Life Is To Be Lived Now
A Vital, Personal Humanism (1986)
When one hears the word Humanism, one thinks of that philosophy spelled out in documents called “Manifestos,” a philosophy critical of traditional religion and which advocates reason, science, and civil liberties. What one too often does not think of is a philosophy of joy, personal fulfillment, and emotional liberation. Yet Humanism is all of these things. That the focus of discussion of Humanism has been largely on the Manifestos is unfortunate, since such discussion hides the vital and personal Humanism that means so much in the individual lives of so many.
In traditional churches, it is a common practice to take a verse of Scripture and elaborate upon it in a sermon. Humanists are at an advantage here because they need not limit their source material to just one book. Humanists can draw from all the great humanistic works of classical antiquity, or even from modern materials. Therefore, I take my text from the Dialogues of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a Roman philosopher and statesman. In particular I focus on his essay entitled “The Shortness of Life.” If I were to address the work in biblical fashion, I guess I would cite my text as Dialogues 10: chapter 1, verse 1. There Seneca writes:
Complaints that life is too short are as common today as in Seneca’s time. We often lament that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do the things we want. We find we must sleep away a third of our lifetime and, in the normal week, work nearly another third. We see this as leaving only a third for ourselves. But that is quickly eaten away by life’s other obligations — to family, to political party, to the maintaining of a home, to the paying off of creditors, and little things too numerous to mention. And so it seems that the gift of life has not really amounted to very much time for ourselves.
Yet, in spite of the fact that the life of the average Roman citizen was filled with as many similar obligations, Seneca had the boldness to declare: “the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it.” And he added, “our life is amply long if ordered properly.”
Reading these words today, one tends to think that their author is about to launch into a diatribe on time management aimed at providing one with an arsenal of nifty techniques for cramming more action into every minute. I call that the trash compactor compactor approach to life.
I used to attempt to live that way. In my early twenties I used to listen to Earl Nightingale success tapes. He advised making a list every morning, before the family gets up, of the six most important things you have to do today. And although this is not a bad practice at the beginning of a business day, one can carry it too far. Certainly I did. I used to keep a diary of my daily goals and note how well I did on each. I tried to allocate every moment of my time to increase my “efficiency.” My advice to myself in one of those diary entries shows how far to the extreme I had gone. “Live relentlessly,” I wrote.
This was not what Seneca had in mind, however. He was concerned with values and the priorities of life. He was urging his readers to reconsider their goals, to reassess themselves, and to give the truly important things the time they deserved.
As we look around us today, we see many people living life on what might be called the “deferred payment plan.” Children commonly say, “Just wait until I grow up.” Students can’t wait until they finish school and leave home so they can begin to live as they like. When young people date, they look forward to the time when they will be married. Then they’ll be happy. When married they look ahead to owning their own home. Then they’ll be happy. When winter comes, they look to Spring, or to the day they can move to California. If they have children they say, “When the kids grow up and leave home, then we’ll be able to do what we want.” Of course there’s still the job. So they look to retirement as the time to live.
Seneca denounces this attitude in the strongest language: “Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life,” he says, ” and to set apart only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? . . . What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and six- tieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point which not all have even attained!”
We can live now, every day. We should find our meaning and joy at this time, not some other. Don’t wait for happiness. Create it. For the irony is, when retirement comes, people tend to look back and wonder what became of the “good times.” The remedy, then, is to always remember that today is the day you will be nostalgic about tomorrow. These are the “good old days.” Make them good before they get old.
It’s funny how often I remember the “good old days” of my past. Yet those were the times I was anxious to get out of. I didn’t like what I was doing, so I felt that the good times all had to be ahead. Well, the good times for me are at the present time, but they could have been for me back then, too, and as nice as I remember them, if I had then the life philosophy I have now.
Postponing happiness, however, is not the only problem. We also lose much of our lives seeking to gain the approval of others. We live our lives for others, not in a charitable way that might bring mutual happiness, but in a slavish way, putting our happiness in their hands. We often worry about what others might think and say of us.
