It’s Not How Long You Live, It’s How You Live

In late December, Richard Overton passed away at the ripe old age of 112 and 230 days. When he was born, Theodore Roosevelt was President of the United States, and the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery in America, was only a few decades old (for contrast, Richard was nearly 60 when the Civil Rights Act passed). That’s a long time to be alive. That’s a lot of history to live through.

But the Stoics would say that simply existing for many years is not all that impressive. What mattered was what you did with that time. What mattered was how you lived.

Seneca liked to point out how many people live to be old but have little to show for it. Richard had plenty, even if he never became rich or powerful. At the personal level, he triumphed over segregation and racism—and was never made bitter by the hatred and bigotry that far too many of his fellow Texans (and Americans) had for him for far too much of his life. He served honorably in one of history’s few just wars. He was a hard worker, and he built his own home (there’s a big pecan tree in his front yard that’s still going strong after 70 years). He liked to sit on his porch and talk with his neighbors. He never had children, but he was close with a big family who he loved and they loved him in return. He stuck around long enough to meet presidents and athletes and billionaires. He enjoyed many cigars, bowls of ice cream, and glasses of whiskey. He was beloved by his community, his city, and, eventually, his country.

In short, it was a life of many years but also of many experiences. He was clearly gifted at birth with a strong body, but he had an even stronger soul. Because it’s much harder to live to 112 and still be a happy, friendly, funny person than it is to simply hold on grimly to existence.

No one would say that Richard was taken from us too soon—because, clearly, he was given plenty of time on this planet (in fact, nearly three and a half times the life expectancy for a black man born in the early 20th century). But the important thing is what he did with that time.

And we can say, unequivocally, that this man lived.

R.I.P. And if you want some lessons and wisdom from Richard, you might like this piece.

P.S. This was originally sent on January 2nd, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.