Are You Living Well or Preparing to Live Well?September 9th, 2009 · 24 comments
Note: I started writing this article last April, when I was down in Rio de Janeiro. After my recent return from the similarly contemplation-inducing Bologna, I decided to finish it.
When I began writing this article I was sitting on the balcony of a hotel room in Rio, looking over the beach pictured to the right. To my ear, the waves in Brazil are absurdly loud, which had the effect of miring me in a haze of tropic contemplation. It was in this state that I happened onto a thought that I couldn’t shake: perhaps the students who are feeling the most run down and worn out by college should take a moment to ask themselves a simple question…
Am I living well now or preparing to live well later?
This question is not new. In tribute to the death of a good friend, Tim Ferriss posted a full length translation of Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life. I read this translation around the same time that I was thinking about this post, and one passage in particular caught my attention:
It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested…
But one man is possessed by greed that is insatiable, another by a toilsome devotion to tasks that are useless…one man is exhausted by an ambition that always hangs upon the decision of others.
There’s no need to annotate Seneca — like most stoics, his words have an eerie resonance with our current moment. I’ll instead give you my own simple observation. As far as I can tell, the happiest students are those who try to shape their life into something that’s meaningful, quality, and enjoyable right now; the type who get excited about the philosophy seminar they got into, and then spend an early Fall day outside getting acquainted with the reading. These students aren’t afraid of hard work, but they keep it carefully contained, because they know there’s a lifetime more where that came from, and if they can’t handle it well now, when will they ever?
The morning after I started this post, these ideas still rattling around my mind, I met up with a friend who was taking some time off from Stanford for a South American wander-about. We found a nearby bar. It was early, but my friend had taught himself some Portuguese over the past few months, and he sweet-talked the bar tender into some free espressos, which we sipped while talking about nothing in particular — raising our voices slightly to be heard over the nearby waves.
If you’re not trying to live well now, what are you waiting for?