This is a big problem in adolescence. It was for me. Throughout high school, I was counting my social faux pauxs and ignoring my successes. My mistakes and embarrassments stuck in my mind and haunted my efforts to fall asleep. Round and round in my head I would replay the unpleasant scenes, as though it were a play and I was trying to memorize everybody’s lines. I imagined that everyone else had as good a memory as me when it came to the things I had done wrong. I’m sure that, at the drop of a hat, I could have rattled off all my biggest and latest stupidities to anyone who might inquire. And that memorization effort was successful, in a sense. To this day I can still recall some of those high school fooleries–though the memories no longer carry with them the emotional impact and insult to my self-esteem that they once did.
Such is the extent that one can worry about what other people think. To this, the Roman philosopher Dio Chrysostom declared:
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius suggested a way to avoid this problem. In his Meditations he wrote:
Elsewhere he added that one shouldn’t listen to the opinions of all people, but only those who we can respect.
Of course there are also those we seek to impress, get even with, and compete against. How much of our lives do we allow them to rob from us? And among how many such people does each one of us distribute his or her life? Seneca argues:
In my early twenties, there were lots of people I wanted to impress. I had to find out the hard way that impressing someone is not a one-shot deal. You can’t just make an investment in a single positive impression and then go about your business. You feel you have to keep on impressing these people. At least, that was the way it worked for me. I not only wanted to stand tall in their estimation, but I felt I had to constantly maintain my stature. Like the personnel at Eastern Airlines, I felt I had to earn my wings every day.
And there were people with whom I was in continual competition, too, or who I wanted to get even with. The diaries I kept at that time are filled with references to such people, which sometimes can make me wonder who’s life the diaries were really recording!
Clearly, then, our efforts to live our lives by the measure of others turn us away from ourselves. So, we should choose with care the standards by which we wish to live and the standard- bearers we wish to follow. If we are finding life short, this is evidence that we have chosen wrongly and should reassess our goals, and perhaps even our values. It is so easy, after a promising start, to become sidetracked and lose sight of our reasons for doing what we do. Things that were, at first, means to worthy ends can become ends in themselves. But these are not our ends, the ends we started with. They are ends that take us away from ourselves and render the time we really spend for ourselves shorter and shorter.
We would do well to keep an eye on our lives. Are we led on by irrelevant desires, engaged in useless tasks, always plunging into something new instead of finding a steady goal, or spending time in escape so as to avoid confronting our problems? Periodic reassessment of where we are is insurance against losing sight of what we really want.
Another source of the feeling that life is short is the time lost in worry, fear, and anxiety. One irony here is that at the very moment we are achieving our goals or having the life we seek, the anxious thought comes over us, “How long will this last?” We wonder if it might not all disappear in some calamity. The happily married can wonder if divorce will one day ruin it all. The wealthy can worry about bankruptcy. Whatever it is, it can be lost, and this realization can cause some to fail to enjoy the bounty of the moment.
I know one woman who worried that she might never be able to bear children. But when pregnant she worried about miscarriage and deformity. When the child was born she worried about crib death. When the child was older she worried about injury or possible abduction. Any of these things can happen to a person, it is true. But something else can happen as well. Everything can turn out fine. Since one does not have control over all outside factors, then the best course is to enjoy the pregnancy for what it is, enjoy the new life for what it is, enjoy the child’s growth for its own sake, and so on. Precautions can be taken, but life is to be lived now.
As anxiety over the future robs us of the present, so does guilt over the past. All human beings commit wrongs, some intentional and some accidental. But guilt and remorse are non- productive and often counter-productive. If we have done wrong, we should seek what action we can take to remedy the problem or make amends. If nothing can be done, we should try to learn what we can from the experience so as to avoid repetition in the future. But at no time is it productive to wallow in our own self-pity, condemn ourselves, punish ourselves, or pursue the rest of our lives as though we are undeserving.
