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030 - On Reaping What Has Been Sown - Moral Letters for Modern Times

For all the time that we spend worrying about things that may never happen, how much do we contemplate the one thing we can be sure of?
Flower gardens along a river - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

We pack our elderly relatives off to old folks’ homes and we tell ourselves we do it so that they may be well taken care of in their dotage. Or that the burden is beyond our capabilities. Or often, with no sense of irony, that we have no time. I suppose this last is at least true, in the sense that not one of us possess the ability to dole out extra time to ourselves let alone another.

Our end is sealed from the beginning, Deuteros, for it is the fate of all humans to perish. Rather than face this fact head-on, some hide themselves from all hints of aging as if turning a blind eye to age can prevent it from creeping up on us unbidden. But death is stealthy and unstoppable, part sneak thief and part mighty army, carrying away both the careless and the well-protected with equal ease. Whether you cower down in terror, or stand tall in defiance, the reaper’s scythe cuts as cleanly.

The question is, then, not what future awaits us, but how we await it. For all the time that we spend worrying about things that may never happen, how much do we contemplate the one thing we can be sure of? It is one thing to dream about winning a lottery, and quite another to know with certainty that your number will be called.

Some of us fill our days with as many activities as possible, as if there was a prize for getting the most things done. The more we do, though, the more we feel like we are missing out on other things we could be doing. The American poet Stephen Dobyns put it hauntingly so:

Each thing I do, I rush through so I can do something else. In such a way do the days pass - a blend of stock car racing and the never ending building of a gothic cathedral. Through the windows of my speeding car I see all that I love falling away: books unread, jokes untold, landscapes unvisited...

But if simply doing is not the path to joy, what is?

To contemplate an unavoidable outcome and order your mind accordingly, you must not only not look away, but purposefully direct your gaze to the end. Rather than sending off your aged parents to lonely exile, you are better served by inviting them into your life and spending your best hours with them. The benefit this will bring to them is great, but it is secondary to the benefit that accrues to your account. Their wrinkled faces and spotted skin serve as a daily reminder of what fate holds in store for you, and that’s if you are lucky. And because no outside diversion can long distract you, you are regularly encouraged to prepare yourself for the fate that awaits you.

I give you this advice freely, Deuteros, and you need not subtract from my balance. Let me add to it with this contribution from Steve Jobs, whose words show he was a sincere student for the ultimate test:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.

Now pay heed to me a little further. Preparing for the inevitable does not mean that you seek to hasten its arrival. Though your reward is lasting peace, and freedom from all that pains you here on mortal earth, still you should not be overly hasty in concluding your journey. The point of the practice is not to desire your end, but to end your desire for life without end.

By rambling on so, I fear you will desire this letter to end before your life force is fully drained from you. Time is allotted to us in unequal measure, and we are unevenly prepared when our measure of time is up. Think on this so that you are ready for what comes whenever it comes.

Be well.

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