“One should count each day a separate life.” So says the philosopher Seneca. The Stoics encouraged us to cultivate the proper attitude towards death as they did towards life. The implication of Seneca’s quote is that we should take note of how we live our life each and every day. And strive to make our answer a resounding yes each and every day. It has been said that the study of philosophy is a preparation for death. This is not a morbid sentiment but rather one to encourage us to make the most of our life and to appreciate each day and consider each day an opportunity to accomplish something so that we can say the world was a better place for our having lived. Richard Dawkins points out that since we are going to die that makes us the lucky ones. Lucky, because most people are never going to have the chance to live at all. When you consider how many potential lives could be actualized you begin to appreciate the sentiment he expresses and to embrace the opportunity we've been given.
Seneca also counsels that we take heed of this in the following way:
"The wise will start each day with the thought:
"Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own. Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destinies of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl. No promise has been given you for this night. No, I have suggested too long a respite, no promise has been given even for this hour."
In his book Plato not Prozac! Lou Marinoff relates a Buddhist parable which expresses a similar theme:
"A monk kept a teacup by his bed, and every night before he went to sleep he turned it upside down. Each morning he righted it. When a puzzled novice inquired, the monk explained that he was symbolically emptying the cup of life each night to signify his acquiescence in his own mortality. The ritual reminded him that he had done the things he needed to do that day and so was ready should death come for him. Each morning then he turned the cup up to accept the gift of a new day. He was taking life one day at a time, acknowledging the wonderful gift of life with each dawn but prepared to relinquish it at the end of each day."
A nice ritual to practice for all!
Much of the stress we are under is the result of a confusion of wants and needs. Many people believe they need things when really these things are merely wants.
The philosopher Epicurus distinguished these and discussed the problems in confusing them long ago. There are three categories of desires. The first are natural and necessary and include the basics: food, clothing, shelter, as well as friendship, freedom, and thinking. We require these in order to be happy. And, for Epicurus, these are all that we require in order to be happy.
But, there are also natural and unnecessary desires (wants which become confused with needs). These include many of the luxury items in our life; fancy food, clothing, big houses, fancy cars. All of which we desire but do not require in order to be happy. The problem occurs when we believe we need these things, purchase them, and then find that we have to work to afford them. So, people end up working, not for themselves, but for their things.
Third, Epicurus identifies the unnatural and unnecessary desires for power and fame. These may be at the root of our belief that the natural but unnecessary desires are really needs. After all, if you strongly desire fame and power, you will deduce that you need those things that Epicurus classifies as natural but unnecessary.
There is a wonderful quote from Einstein about the perils of fame: "With fame, I have become more and more stupid, which of course, is a very common phenomenon. But you have to take it all with good humor. Charlie Chaplin had it right. When he and I met we were surrounded by people calling our names. 'What does it all mean?' I asked him. 'Nothing.' he replied."
Fame and power are truly unnatural and unnecessary.
Another cause of our stress is our belief that we need to keep up, keep going faster, being more productive. Again, this confuses a want with a need. However, a movement has been growing against this in recent years called the "slowness movement." Carl Honore has published a book titled In Praise of Slowness discussing the benefits of slow work, slow food, slow sex, and a relaxed stress free approach to life in general.
There is nothing new here really as Henry David Thoreau wrote eloquently on this in his essay "Life Without Principle." In it he writes "I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living. If I should sell my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for." But, we are all too willing to sell our forenoons and afternoons leaving nothing behind for our self or our families and friends. We impose these conditions and requirements on ourselves and then feel stressed when we cannot keep up.
We can only do so much in any given day. Once we do that and do our best we should be satisfied with that and recognize that there are limits to what we can do. This recognition is a good start to living a life of happiness.
Perhaps we should heed the words of William James: "Not that I would not, if I could, be both handsome and fat and well dressed, and a great athlete, and make a million a year, be a wit, a bon vivant, and a lady-killer, as well as a philosopher; a philanthropist, statesman, warrior, and African explorer, as well as a 'tone-poet' and saint. But the thing is simply impossible."