Life Isn't Short 🥀
4 lessons from ancient wisdom
Lucius Anneus Seneca led a tumultuous life in which he experienced much of both life’s greatest joys and its greatest tragedies.
He endured chronic illness from birth, got exiled from Rome at the height of his early career, endured the death of at least one child, and got sentenced to death three times.
However, in the time between his return from exile and his final death sentence, he also lived for many years in luxury as one of the richest men in Rome.
His great diversity of life experience inspired him to write many philosophical treatises, heartfelt letters, and profound plays in which he explored the nature of the universe and plunged the depths of the human mind.
On the Shortness of Life published in the Penguin Books Great Ideas Collection includes three letters from Seneca:
One titled “On the Shortness of Life” (confusing, I know) and addressed to his father-in-law Paulinus
One titled “Consolation to Helvia” and addressed to his mother Helvia
One titled “On Tranquility of Mind” and addressed to his friend Serenus
Read on for four powerful lessons I gleaned from these letters when I read them earlier this year.
Time Is Our Most Valuable Resource (Carpe Diem ⏳)
Seneca opens his letter to Paulinus with a sobering reminder of just how wasteful most of us are with our lives. And he’s right: even some of the most focused, ambitious people sacrifice years of their lives doing stuff they hate before they finally commit to creating themselves.
Consider some of the ways our life fades away like sand in an hourglass:
We work jobs we don’t enjoy to pay for shit we don’t want to impress people we don’t like.
We fill boxes of wood and concrete with junk, then we spend hours of our lives cleaning, sorting, and protecting our hoard.
We get overwhelmed with the busyness of life and check out with our dopamine dealer of choice: sugar, sex, substances, social media, television, etc.
We travel the world so we can “find ourselves,” but rarely make time to explore the depths of our own minds to reveal what’s hidden there.
Think about this: What would the world look like if everyone lived on purpose and died without regrets?
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death's final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Just as when ample and princely wealth falls to a bad owner it is squandered in a moment, but wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.” ― Seneca, On the Shortness of Life, p. 1.
Most Of Life Is Beyond Control (Amor Fati 🔮)
In this passage, Seneca continues his letter to Paulinus with a discussion about fate: specifically, the way in which many of us allow fear of the future to prevent us from making the most of the present.
Consider some of the ways we shortchange ourselves by avoiding risk in our lives:
We avoid pursuing our dreams, starting conversations with beautiful strangers, and sharing our most honest and vulnerable selves because we fear rejection.
We cast our minds into an uncertain future and descend into deep anxiety at all the ways life might go wrong instead of focusing on the joy of the present.
We strive to control the actions and perceptions of others, but we fail to control ourselves or to test our own perceptions for flaws in reasoning.
Think about this: How much happier could we be if we focused on what was in our control—our beliefs about things, and the actions we take in response to those beliefs—and discarded all care for the countless aspects of life that are beyond our control?
“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune's control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.” ― Seneca, On the Shortness of Life, p. 13.
We Should Not Fear Death, But Accept It (Memento Mori 💀)
In his letter to Serenus, Seneca reminds us not to fear death, but to accept it as an essential part of life. When we accept death without fear, we equip ourselves to make the most of life—while we can.
Here are some of the things we often miss out on when we avoid thinking about death:
We make irrational choices about how, and with whom, to spend our time, only to realize too late that we could lose our friends, or even our lives, at any moment
We act foolishly and harshly against those we love, taking for granted that we will have a chance in the future to make amends, when that is never guaranteed
We compromise our integrity in efforts to extend our lives or livelihood, perhaps gaining an extension of time, but losing ourselves in the process
“What is the harm in returning to the point whence you came? He will live badly who does not know how to die well.” ― Seneca, On the Shortness of Life, p. 93.
Happiness Comes From Within (Ataraxia )
In his consolation to his mother, Seneca writes from exile and poverty about how little we truly require to feel joy and experience peace in life. He reminds us that our needs are few, but our desires infinite, and that the truly wise can discern between what is necessary for a good life, and what is superfluous.
Consider some of the things we do in the pursuit of happiness, only to come up disappointed:
We binge on short-term pleasures like food, alcohol, drugs, sex, and entertainment, only to feel empty again within moments
We chase status, thinking that fame and renown will improve our lives, only to end up wishing for a life of peace and obscurity once we’re in the spotlight
We compare ourselves to others and focus on our perceived lack, we forget to give thanks for—and experience joy in—the abundance we already have
It was nature's intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life: every individual can make himself happy. External goods are of trivial importance and without much influence in either direction: prosperity does not elevate the sage and adversity does not depress him. For he has always made the effort to rely as much as possible on himself and to derive all delight from himself.” ― Seneca, On the Shortness of Life, p. 38.
Recap For Memory
Seneca packed far more lessons than these in the three letters featured in On the Shortness of Life; to truly absorb the wisdom of this great collection of his work, you’ll have to read it for yourself!
Here’s a brief recap of the lessons we discussed:
Time is our most valuable resource, so we shouldn’t waste it, because we can never get back the time we carelessly give away.
Most of what happens in the Universe is out of our control, so we should focus on controlling ourselves and accepting our Fate.
We shouldn’t fear death, but instead allow it to motivate us to live well, while we still can.
Happiness comes from within, and it is a choice we can make in all circumstances by maintaining an attitude of gratitude instead longing for what we don’t have.
Memento mori, folks.
Like the Fritz Letter?
You can find a podcast, videos, music, merch, and more on the official Christopher J. Fritz website.
Also, if you like my content, you can join my exclusive community on Patreon for $1 / month. That’s cheap AF for you, but it makes a big difference for me.