Lessons from My Dog, The Stoic Philosopher

My dog, Tara, that my family adopted when I was thirteen, passed away recently.  While her passing hit me more emotionally than I expected, I do not intend for this piece to be a sob story about losing a dog, you can read Marley and Me for that.  When my sadness subsided, I thought about how nice of a life she lived.

When my dog passed, I had been reading a series of essays aptly named, “On the Shortness of Life,” by Seneca the Younger, a Stoic philosopher, born in the year 4 BC.  Now, before you stop reading, I am not about to drone on like that blonde haired prick in Good Will Hunting.  Previously, when someone would bring up philosophy, I would immediately yell, “SOOOCRATES DUDE!” in my best impersonation of Keanu Reeves a la Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Seneca’s writing is very approachable and surprisingly relevant to modern life.  I don’t think Tara dabbled in Stoic philosophy, but reading these essays made me reflect on her short, yet hopefully fulfilling, life and what I can learn from them both.

Don’t get me wrong, laying around while the person who feeds you is at work doesn’t exactly sound riveting or rewarding.  But, Tara really did as she pleased and I would like to think she lived a good life.  She would wake up, eat, pee, poop, chew a good bone, bark at the mailman and enjoy her spot on the carpet where the sunlight came in to keep her warm. 

Dogs don’t have to pay bills or take on anything in the way of responsibility, they just live in the moment.  She wasn’t worried about tomorrow, about meetings or about coffee plans with other dogs she didn’t want to hang out with.  She partook and relished in every activity until she was satisfied and moved on.

Last picture of Tara and me.
Last picture of Tara and me.

In Seneca’s letters to a friend, he laments the way many of us spend our days making ourselves needlessly busy and how this is in stark contrast to truly living our lives.  He notes how so many men spend their lives chasing power, wealth or fame, only to get to the end of their lives and realize they have not truly lived.  How many times do we hear this story when celebrities fall from grace?  And this guy was writing this stuff 2,000 years ago!

“The very pleasures of such men are uneasy and disquieted by alarms of various sorts, and at the very moment of rejoicing the anxious thought comes over them: ‘How long will these things last?’  This feeling has led Kings to weep over the power they possessed, and they have not so much delighted in the greatness of their fortune, as they have viewed with terror the end to which it must some time come.”

– Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life,” XVII

I am not pretending that money does not make a big difference in our lives.  However, today, particularly in the U.S., we are pretty high on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  How often do we complain of not having the time we wish we had?  How often do we fill our days with things that really don’t matter or give us any satisfaction?  As Seneca says, “…no one sets a value on time; all use it lavishly as if it costs nothing.” 

When I read these essays, I think about all the time I have let slip by with mindless Internet surfing, keeping up-to-date on past peers’ whereabouts on Facebook, going to events I don’t really want to go to, working a job that was burning me out…  Any of this sound familiar?  Seneca explains that this need to fill our time with busyness cuts the time we truly live short:

“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 all the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.”

– Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life,” I

Seneca observes how cheap we are with our money and yet wasteful with our finite resource of time.

When I started working, I enjoyed keeping myself busy, avoiding downtime.  It just seemed like what I was supposed to do.  I never thought about the experiences themselves as a sacrifice of time. 

Many of those gatherings led to great memories with great friends, and I do not regret any of them for a second.  However, I now wonder if I was keeping myself busy to avoid thinking about my goals and how my time was being spent trying to achieve them.

As I got older and work continued to take more of a toll, I found myself indulging in the lazy couch day more than my younger self would have ever been satisfied with.  As I wrote in my post on meditation, I did not spend this time indulging in deep thought, reading or any type of self-improvement.  My lazy days were not mindful, they were mindless, spent reading every article published about the Yankees, surfing Facebook and zoning out watching TV. Seneca touched on this too:

“Even the leisure of some men is engrossed; in their villa or on their couch, in the midst of solitude, although they have withdrawn from all others, they are themselves the source of their own worry; we should say that these are living, not in leisure, but in busy idleness.”

– Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life,” XII

I feel like this dude was writing to me from Rome, two thousand years ago. 

The Stoic Philosopher’s believe that the only endeavors worth pursuing are those that improve yourself and benefit the greater good.  While Seneca would love to have everyone spend their time studying philosophy, I don’t think we need to go that far.

I do believe that we all need to create some time in our lives to evaluate our goals and priorities in life. If you do not create the time to really think about what is important to you, no one will. 

There are no guidance counselors in life, unlike High School and College, it is up to you to set goals and live the life you want to live.  When we have a clear goal in mind, it is easier to cut out the daily activities and minutiae that distract us from achieving them.

