01.11.2010

On Loan

We can choose to be happy by accepting that nothing will last forever
Eric Harrison sees the clarity of impermanenceSeneca was one of the richest men in Rome, but he was also a Stoic. He knew his wealth and fame were no insurance against fate. So when the emperor Nero demanded his suicide, he was fully prepared. He had imagined his final day many times before as a deliberate philosophic exercise. Surrounded by friends and family, he slit his wrists and died in his bath with acceptance.

A stoic like Seneca inoculates himself against misfortune by keeping life's uncertainties firmly in mind. He reminds himself that loss, injury, sickness and death are always close by. The peace and prosperity of today are no insurance against the dangers of tomorrow. Any disaster that could happen to us in the future could also happen today. Life is short. No one has the time or the opportunity to do all they hope to.

The situation around us is always changing, decisions are often difficult, disappointments and regrets are inevitable.

Still, it is quite possible to be happy if we have the right attitude. We can choose to accept the world the way it is, since it is pointless to fight against it, and we can face misfortune without complaining.

The Buddha went a step further than the Stoics. He said that if you can't control a thing in the way a king controls his country, then you don't own it. Since you can't control your body, you don't own it. As it is subject to sickness and death, it can't be part of your true nature. He said we should regard everything that doesn't last forever, which is pretty much everything, with the phrase, "This is not me. This is not mine. I am not this."

Of course no one, not even Buddhists, takes as extreme a position as the Buddha originally did. We all feel we own our bodies, our possessions, our opinions to some degree. We belong in certain places and definitely do not belong in others. We feel that we belong within nets of mutual affection or at least obligation. As the song goes "Take good care of yourself, you belong to me!" Our relatives and friends are 'ours' and we are 'theirs'.

We think of ownership as a positive addition to our lives, but when we look at what it actually entails, the waters become muddy. The Commonwealth Bank no longer owns a share of my flat, but the local council insists that I still pay rates for the privilege of being here.

Similarly, I own most of the money I earn, but not all. The tax office feels it also owns a percentage of what I take in, and it will punish me cruelly if I don't pay up. The tax office even owns a percentage of my time. It takes me nearly a week each year to handle my tax obligations.

All possessions carry responsibilities. Mothers own their babies, but at times it must feel as if their babies own them. Many rich people spend most of their "free" time attending to the consequences of owning far more than they need. At my gym, I often overhear conversations about the difficulties associated with the newest purchases, the renovations to the house, the complications of buying and selling almost anything, the planning of the next overseas holiday. Do those men own their possessions or do their possessions own them?

Possessions give pleasure but they often come at a heavy price. Many people are money rich but time poor. They have large discretionary incomes to indulge their appetite for spending, but have little time for anything else. I've been penniless in the past and I know that the poor often have more discretionary time than the well off.

I also know what they do with it. They don't go shopping for goods they don't need. They socialise. They relate to others. When I lived in the country many years ago, conversations would commonly last two or three hours. Nowadays, I schedule an hour or so here and there. It's not quite the same.

If we read the news or have some knowledge of history, we know that millions of people, all the time, lose everything they have, overnight. They lose property, family, country, culture, health and often their sanity. A little voice inside us says, "They weren't expecting it. You're not expecting it either. But it could happen to you just as it did to them . . ."

When people suffer great losses, they usually feel they at least own their thoughts and memories. Tyrants can rule countries with an iron fist, but people can still be free in their minds. "You can take my body but you can't take my soul!" Or so it seems. Tyrants, with the resources available to them, typically set themselves to the task of owning people's minds as well.

Of course, this is not easy to do. None of us likes to change even the slightest of our habits. Our thoughts are our inner sanctum. Our behaviours define who we think we are, and we assume these would remain the same even if we were suddenly dropped into Outer Mongolia or the Middle Ages. Yet as we have seen from the history of communism and fascism, people are more malleable than they think themselves to be. With enough carrot-and-stick persuasion, most people will adopt almost any ideology and behaviour, however alien it once would have seemed.

As a writer, I love to play with ideas, but I don't for a moment believe that they are mine. I'm just borrowing and rearranging what is common property. Although this article is unique for what that is worth, I can guarantee that it doesn't contain a single original thought.

Thousands of people have already expressed these ideas in print more elegantly than I have, and millions will have already thought them. I'm not sure if I have ever had a thought of which I can say, "This is definitely my thought alone. No one else has ever had it before." I can never be certain that I'm not just reshaping something I've heard elsewhere and claiming it as mine because I've forgotten the source.

It doesn't bother me that I'm not an original thinker. All writers and thinkers are part of what has been called "The Great Conversation", which goes back to the Greeks and beyond. As Isaac Newton said, all great thinkers stand on the shoulders of the giants who've gone before them. That is a great idea well expressed. Newton could be proud of that expression, and that it is now attributed to him. In fact, as Google tells me, he borrowed both the idea and the expression from earlier writers. This proves both his point, and mine, and that of the people who went before us. We are just clever, adaptable borrowers from the public domain.

We do, in a very real sense, own our bodies, our possessions, our time and our thoughts. And yet I often have the strange sense that I don't quite belong here; that nothing I own or think will ultimately satisfy me; that this place, these thoughts, this body, this life situation doesn't quite feel like me or mine. Just like people who constantly redecorate their homes, I know I haven't quite got it right yet.

I know that this sense of strangeness often leads people into spiritual fantasies of perfection, but that is not for me. I am far too realistic to think that I will ever find a place where I truly belong. I won't find my way back to God, or find my true home or true self, or discover the secret of perfect happiness. All the evidence points to the world and our minds as being stranger, scarier and more unpredictable than anyone could ever imagine. If this is the way it is, I wouldn't have it any other way.

I'm very grateful to have the temporary use of what I've now got - my body, my possessions, my time, my access to science and culture, my privacy. None of it is perfect. It's not guaranteed even for a day, but like Seneca, I won't grumble about that. I've never been so rich. The world is burning money like there is no tomorrow. These are good days to be alive. It won't last and it can't last, but I'll appreciate it while it's available to me.

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