Robert Caro is getting old and people are getting worried. He’s now 83 and each day that passes makes it increasingly unlikely that he’ll ever finish his epic (and must-read) series on Lyndon Johnson. He’s only made it up the the beginning of the Vietnam War...and there is so much material left to tackle.
It’s understandable that fans and publishers are subtly trying to nudge him to hurry and finish. With so little time left, they want him to get as much onto the page as possible. You might think that reminding him of his mortality is a feature of the Stoic practice—an important memento mori, but, in fact, it’s missing the point. As Caro recently told a reporter for the New York Times:
“People want to make me think about that, but it is a mistake to think about it, because it would make me rush. It’s probably the understatement of all time, but I have not rushed these books. They’ve taken the amount of time that’s necessary to show what I wanted to show. What would be the point of the books if I didn’t do them properly? I’m trying very hard to keep the standard of this book up to whatever standard I had in the other ones.”
This is exactly right. When Marcus Aurelius spoke of his own impending and inevitable death, it wasn’t to remind himself to squeeze in as much crap as possible--it wasn’t about picking up the pace. It was to remind himself of what was important, of the standard to which he needed to hold himself. He said, “Do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life.” That is: Do it right. Not do it as quickly as possible so you can say it’s complete.
Yes, it’s true, we will die. It could be tomorrow, or it could be fifty years from now. Which is why this very moment is so important. And why we can’t let anyone rush us through it.