LIFE IS TO BE LIVED NOW: A VITAL, PERSONAL HUMANISM by Frederick Edwords Executive Directo
LIFE IS TO BE LIVED NOW: A VITAL, PERSONAL HUMANISM
by Frederick Edwords
Executive Director, American Humanist Association
When one hears the word Humanism, one thinks of that
philosophy spelled out in documents called "Manifestos," a
philosophy critical of traditional religion and which advocates
reason, science, and civil liberties. What one too often does
not think of is a philosophy of joy, personal fulfillment, and
emotional liberation. Yet Humanism is all of these things. That
the focus of discussion of Humanism has been largely on the
Manifestos is unfortunate, since such discussion hides the vital
and personal Humanism that means so much in the individual lives
of so many.
# # # # # #
In traditional churches, it is a common practice to take a
verse of Scripture and elaborate upon it in a sermon. Humanists
are at an advantage here because they need not limit their source
material to just one book. Humanists can draw from all the great
humanistic works of classical antiquity, or even from modern
materials. Therefore, I take my text from the Dialogues of
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a Roman philosopher and statesman. In
particular I focus on his essay entitled "The Shortness of Life."
If I were to address the work in biblical fashion, I guess I
would cite my text as Dialogues 10: chapter 1, verse 1. There
The majority of mortals, complain bitterly of the
spitefulness of nature, because we are born for such a brief
span of life, because even this space that has been granted
to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a
very few find life at an end just when they are getting
ready to live.
Complaints that life is too short are as common today as in
Seneca's time. We often lament that there just aren't enough
hours in the day to do the things we want. We find we must sleep
away a third of our lifetime and, in the normal week, work nearly
another third. We see this as leaving only a third for
ourselves. But that is quickly eaten away by life's other
obligations -- to family, to political party, to the
maintaining of a home, to the paying off of creditors, and little
things too numerous to mention. And so it seems that the gift of
life has not really amounted to very much time for ourselves.
Yet, in spite of the fact that the life of the average
Roman citizen was filled with as many similar obligations, Seneca
had the boldness to declare: "the life we receive is not short,
but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are
wasteful of it." And he added, "our life is amply long if
Reading these words today, one tends to think that their
author is about to launch into a diatribe on time management aimed
at providing one with an arsenal of nifty techniques for cramming
more action into every minute. I call that the trash compactor
compactor approach to life.
I used to attempt to live that way. In my early twenties I
used to listen to Earl Nightingale success tapes. He advised
making a list every morning, before the family gets up, of the
six most important things you have to do today. And although
this is not a bad practice at the beginning of a business day,
one can carry it too far. Certainly I did. I used to keep a
diary of my daily goals and note how well I did on each. I tried
to allocate every moment of my time to increase my "efficiency."
My advice to myself in one of those diary entries shows how far
to the extreme I had gone. "Live relentlessly," I wrote.
This was not what Seneca had in mind, however. He was
concerned with values and the priorities of life. He was urging
his readers to reconsider their goals, to reassess themselves,
and to give the truly important things the time they deserved.
As we look around us today, we see many people living life
on what might be called the "deferred payment plan." Children
commonly say, "Just wait until I grow up." Students can't wait
until they finish school and leave home so they can begin to live
as they like. When young people date, they look forward to the
time when they will be married. Then they'll be happy. When
married they look ahead to owning their own home. Then they'll
be happy. When winter comes, they look to Spring, or to the day
they can move to California. If they have children they say,
"When the kids grow up and leave home, then we'll be able to do
what we want." Of course there's still the job. So they look to
retirement as the time to live.
Seneca denounces this attitude in the strongest language:
"Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of
life," he says, " and to set apart only that time which cannot be
devoted to any business? . . . What foolish forgetfulness of
mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and six-
tieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point which not all
have even attained!"
We can live now, every day. We should find our meaning
and joy at this time, not some other. Don't wait for happiness.
Create it. For the irony is, when retirement comes, people tend
to look back and wonder what became of the "good times." The
remedy, then, is to always remember that today is the day you
will be nostalgic about tomorrow. These are the "good old days."
Make them good before they get old.
It's funny how often I remember the "good old days" of my
past. Yet those were the times I was anxious to get out of. I
didn't like what I was doing, so I felt that the good times all
had to be ahead. Well, the good times for me are at the present
time, but they could have been for me back then, too, and as nice
as I remember them, if I had then the life philosophy I have now.
Postponing happiness, however, is not the only problem. We
also lose much of our lives seeking to gain the approval of
others. We live our lives for others, not in a charitable way
that might bring mutual happiness, but in a slavish way, putting
our happiness in their hands. We often worry about what others
might think and say of us.
