenco dance company that I formed in Los Cabos, Mexico).
So many opportunities are coming now, one after the other, that my “ideal” life has now morphed into an extremely busy one that I’m having to re-evaluate and watch carefully, to make sure I don’t accidentally slip back into the rat race that I worked so hard to escape.
As Seneca points out, if you’re trapped by your schedule and all the attention (no matter how positive), it just isn’t worth it. It’s such a fine balance. Thank you for all you do, Tim!
Susan Biali, MD (Doctor,Author,Speaker and Professional Flamenco Dancer)