Tag: Seneca

It Is What It Is

White calla lily

A few days ago, a friend reached out to me for help. She was having a hard time after one of those unexpected things life likes to throw at you.

What did you do, she asked me? I used the ostrich method, I wanted to tell her. Don’t think about it, don’t think about it, don’t think about it. It is, I admit, not a suitable method of tackling life. 

Instead, I told her about acceptance. Strive for that kind of calm, peaceful mind that acceptance offers, but that’s so hard to achieve. Realize that life is what it is, and no amount of wishful thinking can make it otherwise. Things change, as much as we don’t want them to; people change, too, and catastrophes happen. Change and pain are constant companions in this world; the best one can do is accept them. Not surrender, but accept it. It is what it is. We spend too much time and energy refusing to accept things as they are and trying to change what we cannot. 

I told her about the Anonymous Alcoholics’ prayer; it’s a short but powerful reminder of how to handle life with everything it brings. (And before AA, the Stoics preached this, even though they didn’t really preach. Hence, my interest in Stoics).

The Serenity Prayer

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

Yeah. Work in progress.

I realized that I was trying to help her as much as myself.

I try to remember Mark Twain’s words: “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” The Stoics (Seneca) said that we suffer twice, once when we think about something that could happen and then again when it happens.

It’s enough to think about the things I was worried about only a few years ago, to say nothing about my youth. Most of them, if any, never happened, of course. Or they weren’t the catastrophes I thought they’d be. Instead, you have unexpected stuff thrown at you. (Think the last four years!)

So now I’m trying to make the best of what I have, which is not negligible; enjoy life because you never know what’ll happen in the future. I shouldn’t mar the lovely life we have right now with thoughts about what might happen. Then, I would have suffered twice.

Reading Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius

Statue head from Carl Mille's antique collection at Millesgården, Lidingö
Statue head from Carl Mille’s antique collection at Millesgården, Lidingö

I’ve started reading Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius, the complete collection translated by Richard M. Gummere; the dog-eared paperback edition I had read and re-read earlier was only a selection of forty letters out of the 124 he wrote.

Seneca has always fascinated me (and many others), writing so eloquently about how to live a good life, only concerned with your character, etc. – only to live his life quite differently. Many brand him a hypocrite, but I think he was merely human, struggling like all of us. I think he tried. Behind the scenes, he managed the empire during the first years of Nero‘s reign, an uninterested Nero happily leaving him to it, and he did a pretty good job together with Burrus. One wonders how things would have gone with him as a ruler. Would he have become a philosopher emperor or given in to his less, shall I say, flattering sides? We’ll never know.

It’s hard to imagine the insecurity of life at court, especially at Nero’s. Assassinations, even of close family members (Nero had his mother put to death, for example, and he’s also suspected of murdering his wife), executions or orders for suicide, and exile were an everyday business. Seneca could see Nero sinking into madness a little more every day, fearing he’d be next. He was almost ordered to commit suicide by Caligula and escaped it only because Caligula thought he was dying (of tuberculosis); later, he also spent eight years in exile in Corsica under Claudius. Maybe he thought power and riches would protect him from the whims of the capricious rulers. But those would only threaten or become the envy of an emperor.

He was forced to retire eventually, and curiously enough, Nero let him go after refusing him twice before. He left his riches to Nero, retired to the country, read philosophy, and wrote these letters, among other works. Unfortunately, it didn’t save him in the end. Accused of being involved in a plot to assassinate Nero, he was forced to take his own life.

The Letters may be his attempt to be stoic about his fate (pun intended). He had no riches or power anymore, but a Stoic wouldn’t need them. Or maybe the distance from the court provided the perspective he needed. It certainly made it easier for him to live a little closer to his Stoic ideals.

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