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Marcus Aurelius on Embracing Mortality and the Key to Living with Presence

“The longest-lived and those who will die soonest lose the same thing. The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.”

“When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive,” the great Lebanese poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan wrote in her beautiful meditation on time, self, impermanence, and transcendence. It is a sentiment of tremendous truth and simplicity, yet tremendously difficult for the mind to metabolize — we remain material creatures, spiritually sundered by the fact of our borrowed atoms, which we will each return to the universe, to the stardust that made us, despite our best earthly efforts. Physicist Alan Lightman contemplated this paradox in his lyrical essay on our longing for permanence in a universe of constant change: “It is one of the profound contradictions of human existence that we long for immortality, indeed fervently believe that something must be unchanging and permanent, when all of the evidence in nature argues against us.”

Two millennia earlier, before the very notion of a universe even existed, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180) provided uncommonly lucid consolation for this most disquieting paradox of existence in his Meditations (public library | free ebook) — the timeless trove of ancient wisdom that gave us his advice on how to motivate yourself to get out of bed each morning, the mental trick for maintaining sanity, and the key to living fully.

Eons before the modern invention of self-help, the Stoics equipped the human animal with a foundational toolkit for self-refinement, articulating their recipes for mental discipline with uncottoned candor that often borders on brutality — an instructional style they share with the Zen masters, whose teachings are often given in a stern tone that seems berating and downright angry but is animated by absolute well-wishing for the spiritual growth of the pupil.

It is with this mindset that Marcus Aurelius takes up the question of how to embrace our mortality and live with life-expanding presence in Book II of his Meditations, translated here by Gregory Hays:

The speed with which all of them vanish — the objects in the world, and the memory of them in time. And the real nature of the things our senses experience, especially those that entice us with pleasure or frighten us with pain or are loudly trumpeted by pride. To understand those things — how stupid, contemptible, grimy, decaying, and dead they are — that’s what our intellectual powers are for. And to understand what those people really amount to, whose opinions and voices constitute fame. And what dying is — and that if you look at it in the abstract and break down your imaginary ideas of it by logical analysis, you realize that it’s nothing but a process of nature, which only children can be afraid of. (And not only a process of nature but a necessary one.)

Art from Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch, an uncommonly tender illustrated meditation on life and death.

In a sentiment Montaigne would echo sixteen centuries later in his assertion that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” Marcus Aurelius rebukes our pathological dread of death by demonstrating how it ejects us from the only arena on which life plays out — the present. Long before Rilke made the countercultural, almost counterbiological observation that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” he adds:

Even if you’re going to live three thousand more years, or ten times that, remember: you cannot lose another life than the one you’re living now, or live another one than the one you’re losing. The longest amounts to the same as the shortest. The present is the same for everyone; its loss is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?

Remember two things:

1) that everything has always been the same, and keeps recurring, and it makes no difference whether you see the same things recur in a hundred years or two hundred, or in an infinite period;

2) that the longest-lived and those who will die soonest lose the same thing. The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.

Art by Sydney Smith from Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson — a lyrical illustrated invitation to living with presence.

He concludes by summarizing the basic facts of human life — a catalogue of uncertainties, crowned by the sole certainty of death — and points to philosophy, or the love of wisdom and mindful living, as the only real anchor for our existential precariousness:

Human life.

Duration: momentary. Nature: changeable. Perception: dim. Condition of Body: decaying. Soul: spinning around. Fortune: unpredictable. Lasting Fame: uncertain. Sum Up: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion.

Then what can guide us?

Only philosophy.

Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain, doing nothing randomly or dishonestly and with imposture, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it. And making sure that it accepts what happens and what it is dealt as coming from the same place it came from. And above all, that it accepts death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed. If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another, why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.

