I read the following passage from Daily Stoic and found it a poignant reminder how easy it is to get too carried away by one’s ideals. Sometimes, all we need is really to chill the fuck out and lend a helping hand. Here’s the passage:
Pagan Kennedy has a wonderful piece in the New York Times about the ironic mortality of those who believed they were immortal—or at least radically less mortal than the average person. There was Dr. Clive McCay who discovered that a low-calorie diet seriously elongated the life of rats, so he follow their lead…and died at 69. There was Dr. Roy Walford who believed a 1,600 calorie a day was a key part of his “120 Year Diet.” He died at 79 of ALS. There was Euell Gibbons who pushed a plant diet and died at 64. Adelle Davis didn’t eat refined foods and died at 80. Nathan Pritikin avoided fat and died at 69. Dr. Robert Atkins ate lots of fat and died at the same age. Perhaps most unbelievable was Jerome Rodale, the health publishing magnate, who actually died while on the Dick Cavett show moments after he had just predicted he would live to be over 100. He was 72.
Each one of these well-meaning folks would have done well to remember this beautiful passage from Marcus Aurelius:
“Don’t let yourself forget how many doctors have died, furrowing their brows over how many deathbeds. How many astrologers, after pompous forecasts about others’ ends. How many philosophers, after endless disquisitions on death and immortality. How many warriors, after inflicting thousands of casualties themselves. How many tyrants, after abusing the power of life and death atrociously, as if they were themselves immortal. How many whole cities have met their end: Helike, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and countless others. And all the ones you know yourself, one after another. One who laid out another for burial, and was buried himself, and then the man who buried him – all in the same short space of time.”
That is not to say that we shouldn’t try to take care of ourselves while we’re here on this planet. Marcus Aurelius had a doctor, Galen, who did his best to keep the old man alive. Seneca experimented with vegetarianism and exercised regularly. Good for them. Life is a gift—treat it well. Just don’t be so vain and self-absorbed that you forget the truth: Memento mori. We will die. Fate is unpredictable. We can go at any moment, no matter how good our genes are or how regularly we’ve taken our vitamins. A 100 year old can still get hit by a bus or a meteorite, you know. Have some goddamned humility about it.
And there is a final important part of Pagan’s piece in the Times. The best advances we’ve made in increasing life expectancy haven’t been selfish pursuits of the individual: It was eliminating the spreading of germs in hospitals. It was banning lead paint. It was reducing pollution. It was low-cost vaccines and the invention of antibiotics. That is, as the Stoics would have put it, doing things for the common good,not the individual.
So that’s the trick. Remembering your own fragile mortality and doing everything you can to help your neighbour and your unborn grandchildren live another day.