We live in a very dangerous world, but we don’t always recognize it. Most of the time we move about our lives without feeling too much threat to our own personal safety and to our lives, but sudden events can remind us of how close death can be. We see terrible car crashes, are forced away from other people due to a global pandemic, or reminded of health risks when a relative dies of cancer. These sudden shocks of mortality can shake us out of a routine and rhythm, and leave us feeling fearful for what evil might befall us. But the reality is that we do live with ever present perils – the dangers are not just there when a pandemic strikes or when we see a traffic accident.
In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “What, have you only at this moment learned that death is hanging over your head, at this moment exile, at this moment grief? You were born to these perils.”
For Seneca it is important to recognize how fragile life can be and how we are always living with risk. It is interesting to see is how far back in human history these risks have been with us, how they have persisted, and how we have thought (or failed to think) about the perils we face. It is not only today in the age of the automobile that we can be suddenly reminded of the ever present perils of death and destruction. It is not only in a time of changing demographics and social relationships that people may be afraid of cancel culture – exile has been a threat to humans for a long time. And grief over the loss of a loved one is also nothing new.
The reality of ever present perils isn’t new, but we all come to the realization of how fragile and risky life can be at our own pace, at different moments, and it seems to be a realization that we all must reach on our own to truly appreciate. It is important that we pause and reflect periodically on our mortality, to ensure that we are focusing our lives in a meaningful direction, and to ensure that we are using our life, our physical body, and our mental faculties in a way that is worthwhile and valuable. We shouldn’t be shocked into remembering our mortality by sudden events, we should be calm and collected as we reflect on the perils around us, confident that we have used our life in a meaningful way, so that when such evils do occur, we are prepared.
Before Senator Cory Booker had taken up politics, he went to law school and dedicated much of his time to civil rights and helping those who had the fewest resources. Throughout law school he had only a vague idea of what he wanted to do, and focused on helping people who did not have the means to help themselves. As every young person going through college, he was bombarded with questions about what his next steps would be and what his plan looked like. Booker did not have a clear path toward a large law firm, the way many of his colleagues did, since he was instead motivated by social issues and injustice in the communities around his hometown in New Jersey. Questions about plans and the future haunted Booker, as they have so many young people, until one day, his mother posed a question that changed his narrative.
In a conversation with his mother she referred back to biblical teachings and switched Booker’s thoughts of fear into perspectives of untold possibility. The question posed was not what would he do after receiving his degree but rather, “ask yourself what would you do if you could not fail? If you knew for sure you would be successful, what would you do?”
Booker writes about his reaction to his mother’s question saying, “It was a question that began to keep me up at night—not with anxiety but with energized thought. The question awakened my imagination again; it ignited dreams. What would I do if I could not fail?”
The question posed by Booker’s mom is an excellent shift in the way we think about the challenges and hurdles ahead of us. It is easy to get sucked into a space where we can only seem to focus on the negative possibilities of failure rather than the various forms of success that we may find along our journey. We often view failure as if it is a final end and a defining characteristic of our life, but in reality failure is just one of many experiences that we have throughout our lifetime, and we should not let it hold us from our dreams and pursuits.
When Booker’s thought process switched he recognized the power of the thoughts he was living with. He recognized how damaging his narrative about himself had become. “The most powerful conversations we have in any day,” he wrote, “are the conversations we have with ourselves.” Focusing on the negative and the fear of not knowing what his next steps would be had limited Booker and trapped him in fear. Shifting the focus to what he could do gave him new energy and inspiration to accomplish great tasks.