“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
— Marcus Aurelius. Meditations 2.11
I’ve struggled with this quote from Marcus Aurelius in the context of the stoic philosophy of making the best of every situation, good or bad, and not letting things become larger or worse in your mind than they are in reality. At face value, this line reads like a Carpe Diem commission: Seize the Day! Don’t waste a second! Don’t miss out!
If you know me at all, you’re probably pretty well aware that FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out, for all of you acronymally challenged folks and/or baby boomers out there reading this) has historically been a driving value in my life, since my earliest homeschooling days when I realized All The Fun I was missing in public school where boys made dirty jokes and girls changed best friends more often than their underwear.
My FOMO has faded since I have experienced… well, a lot of things, including dirty jokes and unchanged underwear, and I’ve discovered the bliss of a couch full of dogs and a Person of Interest - but even as that anxiety takes a back seat, I am keenly aware of the shortness and frailty of life, the unguaranteedness of all of it, and how necessary it is to do the important things while we can.
The Stoics weren’t much into that FOMO business, so what did ol’ MA mean when he said this? It certainly wasn’t some hedonistic missive to tear it up and get you Clubbin’ on, just in case it was your last chance. Based on the context and his other writings, it wasn’t even some entrepreneurial command to “make hay while the sun shines.”
I’ve wrestled with what Memento Mori - the state of constant awareness of the frailty of life - means in the middle of the doldrums of a cubicle-bound Monday. Nothing feels like more of a waste of time than the constant refresh of email inboxes, social media feeds and planning to plan meetings about meetings about planning documents to plan agendas for planning events for some grand plan that might ultimately never come to fruition anyway, or be shot down by lack of funding, or even worse, lack of vision in a community. How can I sit here and do this knowing that any moment could be my last? How?
Marcus Aurelius had his own cubicle-bound Monday doldrums, there’s no doubt about it. This dude served as Emperor of one of the greatest civilizations that the world has known, only after decades of intensive study and grooming. There had to be a thousand moments that little Marky was staring off into the dancing poplar trees, daydreaming of Dryads and Nymphs, wondering what all the greek and latin gibberish was worth anyhow. What he discovered in those scrolls and daydreams wasn’t a way to escape to a new and exciting way to waste his time - he learned to maximize the thing in front of him. He learned to suck as much life out of that marble cubicle and those rolls of parchment as he possibly could. There was no avoiding the responsibility that his birth and education allocated to him, and so he decided to master every lesson delivered to him, and let it shape not only him, but the nation he would one day rule.
Maybe Marcus wasn’t talking about how frail life was, but how changeable. Maybe it’s not life in general that you could leave right now, but life specifically. Maybe the cubicle life is about to end and there’s something in that plan to plan that you’re gonna need outside of those closing-in-on-you Monday walls.
I am striving to own the place where I am, the life I am in, in this moment, and get the most out of it - and on beautiful summer days, staring at two monitors and a lot of foreign information that does little to stir my soul, it’s a workout. I need to complain less and seek more growth, because the hard stuff is usually the stuff I need the most, and maybe sitting still is the toughest thing I’ll say I’ve ever done in my life.
My two-monitor days won’t last forever, but it’s imperative that I get out of them what I need for the life beyond. So that’s the standard by which I should be measuring what I do and say and think. I need to see what I am missing out on right in front of me, because it won’t last.