Philosophy | Stoicism

On Setbacks and Moving Ahead

“Show me that the good life doesn’t consist in its length, but in its use, and that it is possible—no, entirely too common—for a person who has had a long life to have lived too little.” Seneca, Moral Letters

Preparing to sauté a holy trinity of onions, celery and peppers last night, I found the counter loaded with dishes and grocery items that hadn’t been put away.  So I set about putting them away and in the process of pushing a bag of coffee into a cabinet a glass mason jar was pushed out and plummeted to the floor, where it transformed into hundreds of shards of glass.    Which transformed my evening of cooking into an evening of cleaning every bit of glass off the floor before I could get back to the original mission.  Life is full of setbacks.

I have big plans – I always have.  Sometimes they play out but many times they peter out. So it goes.  Lately I’ve been planning big again, as documented yesterday in this blog, and planning big requires a healthy dose of optimism about tomorrow and the tomorrows after that.  But like the mason jar I know they’ll be setbacks along the way.  Ultimately plans are just a direction we decide to go in, and action is what we do to move in that direction today.  For there’s only today, as Seneca reminds us from his dusty grave.

“I don’t complain about the lack of time . . . what little I have will go far enough. Today—this day—will achieve what no tomorrow will fail to speak about. I will lay siege to the gods and shake up the world.” – Seneca, Medea

Bold statement to be sure, but there’s boldness in action, and boldness in the immediate. So why not be bold today?  Do something outside the ordinary.  And this is where we might book a trip to someplace new or dart off the some other adventure.  Since “darting off” options are limited for most of us, what can we do that strikes of bold?  What shall today’s one line entry in the journal be?  Rolled the trash bin back up from the street?  Or maybe something more?  We’ve got roughly 16 hours of useful time in a day.  What little time we have will go far enough if we would only get moving now.

“The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.” – Seneca

Every morning I wake up and get moving right away.  There’s always urgency in my mornings.  Urgency to write and read and think a bit about things before the rest of the world wakes up and imposes itself on my grand plans.  I value the mornings most of all for this reason.  We don’t know what mason jars are lurking about to mess up the plans we have, but worrying about lurking setbacks isn’t going to build momentum in this moment.  Focus on the actions you can take now to build resilience and momentum to handle the setbacks then.  When the setback happens, give it the attention it needs for the time it requires, and then find some small step forward.  And another step after that.  That’s life, one moment and one setback at a time.  Whether a shattered mason jar or a pandemic, it’s only a setback (and not a finale) if we work through it and put it behind us.  Stop signs are really only pauses before we get moving again.  Having looked both ways, I believe it’s time to get moving again.  Seneca is right there with us, prodding us along through our inertia: “Now”.

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2 Comments

  1. Great thoughts as always. May I add… My standard response to someone complaining about lack of time: We all have the same amount time – it’s how we choose to use it that matters.

  2. Also… Perhaps when we are presented with your mason jar, use it as an excuse for opportunity. Eg, maybe it’s been calling for somebody, asking you to remove it, and or other excess from your life (kitchen), making way for a clearer path (shelf) for the future. Cramming in too many lofty goals can have this effect.

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