What does it mean to value life?
This is a question that came to me early one morning over the summer. A question that knocked at my heart and mind, and wouldn’t stop knocking.
I tried to silence it. (It was a day when I had a lot of work to do, and couldn’t be bothered with existential questions). Yet, sitting at my computer and trying to focus on other things only increased the urgency of the question.
So I began looking for an answer.
I went to the garden, thinking that I would perhaps find the answer by going outisde.
I began to make bread, thinking that perhaps the alchemical reaction of bringing ingredients together would allow my question to find is mate.
Finally (and in a moment of desperation), I went to our bookshelf, hoping that a book would provide some relief.
As my eyes slid over the titles, one book locked them firmly in place.
De La Brevedad de la Vida (On the Shortness of LIfe) by Seneca.
I pulled the book off of the shelf and settled onto our couch. Cracking the spine open, I fell into first century Rome and was held rapt by the echoes of an ancient philosopher that is easily relevant to our times.
“This is important.” I told myself. “To value life is to value the time that fills it.”
1.1 Most of mankind, Paulinus, complains about nature’s meanness, because our allotted span of life is so short, and because this stretch of time that is given to us runs its course so quickly, so rapidly-so much so that, with very few exceptions, life leaves the rest of us in the lurch just when we’re getting ready to live.
I sense this as a drop of wisdom that urges me to appreciate the swift current of time and life. That a common condition we all share is to feel as if life is passing rapidly.
2.2 Many are kept busy either striving after other people’s wealth or complaining about their own. Many who have no consistent goal in life are thrown from one new design to another by a fickleness that is shifting, never settled and ever dissatisfied with itself. Some have no goal at all toward which to steer their course, but death takes them by surprise as they gape and yawn. I cannot therefore doubt the truth of that seemingly oracular utterance of the greatest of poets: “Scant is the part of life in which we live.” All the rest of existence is not living but merely time.
I take this as underlining the necessity of knowing what’s important, and staying in integrity with it.
Believe me, it’s the mark of a great man, and one rising above human weakness, to allow no part of his time to be skimmed off. Accordingly, such a person’s life is extremely long because he’s kept available for himself the whole of whatever amount of time he had. None of it lay fallow and uncultivated, and none of it was under another’s control; for being a most careful guardian of his time, he found nothing worth exchanging for it.
This underlies the personal work that I commit to everday. To remain present and awake. To remember MySelf. This is the very reason for my daily practice. To be aware of when I fall into my sleepy automatisms, and to train in staying open and present to each moment as it unfolds.
8.1 I am always astonished when I see people requesting the time of others and receiving a most accommodating response from those they approach. Both sides focus on the object of the request, and neither side on time itself; it is requested as if it were nothing, granted as if it were nothing. People trifle with the most precious commodity of all; and it escapes their notice because it’s an immaterial thing that doesn’t appear to the eyes, and for that reason it’s valued very cheaply-or rather, it has practically no value at all . . . But if each of us could see the number of years before us as precisely as the years that have passed, how alarmed would be those who saw only a few years left, and how carefully would they use them!
Of this, I am guilty. Feeling obligated to say ‘yes’ without valuing the time and energy required. For that reason, I’m thankful for this snippet and have kept it close.
19.2 In this mode of life much that is worth studying awaits you: the love and practice of the virtues, forgetfulness of the passions, knowledge of how to live and to die, and deep repose.
Here, Seneca helps me understand the cravings that I have in life and the importance of turning to loftier pursuits. To value life is to value the death that will end it. A scary proposition, but one that I am slowly and compassionately opening up to.
Seneca’s words have reverberated within me ever since the day I went searching for him. They provide nourishment in a world that demands much (time, energy, money, attention, etc.). The Romans experiencing the same thousands of years ago helps me realize that this is not a new phenomenon; and that I am capable of devoting my life to my life.