Sunday morning Stoic: Postpone nothing

“There is indeed a limit fixed for us, just where the remorseless law of Fate has fixed it; but none of us knows how near he is to this limit. Therefore let us so order our minds as if we had come to the very end. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s account every day.” –Seneca

We all know sad stories of people whose lives ended suddenly, of children taken by illness or accident, of good men and women gone too soon, their lives artlessly unfinished.

Real life is not a novel or a movie. There is no guarantee of a tidy ending with satisfying closure and a happy exit from the stage.

Reality is indifferent to your story, to your sense of justice, to the poetry you are crafting as the artist of your life.

This indifference, if I pause to comprehend it, is the most terrifying thing I know. 

There are no guarantees, and my hopes for my own story ultimately have little power over circumstances beyond my control, over the capriciousness of fate.

But I do have power over how I respond to what reality brings my way today. 

Tomorrow is not promised. But I can make the best of today. I can stop deferring dreams and postponing plans. 

Make this day remarkable, a day worth talking about. 

Live while you can. Craft your life one day at a time.

Sunday night Stoic: How to act

Remember, Meditations was written by Marcus Aurelius as a sort of ongoing “note to self” while he was the Roman emperor, essentially the most powerful and influential person in the western world at the time.

He’s not lecturing someone else. He’s exhorting himself, calling for his own best, reminding himself of the kind of man he aspired to be. He could have gotten away with murder, much less selfish and boorish behavior.

Which makes passages like this (3.5) so remarkable:

“How to act:

Never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without forethought, with misgivings.

Don’t gussy up your thoughts.

No surplus words or unnecessary actions.

Let the spirit in you represent a man, an adult, a citizen, a Roman, a ruler. Taking up his post like a soldier and patiently awaiting his recall from life. Needing no oath or witness.

Cheerfulness. Without requiring other people’s help. Or serenity supplied by others.

To stand up straight—not straightened.”

Sunday morning Stoic: A formula for savoring life

The author William Irvine (whose book, A Guide To The Good Life, is a great introduction to Stoic thought) shared the Stoic formula for happiness in this post on Stoicism Today.

Here’s the formula: X = the number of days you have left to live

It’s not exactly a formula, just a reminder that each of us has a finite, unknown number for X. Keeping this thought in mind daily, knowing the end of this day reduces by 1, can offer perspective that makes each day richer and more meaningful.

Irvine goes on to suggest another helpful formula: X = the number of times you will do something in the remainder of your life

You have X number of times left to call your mom or kiss your love or hug your kid or eat Green & Black’s organic 85 percent cacao dark chocolate.

As you do a thing, if you for a moment imagine it might be the last time you do it, you will experience it more mindfully, more vividly. It turns autopilot off, even if for just a second or two.

I took my daughters to the swimming pool yesterday. As they were clamoring for me to jump in and join them, I paused at the edge of the deep end of the pool, my toes poised on the edge of the warm cement, and imagined this would be my last time ever jumping into water. And then I stepped off and truly saw my feet splash in first and felt my body drop into the cool water and the delightful sensation of floating. The slight sting in my nose and eyes. The feeling of defying gravity for a moment. It was a joy. And, of course, it wasn’t the last time. I jumped in several times yesterday, but the only one I can recall clearly was the first jump which I had imagined as my last jump ever.

I think even a small moment here and there thinking in this way could have a big impact on your daily joy.

And as Irvine suggests in his post, it can encourage you to create more moments worth savoring:

And there is another important thing to realize about the above formula: you probably have it in your power to turn X into X+1! You need only go out of your way to do something one extra time. At this very moment, there are X more times you will kiss the person you love. But if, as the result of reading this, you go give him or her a kiss that you otherwise wouldn’t have given, you will increase this number to X+1. And chances are you will have fun doing it!


David Letterman and the power of turning obstacles into fuel

I’m of the Letterman generation. I began college the same year Late Night debuted on NBC.

Better observers of television and comedy have better summed up why Letterman is significant. (I love Jimmy Kimmel’s take.) But to me he was just real. He didn’t treat television like it was a big deal, and he didn’t treat people who thought they were a big deal like they were a big deal.

His show was irreverent and unpredictable and fun. His timing and self-deprecating humor and wry asides influenced the way I communicate and attempt humor and the way I respond to others. I’ve realized even some of my facial expressions are Letterman inspired.

I listened to Jason Snell’s The Incomparable podcast about Letterman yesterday on a long drive home from the holiday weekend. The podcast was really well done and right in the wheelhouse of someone who would regularly stay up late in the dorm lobby to catch at least a portion of Late Night.

The podcast reminded me that when Letterman got the Late Night gig airing immediately following The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson’s team at NBC put some restrictions on what Letterman could do on his show. He could have no more than four band members and could tell only four jokes in his monologue. They wanted to protect their turf at The Tonight Show and not risk some young upstart stealing their stuff.

But Letterman used those restrictions to reinvent the talk show and to come up with something unique to him. Bizarre, wacky, occasionally cringe-inducing, but so refreshingly unique.

Years later when Carson retired, everyone assumed The Tonight Show would go to Letterman. It was Letterman’s dream, and Carson saw him as his natural successor. But the suits at NBC gave the job to Jay Leno instead.

Again, though, Letterman ended up embracing this setback and used that disappointment to do something better. He moved to CBS, started The Late Show, and competed head-to-head with The Tonight Show.

But he got to stay in New York and keep doing his unique version of a talk show, just on a bigger stage and an hour earlier. He’s even said that if he had been given The Tonight Show, he probably would have just followed Carson’s formula out of respect for the institutions that The Tonight Show and Carson were.

It was the restrictions and the disappointment and the obstacles that Letterman used to shape himself and his show into the cultural forces they became. He didn’t end up winning the ratings war, but his influence resonates as no other television personality’s has since Carson.

Heartbreak? Disappointment? Obstacles in the way? Dream job falls through? Accept a bad turn of events as if you had chosen it to happen that way. Then get busy transforming that setback into previously unimagined possibilities. Turn your obstacles into fuel to propel you further and higher.

Stoic Zen: The glass is already broken

Kottke shared this paragraph from Mark Epstein’s book Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy From a Buddhist Perspective:

“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

This is Zen. But also very Stoic.

Negative visualization is a Stoic practice. Imagining and accepting the worst case can help me better appreciate what is while preparing me for what could be.

Sunday morning Stoic: Only the present

A crisp, bright, quiet spring Sunday morning.

A cup of tea (coconut) and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

A Sunday morning ritual for me.

It’s hard to open this book without reading a passage that delights or challenges and refreshes my mind with its clarity and straightforward insight.

This passage today, 8.35:

“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer.

Then remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present—and even that can be minimized. Just mark off its limits. And if your mind tries to claim that it can’t hold out against that … well, then, heap shame upon it.”

Only the present.