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012 - On Aging - Moral Letters for Modern Times

There is no greater pleasure than being able to look back on a life of proper thoughts and actions.
River with boat and buildings reflected in calm water - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

Everywhere I look I see signs of my own obsolescence. I cleaned out my office this week and was struck dumb by the extent to which tools I once cherished have been left to gather dust. My HP LaserJet printer that faithfully produced thousands of pages lies beached in a corner, its power cord and printer cable laying akimbo to snare the unwary. Now my pages pass through the air wirelessly to a monster shared printer of such complexity that the architects of the moon launch must look on in wonder.

I have uncovered not less than three once miraculous devices for storing and playing my music, each compacter than the last and concentrating more goodness into more tininess: from my first pink iPod mini, to an iPod shuffle, to the iPod Nano. Am I surprised that the next stage in development has been to shrink the iPod into invisibility, which is to say it too has become obsolete? The airwaves now carry what needed a battery, a white wire, and two ear buds to convey.

And I fairly weep to consider the fate of my most cherished guides to wisdom and universal truths: books and printed matter. Where once I was surrounded by reassuringly weighty volumes and binders of yellowing paper, I now see a welter of cables powering a veritable graveyard of successive e-readers. I can mark their progress by a similar shrinking in size, though I stopped counting the generations at ten. At this rate, the population explosion we need fear is not humankind’s, but that of chips and lithium ion batteries.

Kindle is a word that all fellow seekers of knowledge should cherish, but I admit it arouses in me now only a sense of loss. For what we have surely gained in convenience and access we have traded for competence. The dog-eared volume, cracked spine, and underlined passages that were once the mark of the serious scholar have all given way to impermanent effervescence. What good does it do to dip into all the libraries of the world if we do no more than browse idly for minutes before crashing on to the next electronic distraction?

I could go on chronicling the electronic wreckage, from laptops and mobile phones to rows of castaway monitors staring back at me with blank screens, but it is enough to say I am reminded that each day I am one day closer to death. In my own case, I am not melancholy, for a purposeful life is not wasted, no matter how brief it may be.

There is no greater pleasure than being able to look back on a life of proper thoughts and actions. When you are young, everything lies before you, and you are overwhelmed by potential. What great things you are capable of, there are no limits on what you can do! How comforting to be at the pinnacle looking back on what you have accomplished, though your journey is soon done, than to have the climb ahead of you.

And how wonderful to finally put an end to appetite and ambition. No more will you be goaded onwards and upwards, a donkey laboring under the stick; you now enjoy the well-deserved rest of the already done. “Wait,” you cry, “doesn’t this mean you are starting to hear the stealthy footsteps that harbinger your own death?” Death does not take us in order of our age, but plucks from across our ranks. We are each of us replaced by the next generation and not only should we not resist, but rejoice. I am as happy for another day as any, but I do not need it to feel fulfilled.

I bring this letter to a close. “You do not mean,” you say “to leave me hanging without a nugget of wisdom?” Have no fear, Deuteros, I bring a small offering, which packs a punch above its weight. For what is more weighty than the following words that this letter convey:

The man who does something under orders is not unhappy; he is unhappy who does something against his will. Let us therefore set our minds in order that we may desire whatever is demanded of us by circumstances.

Indeed. There is no binding that can hold a person who is free in his mind. “These are Seneca’s words,” you note, “and how is it that you put them to use for your own purposes here?”

I will quote Seneca and any other without end to remind us the truth belongs to us all, and not to the one who utters it. The best ideas cannot be owned by one, only discovered and rediscovered by us all.

Be well.

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