In one of the darkest passages in all of Stoic thought, Epictetus discusses the prospect of putting your child to bed and saying goodbye to them in your mind as you do so because it may be the last time you get the chance. It’s an image that is hard to swallow. It’s morbid. It’s tempting fate. What kind of fatalistic person would do that?
In his new translation of Epictetus, A.A Long responds to this criticism and puts Epictetus’s thinking in proper context:
“His memento mori warnings concerning wife and children touch a bleak note—until we reflect on the prevalence of infant mortality and premature death in his time. Rather than insensitivity, they betoken the strongest possible recommendation to care for loved ones as long as we are permitted to have them.”
That’s well said. Epictetus wasn’t thinking morbid thoughts about his family because he didn’t care about them. He was thinking those thoughts as a way of making sure that his actions fully aligned with how much he truly did care about them.
Because the truth is that too often there is far too great a disparity between what we say we feel and how we act on those feelings. It’s only after the sudden loss of a friend that we realize we had been taking them for granted, for instance. It’s only after a natural disaster wipes out some distant attraction that we realize what our memories of it meant to us, and how we lost our chance to visit one more time. It’s only after we hurt someone—after we can see the pain we’ve caused them—that we understand how selfish we’ve been.
Well, what Epictetus was trying to do was give himself that moment of precipitous clarity. Reminding ourselves that we can lose a loved one at any moment, that inevitably one of our interactions with them will be our final interaction, is a way to make sure that our choices are aligned with how we truly feel, and that our actions reflect it.
Today could be the last day your father calls you—so make sure you answer when you see his name on the screen. Put down whatever you’re doing and pay attention to the words he speaks to you. Today could be your last morning with your wife, your child, your husband, your best friend. Do you really want it to be another one of those days where you rush them, nag them, put them off, or make some tiny issue into a fight? Of course not.
All we have for sure is this present moment. So let’s love it, and the people we are experiencing it with, while we still can.