Complement this portion of the altogether indispensable Meditations with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on what Freud and Darwin taught us about how to live with death, neurologist Oliver Sacks on gratitude, the measure of living, and the dignity of dying, and philosopher, comedian, and my beloved friend Emily Levine on how to live with exultant presence while dying, then revisit two other great Stoics philosophers’ strategies for peace of mind: Seneca on the antidote to anxiety and Epictetus on love, loss, and surviving heartbreak.

BP

A Stoic’s Key to Living with Presence: Seneca on Balancing the Existential Calculus of Time Spent, Saved, and Wasted

“Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing… is ours, except time.”

A Stoic’s Key to Living with Presence: Seneca on Balancing the Existential Calculus of Time Spent, Saved, and Wasted

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her abiding insistence on choosing presence over productivity. But how do we really spend our days? In our era, the average human lifetime will contain two years of boredom, six months of watching commercials, 67 days of heartbreak, and 14 minutes of pure joy.

This devastating arithmetic of time wasted versus time meaningfully spent may seem like a modern problem, but while the nature of our cultural technologies has undeniably exacerbated the ratio, the equation itself stretches all the way to antiquity, with only the variables altered. (Lest we forget, books were derided as a dangerous distraction in 12th-century Japan.)

That equation, and how to balance it more favorably toward a life of substance and presence rather than one of waste and want, is what the great first-century Roman philosopher Seneca examined at the end of his life in Letters from a Stoic (public library) — a collection of 124 letters he composed to his friend Lucilius, which also gave us Seneca on true and false friendship, overcoming fear, and the antidote to anxiety.

seneca
Seneca

Fittingly, the first letter addresses the most urgent subject haunting human life: time, and more particularly, the existential calculus of how we spend or waste the sliver of time allotted us along the continuum of being. Fifteen years after he composed his timeless treatise on filling the shortness of life with wide living, Seneca, now in his final years, counsels his friend:

Set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands… Certain moments are torn from us… some are gently removed… others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness.

The most perilous carelessness, Seneca argues eighteen centuries before Kierkegaard bemoaned the absurdity of busyness and Walt Whitman contemplated what makes life worth living, is that of sliding through life in a trance of expectancy, always vacating the present moment in order to lurch toward the next — a kind of living death. He writes:

What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death’s hands.

Therefore… hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing… is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity, — time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.

Art by Ohara Hale from Be Still, Life

Reflecting on how he himself practices what he is preaching, Seneca writes with Stoic self-awareness:

I confess frankly: my expense account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man… I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and you cannot begin too early. For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Complement this particular fragment of the timelessly rewarding Letters from a Stoic with Ursula K. Le Guin’s gorgeous ode to time, Bertrand Russell on the relationship between leisure and social justice, Margaret Mead on leisure and creativity, and Emerson on how to live with presence in a culture of busyness, then revisit Seneca on what it means to be a generous human being and his Stoic key to peace of mind.

BP

Jacqueline Woodson’s Lovely Letter to Children About Kindness, Presence, and How Books Transform Us

“Why are you kissing me in the middle of the sentence?!”

Jacqueline Woodson’s Lovely Letter to Children About Kindness, Presence, and How Books Transform Us

“It is we who are passing when we say time passes,” the Nobel-winning French philosopher Henri Bergson insisted just before Einstein defeated him in the historic debate that revolutionized our understanding of time. “If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” his compatriot Gaston Bachelard wrote a decade later in contemplating our paradoxical temporal experience. Still, our most intimate relationship with time unfolds not in physics or philosophy but in storytelling — a miraculous technology of thought and feeling that allows us to both contain time and travel through it, to saturate the moment with absolute presence and to leap from it into other eras, places, and experiences.

