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054 - On Existence And Its Opposite - Moral Letters for Modern Times

There is not one of us who could not be carried off today. What does it say if you cannot say you are living today, but only preparing for a tomorrow that may never come?
Path winding through small huts - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

Are you happier knowing the instrument of your end, or remaining ignorant of it? Though we are in the peak of health, and can complain of no ailment, still we carry the seeds of our end with us at all times. Accidents carry some away in their prime, and the one consolation is that the end comes quickly. Cancer can strike at any age, and its cruelty is a lingering finish. Imagine the feeling that not just a general end at a future time but a specific doom hangs over you.

For some, getting notice of a terminal illness is a death sentence to their happiness. “All that I could have done, would have done, want to do!” What pity that they ruin the remaining life they have because they do not have longer to live. For consider, there is not one of us who could not be carried off today. What does it say if you cannot say you are living today, but only preparing for a tomorrow that may never come? What does it say if you cannot be happy today unless you think you will be around to be happy tomorrow?

I say it is a blessing to be confronted with our mortality, Deuteros, and that it should not only not make us morbid, but rather joyful for what we have. Knowing that your time is limited, do you not value it more highly than if your days were to run into each other to eternity? If you find your perspective still lacking, consider the relative flicker that is human existence compared to the broad sweep of time.

Whether you live a year, a decade, or a century, you are but a pinprick on the long ribbon of unfurling time. You missed all that came before you came into existence, but did you suffer any pangs or pains for your loss? You did not, because you were not. Will you suffer after you are gone? I believe not, because you will not be. You will recognize me as carving onto the page here the Epicurean epitaph:

Non fui, fui, non-sum, non-curo
(I was not, I was, I am not, I do not care).

Our existence is but the briefest moment, my dear Deuteros. See to it that you do not merely exist. Order your mind so that it neither dwells too long in the past, nor resides chiefly in the future. Stretch too far in either direction, and you will anyway be among the non-existent. The ordered mind comes about from choosing your state of mind. You cannot be compelled to do anything that you do willingly.

So whatever your circumstance is at the moment, make a game of turning an unexpected turn to your favor. What seems to be your worst luck can also be your best luck, if you simply turn the frame of reference in the right direction. Your train is late? You have more time to listen to the birds and feel the sunshine on your face. Oh no, it’s started raining! You now have an unscheduled demonstration of your hardiness to inconveniences. Your flight is cancelled? You have just won an unplanned holiday and a chance to experience a new city first-hand.

“These are but trivialities,” you say. “Do you really expect me to be happy in the face of serious misfortune?” I do expect it, for your own sake I do, and I urge you to think on it now. Your job is eliminated? This gives you the opportunity to get away from annoying colleagues and start that side business you’ve been dreaming of. Your doctor returns holding your x-rays and says “We have to talk” in a grim intonation? You will soon have the uncertainty of your end cleared up, and all the burdens and struggles and pains and worries will be eased from your shoulders. Others will carry on and carry the load for you.

There is a distinction I would have you learn. To accept your end cheerfully does not mean you seek to hasten its arrival. Would you consider a man wise who, upon spying a $100 bill at his feet, walks on by, saying “I do not need it.” Only the foolish spurn what is on offer, just as the wise eagerly receive that which others would push away. The distinction is that you learn not to want what you cannot have, and to appreciate and value what you do have. Just because you do not need good health, wealth, and a long life to be happy, you do not give them up to demonstrate your independence from them.

I must end now, and take my leave. Before I go, I leave you with this summary: to know your specific end is to know that we all must end, but no one said we need to end in tears.

Be well.

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