Indeed,mankind is in loss.”
The Perennial Loss
“It is a small part of life that we really live. Indeed, all the rest is not life but merely time.”
Life’s already short. What’s worse than that?
— Making it shorter.
Yet, that’s we all do — Worrying about the future to no end and neglecting the present, doing things we hate, coveting for unimportant things, associating ourselves with idiots and people with negative influences, groundlessly emoting here and there, sleeping our problems away.
Remember Marcus Aurelius? He reflected in his private diary, “Even if you’re going to live three thousand more years, or ten times that, remember : you cannot lose another life than the one you’re losing now, or live another one than the one you’re losing.”
To paraphrase Seneca, time’s the only thing in which it is right to be stingy. Time will always take its course. It doesn’t remind you of its swiftness. It just glides on quietly. Even if you’re the Sultan or Chuck Norris, no, it won’t lengthen itself for you.
So what is it that you think about all day? What dominates your thoughts when you wake up, when you’re taking a shower, and when you’re shutting your eyes off to sleep?
In one of his letters Seneca gave a parable of how in his day, people would talk and talk and talk for days and weeks about going to the colosseum to watch the gladiator match. And yet the time that they’ve been so eagerly anticipating to enjoy is only a brief couple of hours. Then they have to go back to their boring, mundane lives. Until they decide to watch another match, perhaps.
That’s us in our own ways. We can’t stand the nothingness of today. We’re always expecting something extraordinary to happen in our ordinary lives. But in doing that we lose an extremely valuable asset — the present. And we lose it again and again…and again.
You know that turtle from Kung Fu Panda who said that yesterday is history, the future’s a mystery and the present’s a gift? I think he ripped that quote off from some other guy in real life. But he’s right.
Don’t Walk Too Fast
“Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”
Sir Francis Bacon
The 17th century painter Chou Yung once set out to visit a town across the river from his own town. Along with him was a young boy he commissioned to carry his books and papers. The day was getting dark, and as the ferry neared the other side of the river, Chou Yung asked the boatman if they could make it in time before the town gates closed.
The boatman glanced at the young boy and the bundle of loosely-tied papers and books, and replied, “Yes, if you do not walk too fast.”
Afraid of being locked out of town at night, Chou Yung and the young boy walked faster and faster, finally breaking into a run. The string broke and his documents were scattered. It took them minutes to gather all of them back. And by the time they reached the gates, it was too late. He learned a lesson that he would embody for the rest of his life.
Author Robert Greene related to this story in his book The 48 Laws of Power, and wrote, “Hurriers may occasionally get there quicker, but papers fly everywhere, new dangers arise, and they find themselves in constant crisis mode, fixing the problems that they themselves have created.”
It’s in our nature as human beings to be impatient. Whatever it is we are after, we want it right at this instant. But the nature of the world doesn’t cooperate with that. You’ve heard it again and again : great things take time. Because it’s the plain truth.
Time is a great thickener of things.
Picture Napoleon Bonaparte, gazing down at the battlefield, indifferent even though his plan is unfolding exactly as he thought. In his words, “Even if things were otherwise (even if things were bad), a man must live in the present. He who has courage despises the future.”
Enter Jack Kerouac, who cultivated the myth that he was a “spontaneous prose man” and supposedly wrote On The Road in a three week drug-fueled blitz. What he kept to himself was the six years he spent rewriting, editing, and refining the text until it finally became the beautiful classic that we have today.
Ryan Holiday also recalled the time when he proposed to write what he intended to be his first book, on a topic which his publishers were not so excited about at that time. A small publishing company, however, offered him a deal. His mentor, Robert Greene advised him to turn down the offer. “You’re still learning as a writer”, he said, “That book will be better each day you wait”. Five years and two books later, The Obstacle Is The Way was published. The book was a massive success and its sales only grow higher and higher with time. And it’s now a modern cult-classic in the hands of men and women in sports, business, you name it.
Today, Only Today
“The trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close up.”
Looking into the future can be overwhelming sometimes. What if things don’t work out the way you expect?
But at the same time, it doesn’t seem like a romantic idea to not see the future as something you can ultimately design and bend to your will. It isn’t very sexy to think of the world as being governed by forces that are larger than us.
Plans are obviously necessary, but obsession is not.
In the previous article, we talked a little about not obsessing about what we don’t control, and that doing the right thing is enough.
It’s always better to look up close and focus every iota of your attention on doing everything one by one, simply performing at your best, without over thinking on your goal. To paraphrase Ryan Holiday, we’re “A-to-Z thinkers, fretting about A, obsessing over Z, yet forgetting all about B through Y”
In Holiday’s book The Obstacle Is The Way (sorry, but it’s a book that I can talk to death about), he calls this “the process”. He said, “The process is about doing the right things, right now. Not worrying about what might happen later, or the results, or the whole picture.” It’s also the “voice that demands we take responsibility and ownership. That prompts us to act even if only in a small way.”
He also shared an interesting story of the 19th century pioneer of meteorology James Pollard Epsy. As a young man he once attended a speech by the famous orator, and his idol, Henry Clay. Epsy was illiterate, and couldn’t form the words to speak to Clay after the talk. A friend of his helped him out and shouted, “He wants to be like you, even though he can’t read.”
Clay grabbed a poster which had his name written in big letters and looked at Epsy. “You see that boy?” He pointed to a letter and said, “That’s an A. Now, you’ve only got twenty-five more letters to go.”
Take a deep breath. After all, you can’t swallow your meal whole. Cut up that huge portion you have into smaller pieces. And you chew, morsel by morsel. What happens if you do otherwise? — indigestion. Or in this case, panic, anxiety, stress.
Everything Will Be Just Fine
“Now you just dig them in front. They have worries, they’re counting the miles, they’re thinking where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they’ll get there — and all the time they’ll get there anyway, you see.”
On The Road
Life has a bunch of metaphors attached to it, depending on what you’re feeling at the moment. Life’s a battle. Life’s a dance. Life’s a sad tale.
Let’s keep things simple — what about — life’s a journey. Why not? Sure, you know where you’re headed to. But God knows what you’re going to encounter — the difficulties you’ll be tested with, the people that come and go, the lifelong friends you’ll meet. So might as well enjoy the experience.
You savor every day, every moment, every second as they come, without a hoot or worry about when. As William Faulkner wrote, “..Not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it.”
You live one day at a time and make good use of it. A day is a lot of time. What more when it comes to a year? You don’t have your whole life figured out, and it’s okay. It’s just a matter of accepting that reality. Plus, in a way, it’s the spontaneity of life that makes it exciting.
If you knew every single twist and turn, you’d probably be bored to death already.
And here’s another line from On The Road. Goodbye!
“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”