Monthly Archives: March 2015

On the Shortness of Life – Part III – Desire and life goals

by Jessica Dang rss | t f | g+

This is the third part of a five part series on Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life. Read Part I – FinitenessPart II – Protecting time and living in the present.

 

3. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire

What do we want in life? How do we balance what we want to have and what we want to do in life? Are desires and goals the same thing, or are they opposite from each other?

My attempt to answer these questions could last a lifetime. There are plenty of things that I want to have, and many more things that I want to do. Thinking deeply about them is a good start.

“So it is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return.”

It takes a lot of physical, emotional and spiritual effort to get what we want. We daydream about buying the hottest new thing, and if we’re lucky, and work hard enough, we can afford to buy it. But by the time we get around to it, we’ve already moved on to desiring the next biggest thing, and the enjoyment that we were supposed to get from getting the things we want never lives up to the fantasy.

That’s why I have committed to a minimalist lifestyle (as much as I can). The list of things I want to own is a little different from most people. I don’t want a huge house, brand name clothes or an expensive car (I don’t even like to drive). So I don’t work to earn money for these things.

Yes, I want to live a fairly comfortable lifestyle, but I would feel guilty about indulging in too many luxuries. It feels wasteful and selfish to me. I decided a long time ago that I want to spend my life on things that are important to me, not what my culture, society, or neighbours think is important.

You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire

There are things that almost everyone is scared of – disease, old age, and death to name a few. We are human after all, it’s perfectly normal to not want to think about suffering, to block out a future of which we cannot change, and to fear the unknown.

But in our desires, we act like everything can last forever. If all of us wanted the biggest, latest, fastest stuff, we would end up destroying our environment (more quickly than we are now) and the cruel irony is that everyone will wind up with nothing.

Just because someone has a lot of things, it doesn’t mean that they’ve lived. Indeed, if the cost of obtaining a huge house, lots of money and a fancy sports car was one’s health, relationships and spiritual fulfilment, you could argue that they haven’t really lived at all.

So when it comes to things I want to have, it isn’t too difficult to see the easiest way to be happy is to not desire too much, or at least, desire things we can’t have.

But, when it comes to things I want to do, that’s a whole different story. There is just so much that I want to do in one lifetime I can hardly see myself being able to accomplish it all. And what if I don’t? Will I be unhappy about it? Will I regret it?

“So you must not think that a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbour, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not  have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.”

You can even travel the world, but unless you’ve learned things about people, about other cultures, lessons that made you a better person, more understanding and open, then you may as well have stayed at home.

In the same way, you can achieve a lot of things in life – it seems almost anyone can earn a million dollars these days – but if they don’t have any meaning, if they don’t make us, or anyone else happy, then what’s the point? If you’re going to spend your precious time on doing stuff, well then it better be bloody worth it.

So what have we learned? Wanting too much leads to unhappiness because we can’t have everything. Trying to do too much can also lead to unhappiness because there isn’t enough time to do everything we want to.

But there is a way. If we pick and choose our desires and goals carefully, then surely happiness can be found where they align the most. Can it not?

Comment/Share – Minimal Student 
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On the Shortness of Life – Part II – Protecting time and living in the present

-by Jessica Dang rss | t f | g+

This Part II of a five part series about the stoic philosopher Seneca’s work, On the Shortness of Life, read Part I – Finiteness.

2. the whole future lies in uncertainty live immediately

Of all the things we have, time is arguably the most precious.

There is nothing else in which we are only given a set amount of it. However much we have, we  would never know until the end, and no matter what we do or who we are, we can never earn, gain or buy a single second more of it.

And yet, within this mysterious amount of time that we given, we’re supposed to achieve so much. Or, at least, so we want to. Which is understandable – what kind of life would we have if we didn’t aspire to travel the world, write a novel, fall in love, raise a family, do fulfilling work, learn a language, run, dance, sing, paint, or do any one of the amazing opportunities life has to offer us?

But how much of your time is really yours? How much of it is spent doing the things that you want, that mean a lot to you, as opposed to what other people want you to do, or worse still, what you think others expect of you?

In other words, are you spending enough time pleasing yourself, instead of others? For me, I know I have a lot to work on here. Seneca points out what we all ought to know:

“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which is right to be stingy.”

Of all the things we are possessive about – money, land, partners, status, possessions… the one thing we hardly think twice about – time – is what we should be most protective of.

We let others encroach on our schedules, making us do things that we don’t want to do, or making us feel ‘obliged’ to do it, as if we don’t have a choice.

“Call to mind when you ever had a fixed purpose; how few days have passed as you had planned; when you were ever at your own disposal; when your face wore a natural expression; when your mind was undisturbed.”

I admit I haven’t had many days like this, but they sound ideal to me. There are a lot of tough questions being asked here, and it’s easy to consider them and then not do anything about it. Most people might think it’s fine to spend time winding down watching three hours of TV after a long day of work, but if that means that we don’t have time to do the things we really care about, then maybe it’s the amount of time we spend at work we need to fix.

I’m certainly not perfect, so I don’t have all of the answers. I still can’t believe it’s my birthday in just two weeks – where did the time go? It feels like I’ve let an entire year slip by me. How many do I have left? No idea. How much time in the last year did I spend doing the kind of things I wanted to do? Not enough.

If there’s one resolution I want to make for the rest of this year, or for the rest of my life for that matter, it would be to better protect my time.

the whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately

So let’s say we learn to guard our time better – now what? This isn’t just about other people. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy. Yes, we should spend time on ourselves, but how much of the time we’re lucky to have for ourselves (or for the people and things we love) is wasted?

How much of it was spent procrastinating, putting off things that would have otherwise been fulfilling, for the sake of ‘relaxing’ or just out of pure laziness? Seneca said,

“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future”

Procrastination isn’t just de-prioritising the task you have in mind, it’s de-prioritising your whole life.

On top of that, we humans tend to spend a lot of time thinking about the past and the future. It’s natural for us to go over our regrets, or worry about things to come. But each minute wasted thinking about the things you have or haven’t done, or things that may or may not happen yet, is a minute squandered.

“Life is divided into three periods, past present and future. Of these, the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain. [..] In the present we have only one day at a time, each offering a minute at a time.”

Life is too short to mourn over things that cannot be changed. As long as you did your best at the time, then you can’t have any regrets about it. And every minute spent worrying about the future, which by nature is unpredictable, is just using up what precious time and energy you have left to actually do something about it.

Whenever I’m in danger of worrying too much, I repeat to myself, Time is the most valuable thing I have – live in the present moment and savour every moment of it.” In good times or bad, it’s a reminder of how lucky I am to be alive.

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