There’s a saying that you should live each day as if it were your last, which is supposed to help you fully enjoy each moment. I’ve been recently thinking about another way of looking at it: living each day as if yesterday was your last. What do I mean by this? Well, let me explain how I got around to thinking about this in the first place.
I am a bit of a pessimist when planning, which is perhaps a little surprising to people who know me in person because I’m generally cheerful and positive. I think it’s precisely because I think about risks and safety nets that I can easily focus on the bright side. Now, thinking about what can go wrong often leads to dealing with ultimate consequences. (I can’t be the only one who routinely thinks about death before biking in city traffic, am I? But I bike anyway.)
From time to time, I reassure myself that hey, life so far has been pretty darn awesome, actually, so even if it were abruptly cut off or made significantly more challenging, things are on the whole pretty good. I might not have worked on things of lasting significance (and what could really be significant, anyway, in a universe probably heading towards heat death in gazillions of years?) and there may be more awesomeness ahead of me, but even after the thirty years I’ve been around so far, people have told me that some of my thoughts have been useful, and I’m happy with what I’ve been learning so far. That’s as good a start as any, and anything else is icing on the cake. Instead of accepting the common view that life is incomplete unless you do X, Y, and Z, I like to think that life is pretty good, actually, and that things just get even more wonderful. (This is why I haven’t quite gotten the hang of bucket lists–I don’t have that burning sense of urgency and incompleteness.) I would prefer to keep on going, but I don’t have to worry too much about missing out.
While chasing down some notes about hypomnemata (those personal notes I wrote about while thinking about my handbook), I came across Michel Foucault’s The Hermeneutics of the Subject (2001, translated by Graham Burchell in 2005; you might be able to read it online). Here’s the segment that got me thinking about this particular reflection:
With regard to our life, and this is the central point of this new ethics of old age, we should place ourselves in a condition such that we live it as if it is already over. In fact, even if we are still young, even if we are adult and still active, with regard to all that we do and all that we are we should have the attitude, behavior, detachment, and accomplishment of someone who has already completed his life. We must live expecting nothing more from our life and, just as the old man is someone who expects nothing more from his life, we must expect nothing from it even when we are young. We must complete our life before our death. The expression is found in Seneca’s letter 32: “consummare vitam ante mortem.” We must complete our life before our death, we must fulfill our life before the moment of death arrives, we must achieve perfect satiety of ourselves. “Summa tui satietas“: perfect, complete satiety of yourself. This is the point towards which Seneca wants Lucilius to hasten. You can see that this idea that we must organize our life in order to be old, that we must hasten towards our old age, and that even if we are young we should constitute ourselves in relation to our life as if we are old, raises a series of important questions to which we will return.
Aha! People smarter than me have thought about the same thing, but more eloquently and more deeply than I could have. In the same section, he writes about how society typically thinks old age is not as awesome as youth, but actually, old age is pretty cool because that’s when all of your philosophical work comes to fruition and you’re safe from many of the things that disturb other people. This reminds me a little of how my mom is slowly making peace with growing old. Sometimes it makes her sad. I want to tell her that it doesn’t have to be all that bad. Granted, I am only turning 31 next month, so it’s quite possible that I don’t know what I’m talking about. We’ll see in forty or sixty years. But if Foucault and Seneca say something along those lines with the advantage of quite a few years of experience (Foucalt was maybe 55 when he gave those lectures on hermeneutics that were later transcribed and translated for that book), maybe I’m onto something, or maybe I can take advantage of the springboard that they’re offering.
I’m partly writing this reflection for myself, too, decades down the line. If Future-Sacha gets caught up in the confusion of the world, at least she’ll be able to look back and say, “Okay, clearly you thought this at some point in time. What changed? What’s true?” I would like to grow old like the way I am now, but I don’t entirely know how things will work out yet. Still, if I look ahead a little and figure out how I’d like to live–old every moment, so that I can be young every moment–then I’ll probably have a higher chance of reaching it, I think.
The nice thing about reading philosophers (especially classic ones!) is that they’ve often come up with short, clear ways to say things that you’ve been trying to untangle. Like this, from Seneca’s 12th letter (“On old age”):
When a man has said: “I have lived!”, every morning he arises he receives a bonus.’
Every day above ground is a good day. This is already more than I could have asked for, and what I have is already enough. Anything beyond this is icing on the cake and fudge on the brownie. (So remember that, future Sacha, when you’re figuring out what could go wrong or you’re worrying about opportunity costs. It’s okay.)
I still have a lot to learn about growing old. I imagine that when I am properly old, I’ll be less fazed (“That can’t bother me! I’ve been through worse.”), more appreciative (“Ooh, there are all these little things you notice with experience.”), and better at reflecting, learning, and teaching. I think this process of growing older will be interesting. Who’s with me? =)