That is what National Book Award laureate Jacqueline Woodson, one of our era’s most beloved writers of literature for young people, explores in her beautiful contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a labor of love eight years in the making, comprising 121 illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us from some of the most inspiring humans in our world: artists, writers, scientists, musicians, entrepreneurs, and philosophers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Lara Hawthorne for a letter by Jacqueline Woodson from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Woodson writes:

Dear Young Reader,

In my memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, I write about “this perfect moment, called Now.” I am thinking about this as I lie beside my seven-year-old son, reading to him from a book I at first disliked but have grown to appreciate over the evenings of reading. Two floors up, my thirteen-year-old daughter is supposed to be doing homework but may be checking her Instagram or texting a friend or hopefully snuggled beneath her covers with her own book (The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie — “Oh my God, Momm — I love this book SO MUCH!”).

It feels like such a short time ago it was her in the crook of my arm, wide-eyed and listening. I impulsively kiss the top of my son’s mohawked head (he wants us to let him dye it green — maybe we will — after all, you’re only seven once) and he looks up at me, brow furrowed.

“Why are you kissing me in the middle of the sentence?!”

“Because this moment won’t always be here,” I say.

“Mommy — just read… please.”

As the child of a single working mom, I didn’t have this moment. There were four of us and at the end of a long workday, my mother was exhausted. Sometimes, my older sister read out loud to all of us and those are some of my deepest memories. Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, The House On Pooh Corner, Harriet the Spy. While I never read any of those books to my own children — preferring to read from books where their young brown selves were/are represented on the page — my sister’s stories in my ear put me on a journey toward my own stories. I wanted to see myself in books, wanted to know that I existed… fully… out in the world.

The book I am reading to my son is about a troll who is despised in his small town, loves a girl who may or may not love him back. We’ve just found out the girl is the daughter of Little Red Riding Hood and now the story has my attention — a twist I didn’t see coming.

“I don’t know why the king is so mean,” my son says. “That’s not kindness, right Mommy?”

I refrain from kissing the top of his head again and try not to think that this moment of my youngest child beside me, the two of us inside one story, won’t always be here. This now is what matters, young reader. The moment we’re all living in is what counts — how will this moment, and the stories we’re living inside of change us… forever? The smell of my son’s hair, his laughter, his whispered “Oh man!” and now, him saying softly “That’s not kindness, right Mommy?” This is what reading does. This is what matters most. I smile and turn the page.

Sincerely,

Jacqueline Woodson

Complement with other wonderful letters from A Velocity of Being by Jane Goodall, Rebecca Solnit, Alain de Botton, and a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor.

BP

Tiny, Perfect Things: A Lyrical Illustrated Invitation to Presence

A serenade to the small wonders that fill life with aliveness.

Tiny, Perfect Things: A Lyrical Illustrated Invitation to Presence

“My experience is what I agree to attend to,” pioneering psychologist William James declaimed in the final years of the nineteenth century as he considered how attention shapes human life. At the dawn of the following century, Hermann Hesse offered in his increasingly timely manifesto for savoring life’s little joys as the portal to living with presence: “My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys.” His was a world without radio, television, or the Internet, predating the golden age of consumerism — a time we can now barely conceive of, before busyness and distraction became the governing law of every waking hour. And yet, even from his inconceivable vantage point, Hesse could foresee the direction in which humanity was headed — toward habitual flight from presence and accelerating grandomania.

A century on, poet M.H. Clark and artist Madeline Kloepper offer a mighty antidote to our inattentive apathy in Tiny, Perfect Things (public library) — a lyrical invitation to apprehend the small wonders that strew the everyday: the yellow leaf blown to the ground, the smiling face of a neighbor, the spider laboring at her web, the red feather in a passerby’s hat, the snail triumphant atop the fence, the pale, luminous moon against the nocturne.

Radiating from a young girl’s vibrantly illustrated neighborhood walk with her grandfather is a lovely embodiment of Henry Beston’s insistence that “in the emotional world a small thing can touch the heart and the imagination every bit as much as something impressively gigantic.”

Complement Tiny, Perfect Things with Be Still, Life — a songlike illustrated invitation to living with presence — and Sidewalk Flowers, then revisit Annie Dillard on choosing presence over productivity and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on learning to see the wonder in our everyday reality.

BP

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