This week's Mid-Week Meditation comes from Seneca's letters addressed to Lucilius, the then-procurator of Sicily. Scholars aren't sure if he and Lucilius actually corresponded or not, but nevertheless, Seneca penned 124 letters to him. These are all collected in the work Letters From a Stoic, or the Moral Letters to Lucilius.
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor and the author of Meditations, considered by many to be one of the greatest works of philosophy ever written. Among his many ruminations, Aurelius has an interesting take on the concept of 'bad luck' that remains useful to this day. In short, you should treat unexpected misfortune as an opportunity to reflect on your hidden strengths.
As it is with a play, so it is with life — what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is. It is not important at what point you stop. Stop wherever you will — only make sure that you round it off with a good ending. - Seneca, Letter LXXVII
What It Means
Life is like a play — but instead of acting out a story, you're living through it. And it doesn't matter how long you live, but how well you live. A good life, like a good play, is filled with gripping twists and turns, ups and downs, and most importantly, a compelling protagonist others will root for. Seneca suggests that it doesn't matter when you die as long as you live up to that point staying true to yourself, and can find a way to take your final bow with grace.
Everyone loves movies, and a lot of people wish their life was just like one. Movies excite us, give us a chance to think, and they can even motivate us to live better lives. Well, you're the main character in your life, and you're filming your story right now. With the right mindset, you can use that philosophy to tackle whatever scene comes your way.
What to Take From It
A life well lived will always be better than a long life endured. You toil away each and every day, convinced you have so many things to do, but what are you doing to live well? Are you merely labouring to survive, or living to do work you are proud of?
Seneca warns us of busy work and getting caught up in the rat race:
Someone, though, will say, 'But I want to live because of all the worthy activities I'm engaged in. I'm performing life's duties conscientiously and energetically and I'm reluctant to leave them undone.' Come now, surely you know that dying is also one of life's duties? You're leaving no duty undone, for there's no fixed number of duties laid down which you're supposed to complete. - Seneca, Letter LXXVII
Productivity only matters when you're living well — when you're chasing the horizon in the direction your heart's compass points. So wake up! You are alive, and you have a story to tell! Every second you wait, every excuse you make, is making your play a lacklustre affair. You only have so much time here, warns Seneca:
The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live… you'll see how revolting is the fickleness of men who lay down everyday new foundations of life, and begin to build up fresh hopes, even at the brink of the grave. Look within your own mind for individual instances: you will think of old men who are preparing themselves at that very hour for a political career, or for travel, or for business, and what is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old. - Seneca, Letter XIII
The time is now. When you feel like you're stuck in a rut, caught in a mode, or spinning your wheels, ask yourself these things:
- Is my play worth watching?
- Am I acting well?
- What can I do to act well, and thus, live well?
You may never get applause or a standing ovation, but when the curtain drops, you'll be at peace knowing you gave the performance of a lifetime.
If you're somewhere between your mid-20s and 30s, you might be experiencing a serious low point in your life. A trial of confused identity, misguided purpose and hopeless transition. And, if you're anything like me, you feel lost, anxious and panicked. But you're not alone, even if it feels that way, and there are plenty of ways to make riding it out a little easier.
This post is part of Mid-Week Meditations, Lifehacker's weekly dip into the pool of stoic wisdom, and how you can use its waters to reflect on and improve your life.