Monday, January 20, 2014

Think as a Roman Thought, Part 3: “While you’re alive and able”

This morning the top headline of my local newspaper was “Is today really the most depressing day of the year?” The article’s conclusion: maybe. “New Year’s resolutions have gone south, and you’ve gone pear-shaped,” it offered as a source of depression, along with holiday bills and crummy weather. (The windchill is -37° F where I am now, so that part seems plausible!)

Anyone exposed to even a moderate amount of media has probably seen a handful of stories recently about how to stick to New Year’s resolutions and other goals, including exercise-related ones. Today I offer the perspective of Marcus Aurelius, that frequent ponderer of human mortality. His Meditations often circles back to the brevity of human life and its implications. While these passages aren’t as fun and easy to implement as some of the resolution tips I’ve seen, they are helpful in their own way. Some examples: 

Book 2, No. 4: “Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them. At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.” 1

Book 4, No. 17: “Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able—be good.”2

Book 4, No. 48: “Don’t let yourself forget how many doctors have died, after furrowing their brows over how many deathbeds. How many astrologers, after pompous forecasts about others’ ends. How many philosophers, after endless disquisitions on death and immortality. . . And all the ones you know yourself, one after another. . .

In short, know this: Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash. To pass through this brief life as nature demands. To give it up without complaint. Like an olive that ripens and falls. Praising its mother, thanking the tree it grew on.”3

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Marcus Aurelius wasn’t the first to comment on this subject, and he certainly wasn’t the last. These three passages remind me of the Jeopardy tool from the psychology book The Tools (see my review here), which urges people to visualize themselves on their deathbed in order to galvanize themselves into action. And the Tools authors quote Samuel Johnson: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Johnson’s remark is almost cheerfully blunt; sometimes Marcus’s words are dismally so. “Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash.” Marcus’s more optimistic phrases don’t undercut that reality, but they are worth remembering when we falter in our fitness resolutions. “While you’re alive and able—be good.” “Like an olive . . . thanking the tree it grew on.” 

We will die. Soon. But we’re not dead yet. Let’s seize the chances we have now to exercise. Like other Romans said, carpe diem.  

1. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Gregory Hays (New York: Modern Library, 2004), 16.
2. Ibid, 36.
3. Ibid, 42-43. 

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