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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

Be Still, Life: A Songlike Illustrated Invitation to Living with Presence

“Be still, life, be still at the break of dawn, and you’ll feel the sun’s light when you hear the morning’s song.”

Be Still, Life: A Songlike Illustrated Invitation to Living with Presence

“Life goes headlong,” Emerson lamented in contemplating how to live with presence in a culture of busyness, offering the antidote to our civilizational haste: “Now pause, now possession is required, and the power to swell the moment from the resources of our own heart until it supersedes sun & moon & solar system in its expanding immensity.” Half a century later, writing about the most important habit for living with presence, Hermann Hesse cautioned: “The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.” Another century later, in the midst of an ever-accelerating cultural trance of busyness, Annie Dillard distilled the heart of the paradox in her sublime insistence on choosing presence over productivity: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

An uncommonly tenderhearted, wide-eyed invitation to fill our days with lively presence comes in Be Still, Life (public library) — a splendid illustrated poem of a picture-book by Ohara Hale, whose work I have long cherished and who has the loveliest back-flap author bio I have ever encountered:

Ohara Hale is a self-taught artist who works with many different forms and materials. She sings, writes, draws, and performs sounds, words, colors, and movements that are questions and ideas about love, life, nature, and all the unseen, unknown, and dreamed in between. Hale lives on planet Earth with her rescue dog, Banana.

From the slumbering snail to the purposeful gentleness of the honeybees at work to the dance of the leaves in the whispering breeze, Hale beckons eye, heart, and mind to drink in the glorious aliveness of the world with a generous curiosity, evocative of Simone Weil’s assertion that “attention is the rarest and purest kind of generosity.” What emerges is a mirthful modern-day counterpart to Thoreau’s celebration of nature as a form of prayer. Playful levity and vibrancy carry the deeper soulfulness of the message, which unfolds with a songlike quality — a sort of hymn in word and image. (Perhaps it cannot be otherwise, for Hale is also a gifted musician, and we bring everything we are, our whole selves and all of our multitudes, to any one thing we do.)

The ending calls to mind Denise Levertov’s wonderful poem about our odd tendency to see the rest of nature as a separate world parallel to our own. “You are also a part of the wonderfulness of life,” Hale exults on the final page, inviting the reader — who can be any one of us, child or adult, nursed on a chronic civilizational delusion — to unlearn the artificial severance from the natural world that modern life has inflicted upon us and relearn the creaturely presence with life that radiates from our most elemental humanity.

Be Still, Life comes from the largehearted and singularly imaginative Enchanted Lion Books, publisher of such uncommon treasures as Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, The Lion and the Bird, This Is a Poem That Heals Fish, and Bertolt. Complement it with Sidewalk Flowers — another illustrated invitation to living with wakefulness to the world — and Margaret Wise Brown’s little-known, kindred-spirited Quiet Noisy Book, then revisit Alan Watts on how to live with presence and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on learning to see the wonder in our everyday reality.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books © Ohara Hale; photographs by Maria Popova

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