One of the anxieties I have been contending with for quite some time now is the fear that I may die without having accomplished much. What I mean is that on one side, I would like to do a job that is socially meaningful, that helps the world go round. Summarising Italian tv programmes’ descriptions so that people know what’s on tv and what a specific programme is about never cut the mustard (incidentally now that I have been made redundant after 19 years on the job, I’ve got a chance to put the money where my mouth is and do something different). On the other hand, I would also like to satisfy my creative vein and write a short novel or a play or a collection of poems.
The other day though, I felt somewhat relieved by a quote I saw on Facebook written by an unknown author. It was a “thought of the day” taken from a notice board in Dollis Hill station (London, UK) dated 12/09/2020 . I would like to dedicate it to all the underachievers of the world like me:
If you’re feeling worried about how little you have achieved, remember that Bram Stoker didn’t write Dracula until he was 50, and Dracula didn’t kill anyone until he was dead.
With this in mind, you can understand my bewilderment when I read a post on Facebook where a writer I follow was recounting a brush he had had of late with death. He claimed that one of his ensuing concerns was that he wouldn’t have had the chance to finish the book he was writing. To put everything into context, this person has provided countless presentations, podcasts, and conference presentations, and is the author of many articles, not to mention a few books.
It was yet more confirmation, if I ever needed one, that “people are not upset by things but by the judgements they have about things” – that all we need to do is focus excessively on what we don’t have and is yet to come, to lose sight of what we do have and all the good things we’ve done. It was baffling to me to see that a person who is very prolific in his work may be left with the existential dread of not having done enough. In fact, it would be no stretch of the imagination to think that even the most accomplished person in the world may, on her dying bed, be left with a sense of frustration for leaving things incomplete or undone.
I wonder whether this is an excuse we tell ourselves to justify our reluctance to leave this world: “Hey Reaper, what the heck, I’m just about to finish this book! Six more months please and then you can do what you want!” Jokes aside, maybe this is the conscious reason we all tell ourselves, whereas the unconscious one would be the pure unadulterated fear of kicking the bucket, of disappearing into thin air, or thick ground, and therefore of having to say goodbye for ever to our thoughts, our dreams, the people we love, the things we are familiar with, in sum the whole human experience, good and bad (I’m talking indifferents!).
Eventually, we need to confront the chilling thought that the ego we have been stroking for so many years, that idea of the self that we have been preserving from harm for so long will be no more… zero, zilch.
At which point, I can only imagine what the Reaper might say in response to someone’s anxiety over their unfinished business (she never looked the understanding compassionate type anyway, judging by the way she’s portrayed and the tool she carries with her): “Bye Felicia, your book will be finished by somebody else, don’t you worry. Your dreams and goals pursued by somebody else, the food you enjoy will be eaten by someone else…” and so on and so forth. Because, at the end of the day, it’s true, the world will still go around after you’re gone, and if your intention was ever to produce something of benefit for humanity and not simply shine out of egotistical light, you should be satisfied with the idea that it will be somebody else who can fulfil that need and not you.
But if ever we feel gripped by the fear of an “untimely” death, all we need to do is turning to the many quotes by Stoic ancient authors which can help us deal with the ultimate end in a calm rational way. Epictetus for one encourages us, in typical Stoic fashion, to reframe our conundrum:
I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.Epictetus, Discourses, I, 27.9-10
And here’s Seneca’s invitation to stop worrying about death, coupled with the less convincing idea that if you are no more, you are not able to miss life… (no shit, Sherlock!):
No good thing makes its possessor happy unless her mind is prepared for its loss; and nothing is easier to let go of that than which, once gone, cannot be missed.Seneca, Letters, 4.5-6
Putting aside Seneca’s intellectual gymnastics, I suspect that the reason why humans regret losing their lives is precisely because they’re well aware of what they will be missing, while being completely in the dark of what’s on the other side of the river Styx. The flimsiness of Seneca’s reasoning is on a par with the other Stoic concept according to which people shouldn’t fear inexistence after death, the same way they never feared or regretted not having been able to exist before their birth:
Unless I am mistaken, my dear Lucilius, we go astray in thinking that death follows, when it has both preceded and will follow. Whatever condition existed before our birth was death. For what does it matter whether you do not begin at all, or whether end, when the result in either case is non-existence?Seneca, Letters, 5. 4-5
For the same reasons I used against Seneca’s first argument, I would posit that we fear death post-birth because we know exactly what we are going to miss out on and that we accept our non-existence that was prior to birth, simply because we accept the fact that we weren’t born yet at that time.