This is a big problem in adolescence. It was for me.
Throughout high school, I was counting my social faux pauxs and
ignoring my successes. My mistakes and embarrassments stuck in
my mind and haunted my efforts to fall asleep. Round and round
in my head I would replay the unpleasant scenes, as though it
were a play and I was trying to memorize everybody's lines. I
imagined that everyone else had as good a memory as me when it
came to the things I had done wrong. I'm sure that, at the drop
of a hat, I could have rattled off all my biggest and latest
stupidities to anyone who might inquire. And that memorization
effort was successful, in a sense. To this day I can still
recall some of those high school fooleries--though the memories
no longer carry with them the emotional impact and insult to my
self-esteem that they once did.
Such is the extent that one can worry about what other
people think. To this, the Roman philosopher Dio Chrysostom
Thank goodness we don't understand the language of ravens,
jackdaws, crickets, frogs, and pigs. Otherwise we'd
probably worry about what they think too. Yet how many
people seem more brainless than the frogs and jackdaws?
Does that make any difference to us? No. We let what they
say upset us and render our lives utterly miserable.
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius suggested a way to avoid
this problem. In his Meditations he wrote:
Constantly observe who they are whose approval you seek, and
by what principles they are guided. For if you look to the
sources of their opinions and appetites, you'll neither
condemn those offenses they give nor desire the approval
Elsewhere he added that one shouldn't listen to the opinions of
all people, but only those who we can respect.
Of course there are also those we seek to impress, get even
with, and compete against. How much of our lives do we allow
them to rob from us? And among how many such people does each
one of us distribute his or her life? Seneca argues:
People do not allow anyone to seize their estates, and they
rush to stones and arms if there is even the slightest
dispute about the boundaries of their property, yet they
allow others to trespass upon their life--nay, they them-
selves even bring in those who will eventually possess it.
In my early twenties, there were lots of people I wanted to
impress. I had to find out the hard way that impressing someone
is not a one-shot deal. You can't just make an investment in a
single positive impression and then go about your business. You
feel you have to keep on impressing these people. At least, that
was the way it worked for me. I not only wanted to stand tall in
their estimation, but I felt I had to constantly maintain my
stature. Like the personnel at Eastern Airlines, I felt I had to
earn my wings every day.
And there were people with whom I was in continual
competition, too, or who I wanted to get even with. The diaries
I kept at that time are filled with references to such people,
which sometimes can make me wonder who's life the diaries were
Clearly, then, our efforts to live our lives by the measure
of others turn us away from ourselves. So, we should choose with
care the standards by which we wish to live and the standard-
bearers we wish to follow. If we are finding life short, this is
evidence that we have chosen wrongly and should reassess our
goals, and perhaps even our values. It is so easy, after a
promising start, to become sidetracked and lose sight of our
reasons for doing what we do. Things that were, at first, means
to worthy ends can become ends in themselves. But these are not
our ends, the ends we started with. They are ends that take us
away from ourselves and render the time we really spend for
ourselves shorter and shorter.
We would do well to keep an eye on our lives. Are we led on
by irrelevant desires, engaged in useless tasks, always plunging
into something new instead of finding a steady goal, or spending
time in escape so as to avoid confronting our problems? Periodic
reassessment of where we are is insurance against losing sight of
what we really want.
Another source of the feeling that life is short is the time
lost in worry, fear, and anxiety. One irony here is that at the
very moment we are achieving our goals or having the life we
seek, the anxious thought comes over us, "How long will this
last?" We wonder if it might not all disappear in some calamity.
The happily married can wonder if divorce will one day ruin it
all. The wealthy can worry about bankruptcy. Whatever it is, it
can be lost, and this realization can cause some to fail to enjoy
the bounty of the moment.
I know one woman who worried that she might never be able to
bear children. But when pregnant she worried about miscarriage
and deformity. When the child was born she worried about crib
death. When the child was older she worried about injury or
possible abduction. Any of these things can happen to a person,
it is true. But something else can happen as well. Everything
can turn out fine. Since one does not have control over all
outside factors, then the best course is to enjoy the pregnancy
for what it is, enjoy the new life for what it is, enjoy the
child's growth for its own sake, and so on. Precautions can be
taken, but life is to be lived now.
As anxiety over the future robs us of the present, so does
guilt over the past. All human beings commit wrongs, some
intentional and some accidental. But guilt and remorse are non-
productive and often counter-productive. If we have done wrong,
we should seek what action we can take to remedy the problem or
make amends. If nothing can be done, we should try to learn
what we can from the experience so as to avoid repetition in the
future. But at no time is it productive to wallow in our own
self-pity, condemn ourselves, punish ourselves, or pursue the
rest of our lives as though we are undeserving.
