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'ON THE SHORTNESS OF LIFE' Seneca's ancient thoughts prompt some personal responses

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

'The mind that is untroubled and tranquil has the power to roam into all the parts of its life; but the minds of the engrossed, just as if weighted by a yoke, cannot turn and look behind. And so their life vanishes into an abyss ...' Seneca the Younger

The current coronavirus crisis must surely cause us to reflect on the past, appreciate the present, and realise the precious quality of every single life lost, spared or restored to good health.

On the Shortness of Life

Wayne Henderson

In a moment we can be overcome by beauty;

a little longer and we can fall in love, conceive a life.

One second is enough to lose a friend and a minute later we might find another.

A day can start in pain and end in glory.

Seen from the inside, life is eternal.

End Game

David Benn

Even though Fitzy the painter hadn’t lived in Brisbane for nearly thirty years, he still carried with him a calm matter-of-factness that came with growing up in the listless western suburbs of that 'great northern city'.

While painting the front of my terrace house, dressed in paint splattered white overalls, he easily slid the brush up and down as we exchanged a few words on my way to work.

‘See ya later, Dave. Have a good day at work,’ he said, concentrating on the brush strokes. He didn’t look down at me.

‘Thanks. You too, Fitzy.’ I closed the old iron gate behind me and stopped for a second. ‘Hey Fitzy?’

He lifted the brush and looked down from his ladder. ‘Yeah?’

‘Is Pat still working for you?’

I had known Pat in Brisbane. He was a few years ahead of me in school and friends with my older sister. Tall and blonde, he was one of the bigger boys in his grade and a member the Australian Schoolboys Ruby Team. Being small and skinny, I had found Pat’s quiet self-confidence at once manful and intimidating. I would avoid eye contact and conversation whenever he joined our family for dinner.

Nobody had ever told me the precise nature of his problems, but Pat had run into a few of them after he left school. Fitzy had given him a job to help him get sorted. We got married, we got divorced, we got grey, but Pat only kept working for Fitzy.

Now Fitzy looked at me for a few seconds. ‘Didn’t you hear? Pat died.’

I stared up at Fitzy and blinked. ‘No. When did that happen?’

‘Over a month ago.’ Fitzy sighed and turned back to his painting. ‘It was a heroin overdose.’

‘It wasn’t intended, was it?’

‘No, it was a mistake. There was no note. His younger brother found him on the couch in front of the TV. He’d even made himself a cheese sandwich.’

‘His little brother found him?’ my voice sounded flat.

‘Yeah, they were going to see Avengers End Game.’

‘How old was he?’

‘Forty-eight.’ Fitzy climbed down from the ladder and moved it a little further along the house.

I heard my words come out slow and quiet. ‘Forty-eight. That’s not many years.’

Fitzy gave a little shrug. ‘He was a heroin addict for twenty-eight of them.’

On the Shortness of Life

Jody Harper

Her grey hair was uncombed and limp. It had always been so curly and rich with colour. Now her heart shaped face was drained with despair. Her frail body was small, empty and lonely. Her home was silent, with the exception of the regular hum of the fridge, the only sound disrupting her thoughts.

Once a fabulous cook, Eileen was a highly regarded caterer. She worked from a tiny kitchen that produced amazing meals. Her large family was always welcomed with an open door to her home, her pantry stocked with home-made biscuits and treats, ready for visitors.

A well-maintained two-bedroom townhouse overlooking a golf course had been her home for near fifty years. The verandah was adorned with plants and garden gnomes, a story accompanying each ornament given her by one of her seven grandchildren. She would sit inside by the window, staring outside, recounting many a daylight saving night when she and her beloved Bruce had relaxed outside, sharing a cherry brandy to watch the sun go down.

Eileen's family had been her world. Two daughters and one son. Three husbands. Yes, she was a divorcee and had many stories to tell. Over ninety years, she’d seen plenty. In her heyday she’d been ‘a looker’, as the gents would lament, a ‘real beauty’. Beautiful white teeth, naturally curly hair, slim figure and ample bust. Perfect waist, hips and thigh measurements for a woman. And she knew it. She knew how to get attention, a simple click of the tongue, wink of the eye, wiggle of the hips – and the men would turn to butter around her.

It was Sunday, a day Eileen hoped to hear from one of her children, or grandchildren. A visitor perhaps? The phone hadn’t rung in days, apart from a strange man with a foreign voice enticing her to join some scheme. She’d hung up immediately, without thinking about it again. Her thoughts returned to the present, to the situation facing her family. Friction and fighting encased the siblings, fighting over her future, her welfare. Regret, confusion and dismay overtook her.

For years she’d played the role of family matriarch. She had been looking after herself since she was fifteen. Resilient and with no tolerance for nonsense, she knew how to do a lot with a little, turn a penny into a pound, make a meal out of nothing. She’d lived through the war years and knew how to budget, stretch resources where it was needed, and relax when able. She’d been called ‘a bitch’ in her lifetime, as well. She knew some of her family had regarded her like that from time to time. Had she been too tough, too unforgiving?

Eileen had always been blunt, didn’t mince words, said what she felt without a filter. Her eldest daughter tended to be the target of the lashings of her toxic tongue. Things between them weren’t good.

A big sigh. A sigh of regret, of wasted time, harsh words and broken hearts. A tear slid down her cheek. She let it land on her collared jumper without wiping it away. Her body didn’t move, she sat rigid in her belief that she’d done the best she could. If they didn’t like it, too bad for them. Eileen straightened in her chair. That’s right, what was I thinking? Pull yourself together woman! She gave herself a harsh talking-to.

Eileen lamented the shortness of life, but recognised her ability to bounce back, to recoil her emotions, to harden herself against emotional trivialities. Nobody, not one in her family of ‘idiots’, as she called them, could change that. Not now, not ever.

Seneca the Younger, Stoic philosopher, statesman and dramatist, was born in Córdoba, Spain, and raised in ancient Rome. Stoicism was an ancient Greek philosophy (a refinement of Cynicism) which taught the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.

Text copyright: Wayne Henderson, David Benn, Jody Harper

Pictures credit: Wiki & Wikimedia Commons

SSOA writers' blogs are made possible through the support of City of Sydney grant assistance.

1 comment



Loved reading these pieces. Thanks to Wayne, David and Jody for sharing them. Reading David's story, I felt particularly touched by the small details - the cheese sandwich, the plan to see an Avengeners movie. As Wayne's contribution suggests, in one second we can indeed lose a friend. So yes, great to see Jody's Eileen resolving to pull herself together and bounce back. Well done, guys :-)

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