Life without death, says philosopher Dean Rickles, is like playing tennis without a net. In his new book, Life Is Short: An Appropriately Brief Guide to Making It More Meaningful, Dean challenges us to rethink what it means to get the most out of each day.
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Death gives life meaning.
Rufus Griscom: Dean, to start things off on a light note, how do you feel personally about the prospect of your own death?
Dean Rickles: That’s a fairly heavy question to start my morning off with. So before writing this book, I had extreme death anxiety, which would keep me up at night. It was always the thought of the void, the nothingness. And in writing this book, although the initial idea of the book was not necessarily to cure any death anxiety, I did come to terms with death. What it does, in my mind, is show how death is essential in order to have a meaningful life. If you didn’t have have death, life would be a meaningless, stagnant wasteland. So I came to appreciate the value of death.
Rufus: I’m personally not a huge fan of this whole dying thing. I’m 55, Dean, and I feel like I’m just getting pretty good at the living side of the equation.
I remember when I was in my twenties, I was driving across the United States, and I used to love to listen to radio shows in these local towns as I drove through them. And at some point a man came on the air and said, ”I’m 80 years old. I may not have long to live, but I’m not ready to leave the party.” And I just remember thinking, That’s exactly how I’m gonna feel. And so we can say that philosophically we understand the importance of death to confer a sense of urgency and value to life, but I think there would always be this preference to delay it.
“If you didn’t have have death, life would be a meaningless, stagnant wasteland.”
Dean: But it’s precisely that urgency and that feeling that you don’t want to go yet that is good to have in mind so you don’t have regrets later on, so that you don’t think, Why was I doing that when I was 55?
Even back in Ancient Rome people were talking about “being in the moment.”
Rufus: I think we should take a step back here and tell listeners that your book Life Is Short: An Appropriately Brief Guide to Making It More Meaningful is effectively a follow-up to a book that Seneca, the great philosopher, wrote a couple thousand years ago titled On The Shortness of Life. To what degree do you feel that you’re in conversation with Seneca?
Dean: There are a lot of points at which I am in exact agreement with Seneca, and there are things that I absolutely diverge from. A lot of the disagreements come from the fact that we seem to have changed as humans. The audience and the people that Seneca is speaking about seem to be very different from the kind of humans we find today. A lot of Seneca’s examples are about people who are working too hard in terms of planning for their futures. They’ve got too much future focus. They’re getting ready to live. Remember, Seneca was knee-deep in Roman politics. The people that he was around were very ambitious. They wanted to make it a certain place, but in doing that, they were not really living. They were always getting ready for the next thing. That seems quite a bit different from most people today who seem to be doing the opposite. There’s not much thought about future planning.
“They wanted to make [Rome] a certain place, but in doing that, they were not really living.”
Seneca’s solutions tend to involve living in the present. My audience is different, so I focus on a different set of examples, including things like why we tend to be so bad at waiting for the future, and why we seem to sacrifice our future so often to the present, which as I said is quite opposite to Seneca.
Forget to-do lists. Here’s how to accomplish anything you want.
Dean: You can convert yourself into a virtuoso musician in 10 years with the right kind of discipline. You can’t in one year. The trick is to divide how you treat the various projects into segments.
Say you want to become a violinist. How do you get there? You have to compartmentalize it into smaller tasks. First, you have to learn how to play scales. There’s a sequence of steps that will take you to this nice future. But you have to keep visualizing your future self on a regular basis.
This idea of a to-do list I don’t think works very well. It’s always going to be a jumble. It’s always going to have too much on it. But if you have this additional component of the different time scales—who do I want to be in 10 years?—I find that it’s much easier to achieve the small task if you always have your larger goal in mind.
Edited and condensed for clarity.
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