Yet so many do this. Were it not so, there would not be the popularity of guilt-oriented religions like conservative Christianity. In Old Testament times, the collective guilt of the tribe was symbolically placed on a goat and the scapegoat was sent out into the wilderness. But with the coming of Christianity, Christ became the scapegoat for the sins of the individual. His death was to free all those who believed from the guilt of their past actions. The “saved” thought of themselves as “washed in Christ’s guiltless blood,” and fully pardoned for their transgressions.
This sort of symbolic blood-sacrifice is an intellectualized version of a primitive scheme for expiation of guilt. As long as humans have lived in societies they have often sought to invent such schemes. Guilt is such a painful and disorienting emotion that society cannot function if it is allowed free reign.
Yet such guilt expiation schemes accomplish no real good. The wrong has still been done. This leaves the thinking person in a quandary. Since no ritual can undo an actual wrongdoing, should the thinking person continue to feel guilty? Many would say yes. But this would render the thinking person less effic- ient than the one who has the superstitious scheme. Suddenly the twin goals of honesty to oneself and rational living seem at odds.
But they are not. The initial awareness of wrongdoing reminds us of our error. But such feelings are not ends in themselves. They are goads to productive action. Such action can be to remedy what can be remedied, or to perform in the future in a fashion that will avoid a repeat performance. But once the appropriate action is taken or resolve established, there is nothing more that needs to be done. And if one feels a sense of wrongdoing about something that is not actually wrong, then the appropriate course is self-re-education, not remedial action or resolve.
But think how much people waste of their lives in useless replays of past wrongs. And those who cannot face their wrongs squarely, and have no guilt expiation scheme in which they can believe, often resort to repression and other efforts to forget what they did. Such actions can distract one from a meaningful pursuit of ones goals as much as outright guilt can. The past is to be neither forgotten nor dwelled upon, but learned from in the interests of better living in the present and future.
In regards to the use of time, past, present, and future, Seneca wrote:
I find this observation of Seneca quite accurate. Today I can be in a potentially boring situation, such as waiting alone at a bus stop, without being bored. Although there is nothing in the present I can do, I can contemplate my past, plan my future, or do both. This makes the time go by quickly, yet, para- doxically, makes my life longer.
It is a Humanist dictum that this life is all and enough. We will pass this way but once and there is no guaranteed paradise waiting just beyond the grave. This is our only shot. But the possibilities of this life are sufficient to give meaning to our existence. For it is in the context of this life that we love, laugh, experience nature, pursue goals, and enjoy triumph. And to better enjoy these things we cultivate courage, bear adversity, and rise up from the ashes of failure.
Since it is this one life that cradles all our values and pursuits, it is imperative that we make it our life, that we set goals that are our goals, and that we seek to enjoy the present moment, even when it is not everything we have desired. By doing this, and by planning every day as if it were our last, we will neither long for nor fear tomorrow. Tomorrow will, instead, become an extra bonus to an already full life. And the past will not haunt us, but rather be our teacher in our efforts to better live today.
In lecturing on various aspects of Humanism, I have often been confronted by the preacher of salvation who offers me Pascal’s famous wager. I have been told that by not believing in an afterlife I take a great risk. For if the afterlife is really there, I will miss out. But if I believe, and it is not there, I lose nothing. So in the interest of a sound investment strategy, I ought to become a believer.
There are many things wrong with this wager. But the one that concerns me in this context is the fact that the proposal is not a sound investment strategy. For if time and energy is invested in believing in salvation, following rules and rituals that are designed to guarantee salvation, expiating guilt in a fashion conducive to salvation, associating with others who talk about nothing but salvation, and seeking to convert others to engaging in similar activities, how much of one’s life is really being lived as one desires?
