On The Shortness of Life

Do you get really anxious when the subject of the time you have to do all you want to do comes up?

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It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it’s been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested. But when life is squandered through soft and careless living, and when it’s spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally presses and we realize that the life which we didn’t notice passing has passed away.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

If there was a great deal of truth in the words of Seneca, a Roman Stoic Philosopher, then the last part would be darkly humorous. Imagine complaining about something only to realize when you’re losing it that you had it all along but was too blind to see it for what it was. Oh the irony! And yet many of us are quite easily going down this truly ironic path. Life is too short! This is the cry of most.

Time is too short!

There aren’t enough hours in the day to everything that I want to do and accomplish!

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The ironies of ironies is that those who cry, moan and complain about the shortness of time and therefore life, are the biggest procrastinators. Again of this I and many many more are guilty. I think we would be hard pressed to deny this. So we waste time, then complain that we did not have enough of it to do all that we wanted or were meant to do. Sounds about right!

So Seneca encourages us not to waste time complaining about the limited time we have to live our lives but to maximize it so we live purpose driven lives that lead to happiness contentment and NOT regret. In his essay, The Shortness of Life, he gives specific ways in which we waste time. Now do these sound familiar?

We waste time by:

  1. Chasing wealth or what he terms, voracious avarice (sound nice to say too! Say it with me, Voracious Avarice)
  2. Pursuing things that do not benefit us and that lead to very little meaningful returns.
  3. Drinking and getting drunk, smoking, partying. Generally seeing live as a 24 hours happy hour event.
  4. Trying to be at the top of the totem pole. Generally trying to win popularity contests as we seek to ambitiously get ahead.
  5. Either try to conquer others or being anxious about being conquered.
  6. Trying to please those above us in order to be in their good graces. Even though that won’t to where we want to be. But we are too blind to see this, until it is too late. Oops, time’s up!
  7. Not really having a plan or as he puts it: Some have no goal at all toward which to steer their course, but death takes them by surprise as they gape and yawn (YIKES!)

Now honestly which have you been guilty of?

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He goes further in his writing to bemoan our shortsightedness in allowing distractions (vices) that take us off track and prevent us from using the time we have in a more responsible way. The good news is that all of us are screwed! The rich, and seemingly most “successful” among us, are also capable of falling into this trap. Clearly he was not partial in his assessment. He further writes of our very human need to attain recognition from others, even while we do not take time to look at ourselves, and recognize our worth, but expect others to do so. Another serious crime committed by us all is the fact that too many people allow others to “trespass on their existence” – attention everyone, do not allow instances where others control your lives while here on this earth! These are things that we need to hear; it’s not that others are wasting your time, but you are allowing them to do so.

Interestingly, he notes the importance of reflecting on the past for self-assessment and for not repeating the errors once made. Sometimes we refuse to look too closely at things we have done because we know that we do not come out looking good! We would rather stay in the present, thank you very much, to worry more about our future. It is handy to remember that our past informs our present condition and plays a role in our future state.

Finally, one of the most dangerous and most destructive crimes we commit , is the fine art of being busy doing absolutely nothing. While he believed in the importance of pursuing philosophical truths, Seneca did not approve of people who really did things that had no true value on the quality of their lives or the lives of others. All those meaningless activities just to kill time (pun intended) really are our Achilles’ heel, in making the most of what we have.

Seneca ends with zero sympathy, and exposes those who waste time preparing for death and their post-life image, instead of enjoying the time they have in the land of the living and makes it clear that such persons are not worth our time:

some people even make arrangements for things beyond life — huge tomb structures, dedications of public buildings, gladiatorial shows for the funeral, and ostentatious funeral processions. Yet in truth, the funerals of such people should be conducted by the light of torches and wax tapers, as if they’d lived for the briefest span.

Seneca obviously did not mince his words!

And so I end with a word to the wise among us, ensure you use the time you have to do the things that matter most to you. Things that enrich your life while you have it. That’s the only way to show that you truly appreciate the life you were given. After all, you only live once!

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Loves to tell and hear untold stories about people, places and experiences!

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