Stoic Letter 20
One of my friends recently said he’s committed to seeing his parents more. I asked him why, and he said that he made some calculations. He said, “My parents are in their seventies. We usually see each other twice a year. My grandparents on both sides died around the age of 84. So at that rate, I would probably see my parents only 20 more times in my life.”
As a result of a simple calculation, he became more grateful for the moments he spent with his parents, and he tried to see them more often. In our lives, there are so many things we take for granted. Because we humans have this weird trait; we hardly ever regret the things we did. Instead, we regret the things we didn’t do.
When my grandmother was on her death bed, she kept going on and on about the things she didn’t do. And it wasn’t crazy stuff. It was more like; I wish I appreciated my time with certain family members more.
In life, there are many things we can’t change. Every day, we get one day closer to death. And instead of being grateful, we worry about things that are minor compared to death.
One of my favorite gratitude exercises comes from Epictetus. He proposed we do the following: “Whenever you face difficult situations in life, remember the prospect of death and other major tragedies that can and do happen to people. You will see that, compared to death, none of the things you face in life is important enough to worry about.”
It takes a little while to train yourself to think this way, but I guarantee it works. Compared to death, nothing we worry or get upset about matters. My friend who calculated the times he will see his parents said he no longer gets frustrated when he talks with them. You know how things often are with family; sometimes we get under each other’s skin. We argue, we get disappointed, we maybe even call each other names.
But if you make yourself aware of the fact that this is maybe the last time you’re seeing the person you love, you’ll let all the minor things slide. Look, this doesn’t mean everything is acceptable because, “hey, we’re all going to die!” That’s too nihilistic.
The Stoics used this exercise for small things. Stuff that’s just not worth getting upset about. They knew damn well that we risk wasting our time and energy on those insignificant things.
Instead, enjoy the valuable things. For example, the fact that you’re alive in this very moment. You’re here! You don’t even need to see a beautiful sunset or walk through the rain, or any other cheesy thing, to be grateful for life. I bet any person who’s on their deathbed would give everything up to have a few extra days of life. Just being alive is the biggest thing one can be grateful for. All the best.