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#14: Call Your Mother!

Copyright © 2014 by William B. Irvine


In a previous post, I presented what I described as the Stoic formula for a happy, meaningful life:

     X = the number of days you have left to live

I explained that for most people, most of the time, the value of X is unknown. The important thing to keep in mind is that whatever its value may be, it is finite.

Living with this formula in mind might sound depressing, but the Stoics knew that doing so could prevent them from wasting the time they have left to them. Should you spend today having a stupid argument with a co-worker or relative? If you keep in mind that your days are numbered, you will realize that doing so would be a waste of a precious resource.

In this post, I would like to introduce another, related formula:

     X = the number of times you will do something in the remainder of your life

The activity in question might be something trivial, like playing hopscotch. I suspect that my X-value for this activity is 0. The activity might also be something poetical, like catching a snowflake on your tongue; something unpleasant, like paying your taxes; or something delightful, like having dinner with close friends.

No matter what the activity, the value of X will be finite. This is because we have finite time remaining to us, and the things we do all take time.

One logical consequence of the above formula is that for every activity we do, there will be a last time we do it. This fact recently came to mind when my lawn mower, which had been in a long state of decline, finally died. As I drove to a hardware store to get its replacement, it dawned on me that this would likely be the last time in my life that I bought a lawn mower.

My previous mower lasted twenty years. If the mower I was buying lasted that long, I would be in my eighties when it died. Would I still be living in a house with a lawn then? If I were, would I still be mowing it myself, or would I be paying someone else to do it? And indeed, would I even “outlive” the mower I was buying? Would it watch my decline, and on some summer day in the future wonder whatever became of “the mowing man”?

When I shared these thoughts with friends, some of them spontaneously emitted the “Awwww” sound of sympathy. It was, they believed, a dark thought for me to be having and a sign that I needed cheering up. But no cheering up was necessary. For a Stoic, the realization that you might be doing something for the last time is a profoundly life affirming thought to have.

The Stoics do not advise us to dwell on the fact that we might be doing something for the last time. What they recommend is that while we are doing an activity, we allow ourselves to have a flickering thought that this could conceivably be the last time we do it—that for this activity, our X=0. By having this thought, we increase our chances of becoming fully engaged in the activity instead of merely sleepwalking through it, as is so often the case.

Along these lines, it is one thing to kiss someone you love when you think that the kiss can be repeated at will. It is quite another to kiss that person when you do so in the knowledge that it will be—or even might be—the last time you kiss them.

And there is another important thing to realize about the above formula: you probably have it in your power to turn X into X+1! You need only go out of your way to do something one extra time. At this very moment, there are X more times you will kiss the person you love. But if, as the result of reading this, you go give him or her a kiss that you otherwise wouldn’t have given, you will increase this number to X+1. And chances are you will have fun doing it!

Is your mother still alive? Then realize that you will talk to her only X more times in the course of your life. The exact value of X is unknown, but realize that it is necessarily a finite number: either your death or hers will end the possibility of conversations. But you have it in your power to increase the value of X to X+1: all you need to do is pick up a phone and give her a call! And while you have her, ask her to put your father on the line.

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