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Whose child do you choose to be?

Photo by Tim Wright on Unsplash

I have just finished reading my 55th book of the year. So I am well ahead of schedule in my #50BooksIn2018 challenge. How are you doing? There is still time for a late burst.

Allow me to give you another reason to keep reading books. Consider this remarkable wisdom from Seneca, the Stoic:

“We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be.”

In his essential treatise, On the Shortness of Life, Seneca explains thus. Who, he asks, would not want the great philosophers (Zeno, Pythagoras, Democritus, Aristotle, from his era) “as their closest companions every day.” Because, he explains,

“None of these will ever be unavailable to you, none of these will fail to send his visitor off in a happier condition and more at ease with himself. None will let anyone leave empty handed; they can be approached by all mortals by night and by day.”

You understand, I trust. I come across many young people desperate to have a meeting with so-and-so famous personage, this-and-that rich man; any-or-all accomplished persons. Why? They feel that such a meeting might unlock something in their lives. They might receive some telling advice; some crumbs of wisdom; the benefit of the famous one’s experience; some free mentoring; placement in a job; or even a handsome cash handout.

That is the culture in which we find ourselves today. And it is all a hoax. First of all, persons of accomplishment will almost never be able to make the time to meet all those who seek them out. Next, even if you were to get through and snatch a brief meeting, it is unlikely in the extreme you will get anything of value out of it. You are more likely to hear a series of platitudes; or some threadbare advice along the lines of “work hard like I did, young one, and you too will prosper.”

And yet, is there not meaningful, wonderful advice to be gained in the world? Of course there is. But you should not squander your life looking for it in chance meetings with assorted celebrities. You should find this treasure where it really lies hidden: in books written over the centuries, by great thinkers, mostly long dead.

Pick up a great book. The author is right there, sharing his deepest thoughts with you. There’s another one in that corner, giving freely of the time she took to write something profound. And this process is efficient: one person’s thoughts are reaching many thousands through the medium of the book, rather than holding thousands of one-on-one meetings.

The ramblings of dead people on dead trees are not for you, you say? Fine, keep it modern. Follow great thinkers and wise sages on social media. There are many of them there. This era gives you the chance to partake in the daily offerings and perambulations of the good and great. Don’t undervalue this; it is precious.

But if you would rather wallow in ignorance, then don’t complain about there being no helping hands; if you would rather splash around in the shallow pursuit of the antics of brainless megastars, then don’t be surprised when you yourself are incapable of deeper thought.

Seneca continues:

“There are households of the most distinguished intellects: choose the one into which you would like to be adopted, and you’ll inherit not just the name but also the actual property, which is not to be hoarded in a miserly or mean spirit: the more people you share it with, the greater it will become.”

Such a wonderful sentiment. Choose your adopted parent; make this parent a wise, gracious and humane one; sit at your parent’s feet, open the book and take the valuable property being given to you, property which you too can go on to share freely without diminishing it.

And so, as you think about the last two months of this year, ask yourself which of the great wisdoms of history you wish to inherit, and go and pick it up. No appointment needed, no pleading necessary. Meanwhile I must thank one of my many fathers, Seneca, for giving me his time so generously. I will return to him for more mentoring whenever I wish.

(Sunday Nation, 4 November 2018)

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