One evening, a guest on a night time talk show caught me a bit off guard.
The program is normally about politics and world events, with the occasional pop star guest at the end, promoting their latest film or television series.
But this guest, Nick Offerman, famous for being a comedic actor, was in the chair across from the host to promote a book he’d written about building tables.
The host asked the first question that came to my mind: You are famous and wealthy. You could be traveling the world, spending time with other celebrities, yet, you spend time building hardwood tables from scratch? And then write a book about it? Why?
Mr. Offerman responded by saying that just like a good portion of humanity over the past decade, he had very much fallen into the habit of binge watching television series. But one evening, he realized that after a two or three day binge, neither he, nor the world, was better off because of it.
He had realized, and then implemented, a key Stoic concept:
Fill your days with meaningful activity.
There’s no official definition of “meaningful” in Stoic terms, but Marcus Aurelius and the rest left some rather sizeable road signs pointing the way.
Meaningful activities can be associated with and not at all limited to, the following actions:
- Somehow contributing to the benefit of others in your own community.
- Pursuing Stoic studies, any studies really, that help keep your life based on reason.
- Any activity that leads away from vices, and towards a more noble and dignified character.
- Carrying out any activity that strengthens your will and ability to endure hardship.
- Realizing that you are part of the human family, and that there is a greater whole to which you can contribute, rather than only being focused on feeding your own individual desires for pleasure.
Were the Stoics against pleasure and fun, as they are sometimes portrayed?
Not at all. Seneca, for example, wrote:
We must allow our minds some relaxation: if rested, they will rise up the better and sharper to challenges….We should show kindness to the mind and from time to time grant it the leisure that serves it for sustenance and strength.
The Stoics merely attached little importance to such things, and by doing so, received something greater…joy. An appreciation for life itself; and that is something for which you don’t need to pay a monthly subscription fee.
There is very much an allure to simply hunkering down for a weekend in order to get through an entire series you just discovered and are passionate about. (And the same thing can also be said about gaming.)
But, again, someday you will be on your deathbed, and will look back on your life, and will naturally ask, “Did I use my time wisely?”
If you only come up with years of staring at a glowing screen mindlessly, that would be truly sad and pitiful.
But did you work at a non-profit intent on helping others? Or help fund one? Did you help provide direct care to humans or animals? Did you set about to help change harmful cultural norms for the betterment of future generations?
Is there a handmade coffee table sitting in your children’s or grandchildren’s homes? Maybe a copy of a book you wrote is sitting on their shelves?
This I can guarantee: Looking back on a life of thousands of hours focused on television, movies, and video games, will have very little meaning, if any at all.
Acta Non Verba: Identify areas of your life that involve hours and hours with a screen. Ask if they can be reduced, or completely eliminated (thus not only saving time, but money). Then ask a question that only you can answer:
What did I do today that was meaningful?
…follow, not the most pleasant, but the best life, in order that pleasure should not guide but accompany a right and worthy desire. – Seneca
If you accomplish something good with hard work, the labor passes quickly, but the good endures; if you do something shameful in pursuit of pleasure, the pleasure passes quickly, but the shame endures. – Musonius Rufus
There is a time and a place for diversion and amusements, but you should never allow them to overcome your true purposes. – Epictetus
Once we fall, however slightly, into immoderation, momentum gathers and we can be lost to a whim. – Epictetus
Everything—horse, vine, anything—exists for a purpose…So what will you say? “I’m here to have a good time?” The very thought is beneath contempt. – Marcus Aurelius
Stephen Sumner is a writer with over three decades experience studying what it means to have a good life. He has a BS in Human Development and Family Studies from Cornell University. His favorite pastimes include reading, fountain pens, and growing insanely hot peppers. Click here to follow him on Twitter.
Original, non-meme image from Mubariz Mehdizadeh via Unsplash.com.