A number of years ago, I knew a young woman who lived her life this way. Nothing I could say or do seemed to have any effect. She was constantly trying to live by religious rules, doubting her own salvation, praying away her guilts, keeping the company of people who reinforced these ideas, and occasionally trying to spread this faith to others. Never have I seen a human being more emotionally tortured than this woman. Her religion became a fixation, not the “fire insurance” policy that Pascal’s wager seems to imply. This kind of religion, or any kind, isn’t something you do once and then it’s taken care of. It’s a life commitment. So it does make a this-worldly difference when one chooses to accept or reject such a belief as this.
As you can see, active belief in an afterlife can act as a tremendous drain on your time and can sidetrack you away from living the good life here and now. Too many have found this out too late. Ex-fundamentalists very commonly regret sacrificed years. This can lead them into a frantic effort to make up for lost time. When an article on Fundamentalists Anonymous, an organization for ex-fundamentalists, appeared in an issue of Penthouse magazine, the positive response from ex-fundamen- talists was overwhelming, since so many were reading the magazine to catch up on some of the living they had missed.
The price humans pay in adherence to false beliefs, devotion to charismatic leaders, and involvement in fanatical mass movements is staggering. Seneca could have had such people in mind when he wrote:
Humanism, on the other hand, is a philosophy for today, for the here and now world of our senses and aspirations. It is a philosophy that puts life first, death last. It is a philosophy that finds joy in a Spring flower or the crash of waves on the seashore, in a momentary human encounter or the purr of a kitten. It is a philosophy of purposeful goals, meaningful pursuits, and high aspirations. It is a philosophy of human interconnected- ness, love, and the family.
How can it be all this? How can it mix the pleasures of the hedonist, the aspirations of the visionary, the self-interest of the individual, and the commitment of the family? Because all of these are natural human tendencies, and Humanism is geared to humans as they are, with all their varied aspects. It is a philosophy that finds this life long and meaningful, and does so because it urges people to live in a manner that is appropriate to their natures. Nothing need distract the Humanist from the business of living fully, loving fully, sharing fully, and pursuing goals that give purpose and meaning to one’s existence.
So, in a way, Pascal’s wager can be turned around. Since we have more evidence for the here and now than we will probably ever have for the hereafter, why not assume that this life is all there is and live it to the hilt. If this is correct, you will have lived a long and joyful life. But if there is more beyond the grave, then you may have a heavenly bonus coming as well!
Recently, when I expressed these ideas in a public forum, I was asked if my philosophy wasn’t too selfish. Was I, in my efforts to have a long life myself, ignoring other people who might not be so fortunate? Was I not simply expressing the ideas of the “me-generation?”
However, as I have noted, this philosophy appeals to our natures, and there is more to our natures than the desire for personal pleasure. We also get individual fulfillment through making a difference in the world, trying to help others, and trying to resolve the inequalities and injustices in the world. Humans are social beings. If this were not so, no public charities could survive. Fulfilled people are those who make their social causes and other pursuits truly their own. They choose them carefully and re-assess them periodically, thereby preventing altruism from becoming slavery.
I would like to conclude with one of the most humanistic pieces of poetry to come down to us from ancient times. Its source is ancient India, and it is called The Salutation to the Dawn. Were we to greet each day with words like these, we would never have time to complain that life was short. We would be too busy living our Humanism.
For it is life, the very life of life,
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence:
The bliss of growth
The glory of action
The splendor of achievement
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision,
But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day!
Such is the salutation to the dawn.
This discourse was delivered as the Dietrich Lecture at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, November 30, 1986. It is an expanded version of a similar discourse delivered earlier that year at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh and subsequently published in the Autumn 1986 issue of Religious Humanism.
The quotations from Seneca are taken from Seneca: Moral Essays, vol. 2, “De Brevitate Vitae,” translated by John W. Basore (London: William Heineman Ltd, 1932). Material from Dio Chrysostom and Marcus Aurelius is translated by the author.
© Copyright 1995 by Frederick Edwords