On Longevity: This Seneca Quote Puts Its Value in Perspective

A long life ought not be our ultimate pursuit

Young and old
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“As it is with a play, so it is with life — what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is.” Seneca the Younger, in Letters from a Stoic

It’s torture to sit through a movie or play that’s both bad and long. By contrast, it’s thrilling to watch a short, brilliant, performance.

In the same way, a life of greatness has nothing to do with how long it is.

Think, for example, of Irving Berlin, Simon Bolivar and Ann Frank. They lived, respectively, 101, 47 and 15 years.

Composer and lyricist, Irving Berlin wrote some 1,500 songs, including “White Christmas” and “God Bless America.”

Bolivar liberated -or had a central role in liberating- not one, not two, but six countries from Spain: Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Panama and Bolivia.

Through the act of writing, Anne Frank conveyed -in a way everyone can understand- both the sublime goodness and the depths of evil humans are capable of.

Clearly, these individuals’ greatness is not proportional to their longevity.

No good life need be long either. And yet we devote much more physical and mental energy to lengthening it rather than elevating it.

Even when we care for loved ones, we’re compelled to prioritize length of life over how good the life is.

Hence we’ll make decisions for parents with dementia, for example, that prolong life, yet detract from quality and enjoyment of life (which, to my mind, are part of a good life).

A good life, to me, is a life lived based on coherent ideals that guide your actions. Whatever these values may be, we need to focus on them every day, every hour. The more we do so, the more our life will be a good life.

However old or young you are and feel, you may live two more months, five more years, or even 93 more years. You may live to, say, 37, 49, 81 or even 118. No one knows!

Let’s obsess less on longevity and put our energies into living a good life today. That’s what matters.

This is my 4th piece for a 30-day writing challenge on a single topic: Quotes from Seneca the Younger’s Letters from a Stoic.

Why this topic? Because I can’t get over how timely and brilliant Seneca’s words are -2,000 years after he wrote them.

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