4 min read

078 - On Our Duty To Live - Moral Letters for Modern Times

While we have breath in the body, we must not give up. Not because we fear death, nothing so mundane. But because we can do good in the world by living; we can make the world a better place by our presence.
Courtyard of a large castle with circular driveway - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

You have tested positive for COVID, Deuteros, and surely this is unwelcome news! Although be thankful that you have experienced thus far no more than headache and a fever that abated after 24 hours. It is true that many have contracted the virus without even knowing it, and only discover later that they have the antibodies coursing through their veins. But others are laid low out of proportion to any pre-condition or co-morbidity, and of these some have perished. We have lost family, friends, and strangers to this discriminating killer. We think we are gaining the upper hand with our vaccines, but the mystery of why some are so afflicted while others remain unaffected is unsolved.

We who remain among the living are left to ponder the mystery of life as much as that of death. The latter is inevitable, it is just a question of time, what will carry you off and not whether. A good life, on the other hand, is something that some never attain no matter how long they live. It is not the affliction of disease that necessarily prevents one from living a meaningful life according to reason. More often it is afflictions of the mind that leave the untrained stricken. And yet it is the mind that has the power to diminish, if not to fully heal, many an illness of body and soul.

The mind can transport us to worlds far removed from our present discomfort and pain. A moving song arouses a deep stirring within our breast, a captivating movie can make us forget our common cares for a few hours. For me, it is the written word that most easily and most completely steals me away. I forget to eat, the hours slip by like minutes, I become a master builder of cathedrals in the sky. These castles are airy, but still they have substance in my mind, and I am as convinced by the solidity of their walls as if I were rapping the cold stone against my knuckles. In these states, corporeal concerns lose essence and dissipate.

My hangover upon returning to reality is to realize I am human, ridiculous in my wants and desires, fragile and easy to damage. The gradual replication errors in my personal computer code compound and cumulate until I am but a single free radical away from cancer finding its origin in a once healthy cell. Despite our fragility, in fact I would say because of it, we have a duty to persevere. For if we are vulnerable despite all the armor we have learned to take up and deploy in response to countless challenges, how much do our fellow travelers suffer, who are less protected and do not even know why they suffer?

Confucius tells us that a child who honors their parents will demonstrate filial piety. Specifically, he says:

There is filial piety when parents are spared all anxiety about their children except when they happen to fall sick.

Do we think it is only us who suffers when we are ill and take no cure? Our family, our friends, and most of all our parents, are each given to suffer when we stumble about blindly in pain, in addiction, and in misery.

So to start we shall be dutiful children to our parents and honor their sacrifices in bringing us into the world and teaching us to the best of their ability. We shall do this by not giving them cause to be anxious about our condition. If we are unhealthy, we shall accept the help that is offered, we shall seek out the cures that are available, and we shall above all help ourselves. Every person has in them the ability to aid or hinder their cure. “What patient does not willingly, gladly, take the medicine that would heal them?” you ask. An astonishingly large number of the unwell, Deuteros, reject advice, defy treatment, and punish themselves with further decay. For the sake of our parents, we must be model patients. For encouragement, call to mind the words of the Buddha, who tells us:

You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.

This is just the start. For what kind of friend are we if we incapacitate ourselves of the ability to be of support to them? For surely they suffer just as we do. If we are of sound mind and healthy body, we can assist them in their difficult times. Not because that means they are in a position to help us when we need the helping hand, but simply because that is what it means to be a friend: to give freely and willingly what you are able, when you are able.

And if we must heal ourselves to help our friends, those few carefully cultivated from among thousands, how much more potential good can we do if we make ourselves available to the many? They are none of them asking for our help, true. They do not even know we exist. But we know that they exist, and we know that they suffer, as surely as our friends and family do. Are they not our sisters and brothers in humanity? What does it say if I let this brother fall by the trail and leave that sister hungry and thirsty, because I have turned away and not spent the time to know them? If we but spoke a few sentences, we would know the truth of our shared burdens and our shared humanity.

The well-ordered mind following reason is content in itself, but this does not mean that it is cut off from the rest of humankind or that it seeks isolation. The guru who secretes themselves away in a cave may be sufficient to themselves, but they are insufficient to any purpose other than serving as an example. To some, they are an example of how to attain lasting peace. If that peace comes at the cost of sharing the burdens of humanity, I say they are rather an example of how to make selfishness a virtue. Everyone can help someone, but to help only yourself is to help no one.

Thus, we have a duty to live, Deuteros, to will ourselves well when we are ill. While we have breath in the body, we must not give up. Not because we fear death, nothing so mundane. But because we can do good in the world by living; we can make the world a better place by our presence. We do not diminish ourselves by giving of ourselves, we only increase the stock of goodness in the world. I end with the kind words of the Buddha once more today, for his wisdom still rings true:

Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.

Be well.

Next Letter →
Overview of All Letters ↑