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From Vol. 5, Issue 9, September 2023

Freedom from the fear of death


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Vacations: active and passive

This summer vacation my husband and I joined a group of friends at a cottage on Cape Cod. We were in a picturesque whaling village and I spent time at the local museum, marveling at a decades-old whale skeleton which is still dripping oil.

My idea of a beach vacation is to sleep late, then cover myself from head to toe in a muumuu and a giant hat, and huddle under an umbrella on the sand with a bag full of books. My husband and his friends, a group of middle-aged athletes from his college crew team, leaped out of bed at 6AM to row in the harbour. Then they raced home to put on their golf shoes and shoot 18 holes. After eating a quick lunch they played tennis, rode bikes, and generally took part in what my son calls “the decathlon of white men sports”.

The quest for longevity

At dinner we discussed the books we were reading. Everyone else at the table was reading a health book called Outlive, about how to achieve a long life. The men were all jazzed about the idea of living to be a centenarian by monitoring their diet; the exercise part they already had down pat.

Our culture is obsessed with staving off the ravages of time. I used to be a model for Revlon cosmetics. Their slogan at the time was “Don’t lie about your age. Defy it.” I was in my 20s with skin as smooth as a boiled egg and no amount of skin care products was going to give an older person the complexion of a baby’s bottom. For women, it’s about erasing and denying aging.

Age is a synonym for living

The pursuit of a longer life and the denial of what happens to our bodies actually prevents us from loving the life we have. Aging is a synonym for living.

2,500 years ago, the Greek historian Herodotus described a magical spring that restored the youth of people who drank from it. 500 years ago, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon searched Florida for the Fountain of Youth. I can announce that I and many others have found it. It’s not a spring, although it puts a spring in my step. I have found a gratitude for life, and an appreciation for my years, by drinking in the wisdom of the Stoics.

You will die because you are alive

I’m not going to be a centenarian. I have chronic health issues and it’s just not in the cards. Seneca wrote that “You will die, not because you are ill, but because you are alive.” Letters, 78. So instead of living long, I choose to live deeply.

I am freed from the need to obsess about extending my life. The freedom of the Stoics is the dichotomy of control. I recognize that I cannot control the number of my days, but I can control their quality.

Seneca wrote that “Men do not care how nobly they live, but only how long, although it is within the reach of every man to live nobly, but within no man's power to live long.” Letters, 22. I tip my hat to the diligent authors of Outlive, but I will follow Seneca’s advice.

Freedom from fear of death

I’m absolutely in favour of maximizing immediate and long-term health. I don’t row or ride bikes but I can walk. I am an enthusiast for following the advice of my doctors, all of whom are a credit to the human race and help keep my rickety corpus moving. I’m just unencumbered with the fear of death. This is one of the great gifts of Stoic freedom.

Seneca tells us, “count each separate day as a separate life. He who has thus prepared himself, he whose daily life has been a rounded whole, is easy in his mind; but those who live for hope alone find that the immediate future always slips from their grasp and that greed steals along in its place, and the fear of death, a curse which lays a curse upon everything else.”

Hurry up and live

I will not spend my days rushing around to fill them with as many experiences as I can cram in. I am freed from the compulsion to put off the end or worry that I am missing out. I read slowly and deeply in the books I love. I linger in tiny museums to marvel at old bones. The freedom of the Stoics is to live my life and love the living of my life. Freedom is a gift we alone can give ourselves. As Seneca says, “Hurry up and live.” Letters, 101.

Karen Duffy is a producer, actress, and former MTV VJ. Her latest book on Stoicism. Wise Up (https:// is published by Seal Press.