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From Vol. 4, Issue 12, December 2022

Learning to feel the joy

Feature || Seneca

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Don’t rejoice in useless things

Would you like to know the foundation of a sound mind? It is not rejoicing in useless things. Did I say it was the foundation? It is more the high point. We know we have reached it if our happiness is not under the control of externals. Those who are tempted by hope are anxious and unsure, even if what they hope for is within their easy reach, even if the things they hope for never prove disappointing.

Learn how to feel joy

Above all, dear Lucilius, learn how to feel joy. Do you think that I am taking you away from many pleasures because I try to remove from you the gifts of chance, I advise that you steer clear of hope, those sweetest things that gladdens our hearts? Not at all. I do not wish that you ever be deprived of gladness. I want it to be born in your home. And that’s what will happen if it is born inside of you. Other delights do not fill the heart but just smooth the brow, They are not permanent unless you believe anyone who laughs is joyous. The mind should be happy and confident, rising above every condition.

Believe, real joy is a serious matter. Do you think you can look down upon death with a smile? Can you open your door to poverty, curb your pleasures, and rehearse how to endure pain? Those who think on those things experience joy but is not a cheerful one. This is the joy I would like you to have. It will never fail you once you learn where to find it.

Shallow mines don’t yield much. The rich mines are hidden deep in the earth, and they will pay excellent returns for the effort you put in. The common charms that make people happy have no foundation. They provide only shallow pleasures. But the joy I am talking about is something solid. It shows itself more fully as you work at it.

Be happy with what’s yours

There is only one thing that can make you happy. I beg you, dear Lucilius, do it. Set aside all those things that glitter on the outside, things that are promised from one person to another. Crush them with your feet. Look to your true good. Be happy with what is yours. What is yours? Yourself, your best part.

We can get nothing done without our frail body. Think of it as necessary rather than as important. The body involves us in shortlived empty pleasures that lead us to regret. These pleasures soon turn into sorrows unless you regulate them by a great deal of self-control. But it is hard to regulate them if you believe them to be good.

You can safely look for the real good. Do you ask me what this real good is, and where it comes from?

I will tell you: it comes from a good conscience, from honourable intentions, from right actions, from despising the gifts of chance, from an even and calm way of living that walks a single path. How can you have anything for sure if you jump from one plan to another? Or, you do not even jump but are blown by breeze? How can such wavering and unstable people possess any good that is fixed and lasting?

Have a guiding purpose

There are only a few who control themselves and their affairs by a guiding purpose. The rest are like objects floating in a river. They are not advancing but just swept along with the current. Some of these objects, are held back by sluggish waters and are transported gently; others are carried along by a more forceful current; some, which are near the shore, are left there as the current slows down; and others are carried out to sea. Therefore, we should decide what we wish, and abide by the decision.

Don’t’ put off living until it is too late

They live ill who are always beginning to live. - Epicurus It is because, for them, the life is always incomplete. But one cannot stand prepared for the approach of death if one has just begun to live. We must make it our aim already to have lived long enough. You can’t say you’ve done so, if you are just planning your life.

You need not think that there are only a few people of this kind. Practically everyone is like that. Some only begin to live when it is time for them to quit living. And if this seems surprising to you, let me tell you something that will surprise you even more: Some people quit living long before they begin.

Slightly condensed and edited version of Seneca’s Moral Letters,23.