Living What Can Be Lived

I've been having trouble finding peace. Both my wife and I need to change jobs soon and I'm not certain how that's going to happen and what it will entail. Because of this I've been spending a lot of time dwelling on the future, which is a terrible idea. In fact, I'd say that the reason I'm not at peace is specifically because I'm thinking about the future. Stoicism would tell me the same thing.

It's fundamental to Stoicism that the only moment we ever have access to is the present moment. The past is out of our reach and can never be changed, the future simply isn't, and there's frankly no guarantee that it ever will be. As Seneca put it, "These two things must be cut away: fear of the future, and the memory of past sufferings. The latter no longer concern me, and the future does not concern me yet."  When we Stoics think about what we can and can't control, it should be obvious that we can only use our energy in the here and now. And yet it can be so very difficult to keep our thoughts in the present.

I find it interesting that Seneca uses, "cutting away," when addressing the past and future because another Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, would speak similarly over a hundred years later. In Meditations 12:3 he writes, “If you can cut yourself - your mind - free of what other people do and say, of what you've said and done, of the things that you're afraid will happen...” Again we are advised to cut ourselves free from past regrets and future worries. The effort, even violence, of the imagery speaks to me right now. I definitely feel the entanglement that comes with a focus on either the past or the future. I would love to gain some tranquility in the present moment, but cutting away the thoughts I’m wrapped up in will take real effort.

Stoicism is present-oriented, and yet it doesn't ask us to live only for the moment. We all have projects, we are part of things that continue on (hopefully). We have to expend effort towards future events if we're going to flourish in our lives. But there's a way to do this that focuses on what we control rather than on what we don't. In my job hunt, I can't get someone to pick up my resume and call me for an interview, but I can send out that resume. I can't make my wife's work load any less, but I can take on tasks that ease the work at home and also make myself available for any other support she needs. And why wouldn't I do these things? After all, the things Stoicism asks us to cut away are wastes of our time and attention. They are things that we can never control. They are what Stoicism refers to as impressions and, in the case of imagined future events, these impressions can only be wrong ones. Latter in the same passage, Marcus also writes, "If you can cut free of impressions that cling to the mind, free of the future and the past...and concentrate on living what can be lived (which means the present)...then you can spend the time you have left in tranquility. And in kindness. And at peace with the spirit within you." Concentrate on living what can be lived. It's tremendous advice, if also difficult. I've known the tranquility, and peace, and also kindness, that comes from concentrating on the present. It's something I want and need to get back to.

Hopefully soon.

Perhaps right now?