I am soon to be celebrating my 79th birthday. Yet again I have heard of another death, this time a billionaire who was a member of a tennis group I used to play with on Sunday mornings until my doctor advised me to stop playing. This turned out to be good advice as most of my contemporary male members in the group have retired hurt with serious injuries.
Here is my take on my current status. First of all a parable that I recently read.
One day a farmer went to the field and found that his horse had run away. The people in the village said, “Oh, what bad luck!” The next day the horse returned with two other horses and the village people said, “What good fortune!” Then the farmer’s son was thrown from one of the horses and broke his leg. The villagers expressed their sympathy, “How unfortunate.” Soon after, a war broke out and young men from the village were being drafted. But because the farmer’s son had a broken leg, he was the only one not drafted. Now the village people told the farmer that his son’s broken leg was really “good luck.”
(Parable from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist Monk known at the Father of Meditation,)
The story shows it is foolhardy to judge something as good or bad as we don’t know what the future holds. We may envision something terrible or wonderful, but such visions are fantasies, nothing more.
The Stoics said we must always be aware of Fortune’s habit of behaving as she pleases. We must always keep in mind that we ‘could leave life right now,’ as Marcus Aurelius writes. That we don’t have the time to indulge in idle chit chat, to complain about small stuff, to leave things unsaid. We can’t take tomorrow for granted. We must do what we can, while we can, for whom we can.”
So remember his advice to himself. “Don’t let your reflection on the whole sweep of life crush you,” he said. “Don’t fill your mind with all the bad things that might still happen. Stay focused on the present situation.” Seize the present moment, he said, concentrate on it like a Roman. Don’t get distracted. Don’t dwell on regret, don’t give into anxiety. Look at what is in front of you, look at it with everything you have.
It’s your resilience, and how you actually get through the down times — the down times are what makes your character. You know when things are easy, but can you knowingly overcome adversity? That’s the important thing.”
For a modern take here is an excellent article in the Washington Post by Paul Woodruff: My death is close at hand. But I do not think of myself as dying. Up until the end, Woodruff was reading novels with his wife, writing, seeing students and friends, living with virtue. He was no pen-and-ink philosopher–the ones the Stoics looked at with scorn–he was a father, a husband, a soldier, a leader, a teacher, active in social causes, and a friend.
This blog was first posted on LinkedIn on 20 October 2023.
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