Marcus Aurelius would not let his soldiers read philosophy until they were at least 30 years old. The idea being that you need to experience a certain amount of life before the writings of the great philosophers have any real meaning. I can understand that. I read a lot of philosophy in college, but understood little. And what I did understand, came more from what professors told me than from the writings themselves.
But as of late, I have found myself going back to some of the original works. And I am finding this time around it is an entirely different experience.
The Roman philosopher Seneca has a brief and insightful work entitled On the Shortness of Life. In my re-reading of it the last few weeks, I have found that it seems to have a lot to offer those of us who earn our living engaged in the practice of law and who have elevated “staying busy” to an art form.
“Busy,” Seneca suggests, is a decision. And making the decision to stay busy is probably the primary way we avoid living our lives. It is our great distraction. We coast through our days. We file our pleadings on time. We meet the deadlines in the scheduling order. We record our billable hours. We follow-up on the receivables. All the while staying absent from ourselves. Mistaking doing for being.
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.
…it is the sign of a great man, and one who is above human error, not to allow his time to be frittered away: he has the longest possible life simply because whatever time was available he devoted entirely to himself. None of it lay fallow and neglected, none of it under another’s control; for being an extremely thrifty guardian of his time he never found anything for which it was worth exchanging.
Is it wasteful to attend to our obligations? Not at all. It’s a matter of how we attend to those obligations and whether those obligations enlarge or diminish us. In other words,
do we use our obligations as an excuse to avoid living our lives? Do we confuse productivity with presence?
Seneca reminds us that one is living a life.
The other is not.