“All postponement of something they hope for seems long to them.  Yet the time which they enjoy is short and swift, and it is made much shorter by their own fault.

– Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life,” XVI

The message Seneca is sending is clear, we need to do a better job of appreciating the moment and not always looking forward to tomorrow.  

Tara never worried about the next day, never worried about keeping herself busy so she didn’t have to deal with her feelings.  She loved chewing on bones and running back and forth with the neighbors’ dog on the other side of the fence.  She enjoyed the present, never rushing from one thing to the next.  I’d like to think that, had she realized death was approaching her, she had gotten the most out of life and enjoyed it the best a dog can.

Tara hated that cone, made it hard to catch Frisbees.
Tara hated that cone, made it hard to catch Frisbees.

Over the last month of traveling, without my usual distractions, I have been able to think about my past and present in a peaceful and reflective way that I was not able to while working.  When you just go-go-go, it is hard to take the time to think about what you really want out of life, what you are working so hard for and why you keep yourself so busy.  Seneca writes:

“…those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear for the future, have a life that is very brief and troubled; when they have reached the end of it, the poor wretches perceive too late that for such a long while they have been busied in doing nothing.”

– Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life,” XVI

Work is hard, for many it consumes around 50-60 hours per week (even more given the time needed to get ready, commute and check our email at 9PM.  Out of 168 hours a week, that’s about one-third our time.  In 2013, Gallup reported the average American gets about 7 hours of sleep a night, that comes to 49 hours a week.  So, we spend roughly 109 hours a week working and sleeping, that leaves us 59 hours to “do what we want.”

I don’t know about you, but when I think about my life, I do not feel like I have that much free time.  So, where does all my free time go?

Of course, there are the basic chores and items that modern life requires us to deal with.  However, I know I am guilty of noticing it is 5PM and saying “I have 2 hours to KILL before dinner at 7.”

Hours to kill.  After reflecting on “The Shortness of Life,” it is hard to imagine wanting to “kill” any time.  And this is the time I spent all week at work looking forward to!

Time is so valuable, and yet, it is something that is easy for all of us to take for granted when we are young, healthy and feel like we have so much to look forward to:

“Present time is very brief, so brief, indeed, that to some there seems to be none; for it is always in motion, it ever flows and hurries on; it ceases to be before it has come, and can no more brook delay than the firmament or the stars, whose ever unresting movement never lets them abide in the same track.”

– Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life,” X

Remember those 109 hours we spend every week working and sleeping?  We need to keep up that pace until we are 65, probably longer now a days.  Our only source of relief being our weekends and 2-3 weeks of vacation (if we are lucky) a year.

Seneca criticizes those who claim they are offsetting “leisure” and time for themselves until they are in their fifties and sixties, which was pretty old in the 40’s (not 1940’s, but 0040’s AD).  We work so hard through the prime years of our life with the expectation that we may be able to enjoy our latter years when living is not as easy.

Seneca’s disdain for delaying life for retirement, extends to the “P” word, procrastination.  I am guilty of being a master procrastinator.  I have always thought I have plenty of time to chase my dreams and live the kind of life I want, when the time is right.

I am beginning to realize that life is not going to slow down to make it easy for me to change.  The time for change is never going to be “right.”  If you know what is important to you, you have to make time, not excuses, and make it happen.

“The greatest hindrance to living is expectancy, which depends upon the morrow and wastes to-day. You dispose of that which lies in the hands of Fortune, you let go that which lies in your own. Whither do you look? At what goal do you aim? All things that are still to come lie in uncertainty; live straightway!.”

– Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life,” IX

This idea has stood the test of time.  1,700 years later, Benjamin Franklin echoed Seneca’s sentiment, “do not put off until tomorrow what can be done today.”  When I reread that passage, it seems so obvious, yet something that many of us, myself included, continue to struggle with.

Tara did not wait until she turned 10 to chase Frisbees up and down the backyard.  She ran after them the moment she was strong enough to run.  She attacked life, not the other way around.

We often don’t appreciate how good something is until it is taken from us.  While Tara did not have the foresight of getting old to let her enjoy the moments she had, we as human beings do. 

From now on, I will do my best to remain mindful, observe the past, appreciate the present and remember that the future is not guaranteed.  I will try to live offensively, and tackle life as Tara would tackle her chew toys.  Living life defensively, on terms you don’t set for yourself, is unquestionably easier.  However, when you are reminded that the future is promised to no one, would you rather finish living the way you want to or worry that you missed something?

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