January 29, 2022

Running Out the Clock

Guest Opinion
By Isiah Smith | Nov. 27, 2021

As the birthdays accumulate, piling up like so many layers of dry leaves freshly fallen on fallow ground, one can’t resist the urge to ask, for the 73rd time, “What’s next?” It’s both a micro question, like “What to write next?” and a macro one: “What to do with the rest of my life?”

In essence, what of importance do I have to say, to write? What haven’t I done that I said I would do? What have I contributed, if anything, to the greater good? 

As autumn turns to winter, and the bluebirds bow out until next spring, many Americans of all ages, creeds and colors are asking something similar: “Is the game over, and am I simply running out the clock?” Having survived (barely) the greatest assault ever on American democracy, many of us have openly pondered, “What does it all mean?”

Our faith in the future (and therefore ourselves) has been profoundly shaken. Witness the massive explosion in the number of Americans seeking assistance from psychologists and psychiatrists. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in the 12 months during the pandemic, at the rate of 275 per day!

The darkness that descended upon our nation in these last few years has yet to recede. Nonetheless, I remain positive and optimistic in the face of mounting pressures. How? Books.

As James Baldwin wrote, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

The books I turn to are those about the ancient Romans and Greeks, and how they dealt with adversities and the effects of the aging process. Specifically, in the present instant, it is to Cicero, the famous Roman orator and statesman, to whom I turn.

By any measure, 45 B.C. was a cruel year for Cicero. He was in his early 60s and totally alone. He had been married to his first wife for 30 years but had foolishly divorced her to marry a woman half his age. Turns out, marrying a much younger person isn’t the secret to eternal youth (it might even accelerate the aging process).  Predictably, that marriage had failed. Making matters worse, Cicero’s beloved daughter, Tullia, died at the beginning of his annus horribilis, leaving him deeply depressed.

A horrible year indeed.  A mere four years earlier, he had been at the forefront of Roman politics. Then Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, forcing the Roman Republic into a war it didn’t want and was incapable of winning. Unable to support Caesar, Cicero had fled to his country estate. Now, far from the center of action and glory in Rome, the old man felt useless, superannuated, obsolete.

Unlike his friend Cato, however, he did not commit suicide. And unlike some present-day politicians, he didn’t seek revenge against his perceived enemies. He didn’t seek attention, beat his chest, or boast about imaginary achievements. In the account of what Cicero did after all his losses, both personal and professional, we find a path to enlightenment and achievement. 

When life seems dark, formidable, and too difficult to contemplate, Cicero’s method of coping is a lesson we all need now, in these rancid times of deep divisions and national polarization.

After taking a personal inventory, Cicero concluded that writing was the best contribution he could make to his countrymen. An avid student of Greek philosophy, he decided to explain to his Roman countrymen the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and other thinkers. Drawn naturally to the stoic philosophy of virtue and order rather than the Epicureans lifestyle of pleasure and indulgence, he disciplined himself to the practice of writing and thinking.

Writing from early morning until the late hours of the night, Cicero produced treatises on government, ethics, education, religion, and friendship, as well as lessons on morality and duty to country.

Important to our theme here, he wrote a short treatise, De Senectute, about old age. 

Even if he had not written this latter piece, the example he set by living the remainder of his life in the manner he did would provide the only roadmap we need for living a meaningful and positive life at any age.

As the end of our national annus horribilis dawns, and we confront the inevitable aging process, let’s take solace in Cicero’s writings. Even more compelling, consider using his life as a template for our own lives. It’s never too late to be a positive example and meaningful contributor to society.

Moreover, never give in to the twin devils of despair: anger and resentment. Don’t blame others for your own missteps or look back at what you've lost but look forward to what you still have to give.

As the scripture teaches, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning." 

Isiah Smith, Jr. is a retired government attorney.

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