The Last Time You Will Do This
Stoics strive to maintain a reasonable outlook on life, avoiding the Scylla of dour pessimism as well as the Charybdis of wishful thinking
The image accompanying this essay is of a building in Brooklyn, New York. My wife and I will move into that apartment complex before the end of the spring, if the gods of banks, lawyers, and building cooperatives will allow. The reason I’m telling you this bit of personal trivia is because it occurred to me that this, very likely, will be the last time I will ever buy an apartment. (With the possible exception of moving to Italy for retirement later on, which is something we are considering.)
Indeed, at some point or another in our lives we will be experiencing a “last time” about a lot of things. As Bill Irvine puts it in his A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy: “There will be — or already has been! — a last time in your life that you brush your teeth, cut your hair, drive a car, mow the lawn, or play hopscotch. There will be a last time you hear the sound of snow falling, watch the moon rise, smell popcorn, feel the warmth of a child falling asleep in your arms, or make love. You will someday eat your last meal, and soon thereafter you will take your last breadth.” (Chapter 4)
How morbid and depressing, right? Not at all! Stoics strive to maintain a reasonable outlook on life, which means avoiding the Scylla of dour pessimism as well as the Charybdis of positive wishful thinking. We are mortal beings, so one of these days we will die. This logically entails that there will be a last time for everything we do. Reason dictates that we take this fact as a given and act accordingly, by focusing on what we want to do between now and then, which includes savoring those “last time I do x,” if we happen to be conscious of them.
Luckily for me, I think there has already been a last time I mowed a lawn, an activity I despise and that I left behind forever — I hope — when I left what many Americans, entirely un-ironically, call suburban paradise and moved to New York City back in 2006. Other “last time I do x” moments may have already occurred even if I am not aware of them, but searching for and then making an offer on the new apartment with my wife Jennifer was certainly something I did knowing that I was experiencing one of the occasions described by Irvine.
There are two pertinent notions here that are related to each other in Stoic philosophy: time and attention. Seneca reminds us that time is the most precious thing we have, because whenever we decide to spend it in a certain way it will be gone forever. It is crucial, therefore, to prioritize:
“Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose.” (Letter I.1)
We tend to live our lives as if we had all the time in the world, not taking our own mortality seriously:
“What person can you show me who places any value on their time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that they are dying daily?” (Letter I.2)
And so before we realize it we get near the end, and we panic because we haven’t had time to live as we wanted:
“For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile.” (Letter I.5)
Why do so many waste their time in irrelevant things, only to get near the bottom of the cask and realize that what they have left is a slight amount of vile quality? Because of the second concept: attention, or rather, lack thereof. This is a theme we find especially in Epictetus:
“As it is, you say, ‘I will fix my attention to-morrow’: which means, let me tell you, ‘To-day I will be shameless, inopportune, abject: others shall have power to vex me: to-day I will harbor anger and envy.’ Look what evils you allow yourself. Nay, if it is well to fix my attention to-morrow, how much better to do so to-day! If it is profitable to-morrow, much more so is it to-day: that you may be able to do the same to-morrow, and not put off again to the day after.” (Discourses IV, 12)
We procrastinate. All the time. Because, again, we don’t take seriously that we are, as Seneca says, dying every day. For instance, take the notion of New Year’s resolutions. It’s incomprehensible. If someone thinks that a given activity — say, going to the gym — is good for them, why on earth would they want to plan it for the future, rather than start it right now? Again Epictetus:
“When faced with anything painful or pleasurable, anything bringing glory or disrepute, realize that the crisis is now, that the Olympics have started, and waiting is no longer an option; that the chance for progress, to keep or lose, turns on the events of a single day.” (Enchiridion 51.2)
Back to my new apartment. In part because I’ve been training myself over the past several years to pay attention (prosochē, in Stoic lingo), and in part because there is a good chance that this will really be my last purchase of this sort, I have been savoring every moment of this new adventure. I was paying attention when we started looking, when we visited countless candidate places (well, we actually counted: 22 before the one we chose), when we walked around different neighborhoods weighing our options. And even during the decidedly less exciting aspects of the process, like talking to our lawyer, or filing endless paperwork with the bank and the coop that owns what will soon be our new place.
For a practitioner of Stoicism, of course, where we happen to live is a preferred indifferent, meaning that it does not affect the most important part of who we are: our character, our judgment. Marcus Aurelius claimed that one can be happy even in a palace (apparently, he didn’t care too much for court life):
“Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts. Dye it then with a continuous series of such thoughts as these: for instance, that where a man can live, there he can also live well; now it is possible to live at court, so it must also be possible to live well at court.” (Meditations V.16)
The place Jennifer and I got is certainly not a palace. But it will nicely accommodate our minimalist life style, our need for a quiet place where to read and write, and our love of New York. Hopefully, for a long time to come, if Fortuna allows.