Yet so many do this. Were it not so, there would not be the
popularity of guilt-oriented religions like conservative
Christianity. In Old Testament times, the collective guilt of
the tribe was symbolically placed on a goat and the scapegoat was
sent out into the wilderness. But with the coming of
Christianity, Christ became the scapegoat for the sins of the
individual. His death was to free all those who believed from
the guilt of their past actions. The "saved" thought of
themselves as "washed in Christ's guiltless blood," and fully
pardoned for their transgressions.
This sort of symbolic blood-sacrifice is an intellectualized
version of a primitive scheme for expiation of guilt. As long as
humans have lived in societies they have often sought to invent
such schemes. Guilt is such a painful and disorienting emotion
that society cannot function if it is allowed free reign.
Yet such guilt expiation schemes accomplish no real good.
The wrong has still been done. This leaves the thinking person
in a quandary. Since no ritual can undo an actual wrongdoing,
should the thinking person continue to feel guilty? Many would
say yes. But this would render the thinking person less effic-
ient than the one who has the superstitious scheme. Suddenly the
twin goals of honesty to oneself and rational living seem at
But they are not. The initial awareness of wrongdoing
reminds us of our error. But such feelings are not ends in
themselves. They are goads to productive action. Such action
can be to remedy what can be remedied, or to perform in the
future in a fashion that will avoid a repeat performance. But
once the appropriate action is taken or resolve established,
there is nothing more that needs to be done. And if one feels a
sense of wrongdoing about something that is not actually wrong,
then the appropriate course is self-re-education, not remedial
action or resolve.
But think how much people waste of their lives in useless
replays of past wrongs. And those who cannot face their wrongs
squarely, and have no guilt expiation scheme in which they can
believe, often resort to repression and other efforts to forget
what they did. Such actions can distract one from a meaningful
pursuit of ones goals as much as outright guilt can. The past is
to be neither forgotten nor dwelled upon, but learned from in the
interests of better living in the present and future.
In regards to the use of time, past, present, and future,
Has some time passed by? This is something one embraces by
recollection. Is time present? This is something one uses.
Is it still to come? This is something one anticipates.
One makes life long by combining all times into one. But
those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear for
the future have a life that is very brief and troubled.
I find this observation of Seneca quite accurate. Today I
can be in a potentially boring situation, such as waiting alone
at a bus stop, without being bored. Although there is nothing in
the present I can do, I can contemplate my past, plan my future,
or do both. This makes the time go by quickly, yet, para-
doxically, makes my life longer.
It is a Humanist dictum that this life is all and enough.
We will pass this way but once and there is no guaranteed
paradise waiting just beyond the grave. This is our only shot.
But the possibilities of this life are sufficient to give meaning
to our existence. For it is in the context of this life that we
love, laugh, experience nature, pursue goals, and enjoy triumph.
And to better enjoy these things we cultivate courage, bear
adversity, and rise up from the ashes of failure.
Since it is this one life that cradles all our values and
pursuits, it is imperative that we make it our life, that we set
goals that are our goals, and that we seek to enjoy the present
moment, even when it is not everything we have desired. By doing
this, and by planning every day as if it were our last, we will
neither long for nor fear tomorrow. Tomorrow will, instead,
become an extra bonus to an already full life. And the past will
not haunt us, but rather be our teacher in our efforts to better
In lecturing on various aspects of Humanism, I have often
been confronted by the preacher of salvation who offers me
Pascal's famous wager. I have been told that by not believing in
an afterlife I take a great risk. For if the afterlife is really
there, I will miss out. But if I believe, and it is not there, I
lose nothing. So in the interest of a sound investment strategy,
I ought to become a believer.
There are many things wrong with this wager. But the one
that concerns me in this context is the fact that the proposal is
not a sound investment strategy. For if time and energy is
invested in believing in salvation, following rules and rituals
that are designed to guarantee salvation, expiating guilt in a
fashion conducive to salvation, associating with others who talk
about nothing but salvation, and seeking to convert others to
engaging in similar activities, how much of one's life is really
being lived as one desires?