I find there’s a much more efficacious and pragmatic way to assuage our fear of death and that is mentally preparing for it, rather than hiding our heads in the sand. But for that I shall refer the reader to the examples present in the Stoic literature, which are many and easy to find. Instead I will stay on the subject of the specific fear we may feel of leaving things undone, of not having lived enough.
To that effect, consider that if life is prolonged, yes, you may be able to finish your book, or finally start that career you’ve always dreamed of, but you could also face adversities, because goddess Fortuna is notoriously unpredictable and may spin the wheel the wrong way round:
“I shall die”, you say; you mean to say “I shall cease to run the risk of sickness; I shall cease to run the risk of imprisonment; I shall cease to run the risk of death.Seneca, On Despising Death
Yes, you may live a little longer and finish whatever you intended to do, but doesn’t the dread of living assail you every now and again? Do you not get irremediably saddened by the inexplicable cruelty and ignorance you witness in the world?:
If you want a vulgar form of comfort that touches the heart, reconcile yourself to death by observing, above all, the things from which you will be removed, and the morals of those with whom our soul will no longer have to associate.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.3.2
So what if we follow Cicero’s advice instead (as reported by Seneca in his On Tranquillity of Mind, 11.4b), change the script, and like valiant gladiators, defiantly look at death in the eyes and show contempt for our lives?
Or faced with the ineluctability of death, accept that even if we can’t choose the finale, we have control over the way we exit the scene. Let’s do it with dignity and grace, without bemoaning the number of acts we’ve been allowed to perform:
You’ve lived as a citizen in a great city. Five years or a hundred—what’s the difference? The laws make no distinction. And to be sent away from it, not by a tyrant or a dishonest judge, but by Nature, who first invited you in—why is that so terrible? Like the impresario ringing down the curtain on an actor: “But I’ve only gotten through three acts …!” Yes. This will be a drama in three acts, the length fixed by the power that directed your creation, and now directs your dissolution. Neither was yours to determine. So make your exit with grace—the same grace shown to you.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 12.36
If you are reading this, you’re probably a philosopher and agree with de Montaigne when he says that “to philosophise is to learn how to die” (a saying attributed by the French philosopher himself to Cicero). Seneca, on the other hand, says that “he who has learned to die has unlearned slavery” (Seneca, Letters, 26.10). Then here’s my wish for you: keep philosophising every day, so that one day you may learn how to die and break free of the shackles of the mind.
A couple of years ago, the following quote from Seneca prompted me to write the script for a guided Stoic meditation entitled “I have lived enough”:
Life is well enough furnished, but we are too greedy with regard to its furnishings; something always seems to us lacking, and will always seem lacking. To have lived long enough depends neither upon your years nor upon our days, but upon our minds. I have lived, my dear friend Lucilius, long enough. I have had my fill; I await death.Seneca, On Meeting Death Cheerfully
In the guided meditation I wrote, I invite listeners to think back to the times when they were a child, the careless play times, the fun times spent with their friends, the warmth and affection of a parent or beloved person, all the incredible places they visited, their first kiss, their loving relationships, but also all the dispreferred experiences, the disappointments and the grief and the bereavements, in an attempt to make them relive moments of their lives through their minds’ eye. The idea being that we are so projected towards our future and eager for more, that we seem to forget this whole baggage of experiences from the past, let alone have a feeling of gratitude for them. So, let’s take a moment every now and again and dwell on memories from years gone by.
Granted, the passage from Seneca above was probably written by the author in the winter of his life, when as an old person you may be feeling the ennui of living. But regardless of your age, and with the exception of human beings who may have died really young, if you had the fortune to have been born into this world, you probably have loads to be thankful for anyway. When you’re feeling fearful or you’re losing heart, because you fear the Reaper may soon be knocking on your door, be sure to let these wise words from Seneca gently trickle into your ears:
We must make it our aim to have already lived long enough.Seneca, Letters, 23.10
And sure as hell you will wipe that grin off the Reaper’s face, for nothing that is welcomed can ever be a threat.
Carmelo Di Maria is founder and facilitator of the London Stoics. He’s particularly (but by no means exclusively) interested in what Stoicism has to say about illness (you can find a couple of articles on the topic on this very blog and a presentation on the London Stoics’ YouTube channel). Some of his other interests are lgbt/human rights, secularism, euthanasia, diversity & inclusion, chi kung, mindfulness.