What Can An Expat Learn From Seneca?

For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived as an expat in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing is a megacity of 30 million people. Often abbreviated as CQ, and pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring, Chongqing is located in south-central China on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way from my small hometown located in (pause for effect) … south-central Missouri on the Little Dry Fork Creek. How long? How about 14 time zones-long? CQ is one of the world’s largest cities but I am on a quest for a simple life. I want to “simplify, simplify”, as Hank Thoreau beautifully stated it. Thus, even in the middle of a huge metropolis, I publish these observations and admonitions from my 18th Floor Homestead.

I am currently working on a new book, The Expat Life. It will deal with expat experiences, lifestyle, and mindset. Welcome to come along for the ride. If you find this invitation intriguing, become a subscriber to my free weekly newsletter at http:/theexpatlife.substack.com. Yes, it’s free and yes, it’s in the form of a weekly email sent directly to your Inbox. Substack also provides an opportunity to leave your comments if you wish. Welcome!


What Can an Expat Learn From Seneca?

We live today in an era where being excessively busy is a lifestyle. “Crazy busy” is grammatically vague but a widely recognized and, alas, all too common description of our lives. Busy, busy, busy; it can be very frustrating and stressful. Expats are not exempt; they may have different activities filling their days but it is easy for their days to become overly full also.

Does all this sound familiar? Most people would nod in agreement and murmur that they are indeed too busy. Ironically, much of that busy-ness consists of doing things that are not of great value. They are urgent but not important as Stephen Covey famously wrote in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Recently, I became aware of a book by Seneca written in the early days of the Roman Empire. Seneca was a member of the group of philosophers now known as the Stoics. As an old man, Seneca wrote a series of 124 letters which make thoughtful reading even in our technology-centered lifestyles of today. Seneca composed those 124 letters to identify the fundamentals of the Stoic outlook. I began reading those letters and found them to be wonderfully refreshing and instructional and easy to understand. Seneca was concerned with daily behaviors, not splitting metaphysical hairs.

However, in addition to the interesting ideas contained in those letters, I was struck with an additional thought: Seneca lived centuries before the advent of computers with their keyboards and word processors. He wrote his letters the old-fashioned way. Writing 124 letters was very time-consuming and inefficient by our modern standards. Yet Seneca did it, and we can still benefit from his efforts today. Seneca composed those 124 letters to save his ideas for posterity. Why? He wrote them because it was important to him. Accordingly, he made time in his days for writing them.

It prompted a new way of looking at my own busy days and my lists. As I made up my to-do lists, I began to ask myself, “What would Seneca do?” That is a harsh but effective criterion to filter out the floss and dross. If someone saw most of my past to-do lists, they would be appalled by how much of my time was being spent on relatively unimportant activities. Would I want them to read how much time was devoted to shopping, laundry, and other mundane activities? Sure, all those things have to be completed, but are they so important that they should take up almost my entire day? Are routine maintenance chores really my most important activity?

When I ask, “What would Seneca do?” before I make up my next to-do shortlist, I am reminded of those 124 letters. What are the “Seneca” items that should get on the list? These are high-value activities that will have the longest-lasting impact or will make the greatest contribution. Undoubtedly, Seneca had his equivalent of shopping and doing the laundry but he made time for the more important achievement of completing those 124 letters. Why can’t I? Why can’t you?

Indeed, expats are given a unique opportunity to realign their priorities. In relocating to a new time zone, they instantly remove many of those mundane activities from their pool of prospective to-do items.

As I am writing these words in the middle of the night, Beethoven plays very softly through my headphones and my family is sleeping peacefully nearby. I am asking myself, “What would Seneca do?” I think I know. So, I will finish typing these words and prepare to return to my bed to get more sleep. In the morning, I will again ask what I can do that is more meaningful than maintenance activities. What is more valuable than dealing with the incessant interruptions of the outside world? I will think about how to insulate myself from the brutal harassment of those interruptions and distractions, both internal and external, foreign and domestic. In the morning, I will ask what I can do with my day that will be equivalent to Seneca making time to write those 124 letters. In plebian terms, how can I spend more time fertilizing and less time weeding?

What would Seneca say I should do if he were here with me for the day? After I get a little more sleep, I will plan my day. There are some important things – valuable, lasting things – that I can do. Among them, I will include taking my son swimming this afternoon. As I type these words, it is now the middle of the month of August. We have only a couple of weeks before the neighborhood pool closes for the season and his school starts again. I will take advantage of the waning days of his summer holiday to enjoy some irreplaceable father-son time at the pool before those days disappear. I think Seneca would approve of that choice.

So, as an expat, what would you do in your life that is equivalent to Seneca taking the time to write those 124 letters? We all are limited to an immutable 168 hours per week – but what do you do with them? How many of those 168 hours are discretionary time, even if only little packets of time scattered throughout your day? Use the Seneca standard as a filter. Would Seneca approve of your choices?

One thought on “What Can An Expat Learn From Seneca?

  1. I am greatly appreciating your works!!! It is especially thought-provoking. Totally agree with dear author that we are living in a “crazy busy” life. I think I am one of the typical components since sometimes I feel quite anxious if I do not do anything meaningful. I always want to make the full use of my time but I always fail. Then, I am in the vicious circle of “mental torture” for myself. However, after I read your articles, I feel better and I will try my best to filter out the floss and dross. Thanks again for your amazing masterpiece.

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