A number of years ago, I knew a young woman who lived her
life this way. Nothing I could say or do seemed to have any
effect. She was constantly trying to live by religious rules,
doubting her own salvation, praying away her guilts, keeping the
company of people who reinforced these ideas, and occasionally
trying to spread this faith to others. Never have I seen a human
being more emotionally tortured than this woman. Her religion
became a fixation, not the "fire insurance" policy that Pascal's
wager seems to imply. This kind of religion, or any kind, isn't
something you do once and then it's taken care of. It's a life
commitment. So it does make a this-worldly difference when one
chooses to accept or reject such a belief as this.
As you can see, active belief in an afterlife can act as a
tremendous drain on your time and can sidetrack you away from
living the good life here and now. Too many have found this out
too late. Ex-fundamentalists very commonly regret sacrificed
years. This can lead them into a frantic effort to make up for
lost time. When an article on Fundamentalists Anonymous, an
organization for ex-fundamentalists, appeared in an issue of
Penthouse magazine, the positive response from ex-fundamen-
talists was overwhelming, since so many were reading the magazine
to catch up on some of the living they had missed.
The price humans pay in adherence to false beliefs, devotion
to charismatic leaders, and involvement in fanatical mass
movements is staggering. Seneca could have had such people in
mind when he wrote:
They spend life in making ready to live! They form their
purposes with a view to the distant future; yet postponement
is the greatest waste of life; it deprives them of each day
as it comes, it snatches from them the present by promising
something hereafter. The greatest hindrance to living is
expectancy, which depends upon tomorrow and wastes today.
Humanism, on the other hand, is a philosophy for today, for the
here and now world of our senses and aspirations. It is a
philosophy that puts life first, death last. It is a philosophy
that finds joy in a Spring flower or the crash of waves on the
seashore, in a momentary human encounter or the purr of a kitten.
It is a philosophy of purposeful goals, meaningful pursuits, and
high aspirations. It is a philosophy of human interconnected-
ness, love, and the family.
How can it be all this? How can it mix the pleasures of the
hedonist, the aspirations of the visionary, the self-interest of
the individual, and the commitment of the family? Because all of
these are natural human tendencies, and Humanism is geared to
humans as they are, with all their varied aspects. It is a
philosophy that finds this life long and meaningful, and does so
because it urges people to live in a manner that is appropriate
to their natures. Nothing need distract the Humanist from the
business of living fully, loving fully, sharing fully, and
pursuing goals that give purpose and meaning to one's existence.
So, in a way, Pascal's wager can be turned around. Since we
have more evidence for the here and now than we will probably
ever have for the hereafter, why not assume that this life is all
there is and live it to the hilt. If this is correct, you will
have lived a long and joyful life. But if there is more beyond
the grave, then you may have a heavenly bonus coming as well!
Recently, when I expressed these ideas in a public forum,
I was asked if my philosophy wasn't too selfish. Was I, in my
efforts to have a long life myself, ignoring other people who
might not be so fortunate? Was I not simply expressing the
ideas of the "me-generation?"
However, as I have noted, this philosophy appeals to our
natures, and there is more to our natures than the desire for
personal pleasure. We also get individual fulfillment through
making a difference in the world, trying to help others, and
trying to resolve the inequalities and injustices in the world.
Humans are social beings. If this were not so, no public
charities could survive. Fulfilled people are those who make
their social causes and other pursuits truly their own. They
choose them carefully and re-assess them periodically, thereby
preventing altruism from becoming slavery.
I would like to conclude with one of the most humanistic
pieces of poetry to come down to us from ancient times. Its
source is ancient India, and it is called The Salutation to the
Dawn. Were we to greet each day with words like these, we would
never have time to complain that life was short. We would be too
busy living our Humanism.
Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life,
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence:
The bliss of growth
The glory of action
The splendor of achievement
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision,
But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day!
Such is the salutation to the dawn.
This discourse was delivered as the Dietrich Lecture at the First
Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, November 30, 1986. It is an
expanded version of a similar discourse delivered earlier that
year at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh and subsequently
published in the Autumn 1986 issue of Religious Humanism.
The quotations from Seneca are taken from Seneca: Moral Essays,
vol. 2, "De Brevitate Vitae," translated by John W. Basore
(London: William Heineman Ltd, 1932). Material from Dio
Chrysostom and Marcus Aurelius is translated by the author.
(C) Copyright 1986 by Frederick Edwords
So long as profit is not your motive and you always include this
copyright notice, please feel free to reproduce and distribute
this material in electronic form as widely as you please.
Nonprofit Humanist and Freethought publications have additional
permission to publish this in print form. All other permission
must be sought from the author through the the American Humanist
Association, which can be contacted at the following address:
AMERICAN HUMANIST ASSOCIATION
PO BOX 1188
AMHERST NY 14226-7188
Phone: (800) 743-6646
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank