So it is — the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it. Just as great and princely wealth is scattered in a moment when it comes into the hands of a bad owner, while wealth however limited, if it is entrusted to a good guardian, increases by use, so our life is amply long for him who orders it properly.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On The Shortness Of Life
You know, some people say life is short and that you could get hit by a bus at any moment and that you have to live each day like it’s your last. Bullshit. Life is long. You’re probably not gonna get hit by a bus. And you’re gonna have to live with the choices you make for the next fifty years.
Chris Rock, On The Longness Of Life
‘Well, maybe it is true,’ Clevinger conceded unwillingly in a subdued tone. ‘Maybe a long life does have to be filled with many unpleasant conditions if it’s to seem long. But in that event, who wants one?’
‘I do,’ Dunbar told him.
‘Why?’ Clevinger asked.
‘What else is there?’
Joseph Heller, Catch-22
And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?
There’s a very old joke that goes something like this: Two old ladies are discussing a restaurant. “The food there, it’s terrible.” Says one. The other nods vigorously, “Yes, and such small portions!”
I’m willing to bet that joke is funny in most languages and cultures. The premise is universal – why would you want more of something you don’t like?
When you’re talking about the rubbery chicken at Le Chateau Blanc of the Catskills it’s one thing; when you’re talking about struggling to make it day to day under the burden of depression or grief, it’s another thing entirely.
When most people think about the word “stoic” they picture a stone-faced, unemotional person. I’m pretty sure that’s the accepted definition of the English word. That isn’t an accurate picture of the philosophy of that name. The Spock like indifference is a caricature drawn by opponents. That idea is derived from the stoic idea of accepting and appreciating pain and misfortune.
What Seneca was arguing for was not a grim existence where you toil under a hot sun and eschew the fun parties you’re invited to because you’re far too deep and brooding to smile. That’s a popular interpretation among young men who deal with their insecurity and fear of rejection by becoming heady little cranks.
Instead, he wanted us to consider what really brings joy and satisfaction to our short lives. In his essay On The Shortness Of Life he describes the busy but empty lives of the social strivers around him. He talks about those who speak longingly of their retirement and the foolishness of living an empty, scattered life in hope for a few years of reflection at the end.
Spending Your Time Wisely
Those who complain about the shortness of life are like the people that spend their entire paycheck on silly things they don’t even want and then whine about not having enough money.
This is where the caricature comes from. Our brains are so wired that the things we value most are the things that are valued by others around us. Our culture values status, consumer goods and entertainment. When someone points out that a life spent in front of a television contemplating brand name baubles is barely worth living, we will agree of course, and likely change the channel because that is such a boring and uncomfortable idea.
Listen to Seneca:
But one man is possessed by an avarice that is insatiable, another by a toilsome devotion to tasks that are useless; one man is besotted with wine, another is paralyzed by sloth; one man is exhausted by an ambition that always hangs upon the decision of others, another, driven on by the greed of the trader, is led over all lands and all seas by the hope of gain; some are tormented by a passion for war and are always either bent upon inflicting danger upon others or concerned about their own; some there are who are worn out by voluntary servitude in a thankless attendance upon the great; many are kept busy either in the pursuit of other men’s fortune or in complaining of their own; many, following no fixed aim, shifting and inconstant and dissatisfied, are plunged by their fickleness into plans that are ever new; some have no fixed principle by which to direct their course, but Fate takes them unawares while they loll and yawn—so surely does it happen that I cannot doubt the truth of that utterance which the greatest of poets delivered with all the seeming of an oracle: “The part of life we really live is small.”
The issues weren’t any different in his day. Look at the table below, I’ve separated out who in our time and culture he is describing:
|People Who Are:||Modern Exemplar|
|Possessed by an avarice that is insatiable
(People obsessed with getting richer as an end to itself)
|Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers|
|Toilsome devotion to useless tasks||Farmville Players|
|Besotted with wine||Bar Flies and Crack House Residents|
|Paralyzed By Sloth||People that rent moving carts to avoid having to walk around Walmart|
|Exhausted by an ambition that always hangs upon the decision of others||Sports Fans, Talk Radio Screamers|
|Driven on by the greed of the trader, is led over all lands and all seas by the hope of gain||George Clooney in that airport movie|
|Tormented by a passion for war and are always either bent upon inflicting danger upon others or concerned about their own||War Bloggers, Terrorists, Republicans|
|Worn out by voluntary servitude in a thankless attendance upon the great||Fans of Pop Stars, Gossip and Celebrity Junkies|
|Kept busy either in the pursuit of other men’s fortune or in complaining of their own||Employees of most large corporations|
|Following no fixed aim, shifting and inconstant and dissatisfied, are plunged by their fickleness into plans that are ever new||Um… me.|
|Who have no fixed principle by which to direct their course, but Fate takes them unawares while they loll and yawn||Almost everyone|
That’s a pretty comprehensive list of ways to waste your life. What is the common attribute shared among those groups?
They are distracted by advertising, flickering screens, whispers of their neighbors, physical craving for food, sleep and drugs. They are being persuaded to trade their time for stimulation and status.
It’s not a fair trade.
The most valuable thing you possess is time. You spend your time with your attention. Anything that clamors for your attention is implicitly asking you to trade moments of the only life you’ll ever have for what they are offering.
Sometimes we have no choice. You have to go to work, you have to clean and cook and do all the things that keep you alive and in good health. The only problem we encounter with those things is when we’re doing them without being mindful. Why do you go to work? To make money, of course. But why do you make money? What is the goal? Are you at a job where you flick your brain off when you clock in and just muddle through the day until quitting time? Are you ok with trading that much life for the money you get? The answer might very well be yes. You probably have babies to feed or other responsibilities. The point isn’t that everyone should quit their jobs and sit at home contemplating the universe. The point is to be mindful of the time that is passing and how you’re spending it.
Make A Life Budget
Every financial counselor or book about money that I’ve read has insisted that the very first thing you need to do when getting your finances in order is to craft a budget. Without writing down what you are spending your money on it is impossible to construct a plan to spend your money more effectively. You will find yourself at the end of the month wondering why there isn’t enough to pay the bills because you can’t see that you’re leaking money on take out, clothes or something else.
Once you have a framework, you can see how your habits are misaligned with your goals. You will also be able to make better goals because you have a realistic picture of what you are capable of.
In the same way, it’s impossible to get your life in order until you can see and understand what you’re spending your time and attention on. How much time do you spend on watching television? browsing facebook? talking to your kids? Reading? If you’re like most people you have no idea.
Try taking notes. At the end of the day, for a week or so, think back to when you woke up, what time you got to work, what you did there, etc. Ask yourself, am I leaking time? In the same way that I don’t want to close out the month wondering where all my money went , I don’t want to end up on my deathbed wondering where all my time went.
Another old joke – Jack Benny was famous for this one. A mugger points a gun at his chest and demands, “Your money or your life.” After a long pause, the mugger says “Well?” Benny answers, “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”
We know that life is more valuable than money. It’s absurd to hold on to something at the cost of everything. People do it every day. We get so obsessed with accumulating money or other finite things, we eagerly trade our days and hours away. What happens at the end of life? All the status, money and treasure are worth nothing. We will willingly give it all away to hold on to life.
Figure Out What Is Important To You
When I was younger, I wanted to be rich. Well, sorta. I wanted to have enough money that I wouldn’t have to worry about money anymore. So I struggled and strived. I worked and plotted and negotiated. One day I realized that you don’t have to worry about money if you don’t want to. It doesn’t take a lot of money to live a great life. In our society, for most of us, it does take some money. Enough to acquire decent food, a comfortable house and other obligations. However, there comes a point when more is just more. How much of your life you’re willing to spend to get more is the clearest indication of what you value.
A rich man approached Jesus one day and asked about how he could enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus reply was that the man should sell everything he owned, give away the proceeds and spend the rest of his life hanging out with him. The man went away grieving because he had a lot of great stuff. Jesus has promised him that he would store up treasure in heaven, but the man had already sunk so much of his life into accumulating his possessions and the status they transferred to him. To ask him to give it all away was equivalent to asking the man to admit that he had wasted his life. That’s a lot to ask.
At another time, Jesus is quoted as saying “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be as well.” What is “your heart” in this context? It’s your attention, your values and your goals. It’s what you are spending your life on.
What does it gain a man if he spends his entire life on things that rust and decay?
What If Life Is Bad?
One more joke – A student approached the Rabbi one afternoon and asked, “Why is life so hard and filled with pain?”
The rabbi shook his head, “God will not give us more than we can bear.”
“But what if these things kill us? Is that not proof that they are more than we can bear?” the student continued.
“Eh… that’s life.”
As a healthy, employed white man in America, it’s a little rich for me to insist that everyone enjoy life to the fullest. I’ve never gone hungry, been diagnosed with cancer or ever really suffered. I’m tempted to just shrug and say “Hard cases make bad law” and be done with it.
However, I think it’s instructive to think about things like that. All of us are going to die someday. All of us will lose loved ones. What happens then? I had a friend who told me that if he was ever diagnosed with AIDS he would immediately purchase a firearm and kill himself. I told him that he would probably be surprised at how well he would cope with that news.
Humans have an amazing ability to cope with horrible things. We’ve learned that in stories from the holocaust, from hospitals and war zones.
Why don’t people just collapse when faced with such misery? I think most of it can be explained by hope. As long as we believe that things will get better, we’ll hold on.
Also, I think how we cope has a lot to do with where our treasure is. Almost every story I’ve heard from people who have faced death and disease includes a radical realignment of priorities. The treasure stored up in bank accounts and luxury goods rapidly deflates while the value of moments with your children and the bliss of being alive in this moment become invaluable.
Life can be hard. Life is often unfair. Life can be extinguished at any moment. We all know these facts. They can make you fearful. They can make you chronically nostalgic as you dwell on the memories of moments of life that you’ve already spent. They can make you immobile with worry.
What are you going to do about it? Worry, fear, anger and anxiety are feelings. Feelings are a gift. Our emotions are how we process our experiences. You can’t, however, change anything by feeling strongly about it. The only thing you can change is how you react.
How do you react to adversity? Do you try to distract yourself? Do you mope and sigh? Do you give up and collapse?
Another option is to accept that which you can’t change and try to experience the best possible life given your circumstances. Stoicism. as a philosophy, is really a toolkit for dealing with things like this. Seneca advises us to only value things that are essential. Anything that can be taken away, our wealth, status, friends, health, may be taken at any time. If you lost all of those things, what would you have left?
You have life. You have this moment. You have hope for the next moment. You have a chance to make that moment a miracle.
That’s worth more than anything.