Seneca’s Lesson of Living Fully

It’s a pearl of wisdom as ignored as it is ubiquitous: seize the day. Alabama sang about it in the early nineties, and more recently, Tim McGraw extolled all of us to live like we are dying. But it is to the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca that we all owe the credit for this profound lesson.

In his most famous work, On the Shortness of TimeSeneca urged us to live fully because time is our most valuable resource. He reasoned that the biggest stumbling block to living fully is a pre-occupation with the future.  As Seneca observed:

No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favor. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.

He poignantly criticized: “You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.” He concluded:

Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who … organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day… Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied food which he does not want but can hold. So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbor, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.

Part of what Seneca aptly captures is the line we toe between ambition and preoccupation. We must toe it carefully, because to step over is to preoccupy through life rather than fully living. After all, as John Lennon once said: “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

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