It is a common cry that life is short. There is never enough time to do the things we want to do or to get the things we want to get. We are at the mercy of the persistent forward push of time that moves in wilful disregard of the plots and plans that we set for our lives.
But perhaps it is not that our life is short, but that we so blindly squandered it all so it seems that there is little left of it to ourselves.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca had much to say about the supposed great enemy of time in his book “On The Shortness of Life”. Written to his father in law Paulinus, Seneca takes a deep dive into the idea that it is through our constant distraction and giving to meaningless things that we are left with the illusion that time is short and we have not enough of it to accomplish our goals.
To that ends, I believe his thought deserves some exposition in order to help us in identifying the areas of our own lives that may be stealing away the precious moments of our living.
Living vs. Existing
“Aren’t you ashamed to keep for yourself just the remnants of your life?” – Seneca
There is a not so fine line between existing and living. It is not difficult to see in others the boundaries they impose on their existence that prevents them from actually living. It is perhaps a bit harder to recognize those boundaries in ourselves, but it is an important recognition we must make in order to get the most out of the time we are allotted here in living.
If you are alive today, you exist, but you have to ask yourself; are you really living? There is so much of our lives that we sacrifice for the world, leaving so little of it for ourselves. So if you are living, who or what are you living for? Are you living for others? Are you living in your emotions? Are you living for things? Is your life lost in the contemplation of the past or future?
If any of these ways of living sound like you, it may be time to take back your existence and start living for yourself.
Giving to Others
“How much of your time has been taken up by a money-lender, how much by a mistress, a patron, a client, quarreling with your wife, punishing your slaves, dashing about the city on your social obligations.” – Seneca
Perhaps the biggest loss of our time comes in the form of giving it to others. There is obviously an incredible amount of satisfaction and enjoyment that you can derive from giving our time others, but it is important that the time that we give is quality time and it is given to the right people to the right degree.
Consider the time you have spent and wasted in arguing with people you love or giving your time to people who do not find it valuable. It is true that some of our time must be squirrelled away for work, for family, for friends, for loved ones, for obligations we have committed to, but we need not be so quick to offer our time to things that we do not find valuable or to people who have no appreciation regarding the value of our time.
There is no doubt that we all have our certain obligations to society. We have jobs, political affiliations, causes we want to champion. But do you carry these obligations with you every moment of every day, letting them drain you of those all important personal moments that help to stabilize and strengthen your soul? Are your obligations exhausting your ability to fully enjoy your life and the things you want to accomplish? If so, it may be time to distance yourself from them, if only so that you can return later with a renewed strength and purpose.
Giving to Emotion
“How many have plundered your life when you were unaware of your losses; how much you have lost through groundless sorrow, foolish joy, greedy desire. – Seneca
It is a common affliction that we carry with us the residue of so many emotions that are reflections of the past or shadows of the future. We get lost in those emotions and we let them cloud the present moment, allowing it to slip past unnoticed, unappreciated and inexperienced. In that emotional haze is the loss of so much valuable time.
The idea here is not to remove the experience of emotions but to have those emotions contained in the moment of experience and then to let them go, not carrying around the burden of them so much so that they remove you from the experience and enjoyment of the present.
Stoicism is perhaps best well-known for the control and acceptance of emotions. It is a point that is emphasized in every major Stoic writer and one that, if mastered, returns to us the majority of our time. By understanding that we have minimal control over the external factors of our everyday life, we can direct our attention to the internal stirrings of our emotions and by bringing awareness to them, soften them. And when they are softened you can set them down, returning yourself to living without dragging around the lingering weight of those emotions.
Giving to Things
“Vices have to be crushed rather than picked at.” – Seneca
I have always been a man of many vices. I have what is known as an addictive personality. For better or worse it is a part of who I am. I have had my moments of disastrous indulgence through my life and to this day, when I am in on something, I am all in on it.
Thankfully, these days that amounts to more healthy addictions; working out, running, reading and writing but it also includes an addiction to technology, moments of serious gluttony and a not so healthy amount of drinks had with friends on occasion.
Our vices are “things” that can certainly consume our present and give us a sense of lacking the time to chase more noble pursuits. Our vices are bleeding things that seep into nearly all aspects of our life and drive us to action that is unproductive in so many ways.
The first step in preventing “things” from getting in the way of living our lives is to honestly evaluate what sort of things you do right now that steal away the valuable commodity that is your time. Are you tethered to your phone; constantly checking your social media, addicted to the constant stimulation of news and updates and media driven trash? Are you habitually consuming unhealthy foods that make you lethargic and miserable and slowly wasting away your health and energy?
Whatever things you are giving you the majority of your life to, you need to recognize them and, if you are like me, replace them with things that return you to your life. Things that work to stretch your time and make you more productive. Be honest. Be sincere and be ready for withdrawal from the thieving things you give to, but know that it is the only way to return your time to yourself to get the things you truly want.
Giving to the Past and to the Future
“Life is divided into three periods, past present and future. Of these, the present is short, the future is doubtful and the past is certain” – Seneca.
I am guilty of spending a great deal of time traveling between the past and the future and neglecting to stop in the present to enjoy myself there. For those of us with haunted pasts, it is not easy to get lost with the ghosts there. Relieving yourself of those terrible demons is a hard task but a necessary one if we are to leave ourselves with enough time to live in the present.
The future is a melodic siren that can draw us in as well. Singing sweet songs of future triumph and success while leaving us blind to the time we must spend in the present in order to accomplish our future goals.
It is important to reflect on the past in order to avoid repeating mistakes and it is equally important to look forward to the future accomplishments we hope to achieve in order to maintain the passion we have for our projects, but by giving yourself completely to those reveries you neglect the most important time you have right now; the present.
Never overstay your welcome in the past or the future, instead preferring the company of the present and you will find the infinite there that lives in every instant. The present is our only opportunity for accomplishment. It is our opportunity to set yourself up to capture the future self that we imagine. Spend most of your time in the present and you will find that life is longer than you think.
Giving Back to Yourself
“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life; it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today.” -Seneca
Sometimes you need to step away from all the people and things and emotions and reveries you give your life to. You have to step back and reclaim yourself and by doing so reapply your time and effort to working on the things that truly expand the wealth of your life. By doing this you will find that life is long when it is lived well.
I am not saying there is not tremendous value in giving. It is a wonderful thing to be able to lend your time and energy to the lives of others, but you have to be careful that you do not squander your time, or worse, lose yourself in the process of giving. There is no value in giving to others if you lose yourself in the process, so tread carefully and be frugal with your gifts, giving only to those things and people that are worth be given to.
Seneca is adamant in saying that nature provides us an ample amount of time to accomplish the things we need to accomplish to build a fulfilling life. It is up to us to prioritize our time to get the most out of it. We do that by making sure that we are not so freely giving of our time to others, to emotion, to things or to our preoccupation with the past and future.
We should be selective of where our time is spent so that, when we lay our head on the pillows at night, we feel that we have we have lengthened our life by using our time in a manner that put the emphasis on the value of it and not the quantity of it. We grow our time by cementing the legacy of our lives through constant, well-intentioned and purpose-driven action towards the passions that we were born to. If we give back to ourselves the time it takes to be personally fulfilled, we will find our lives expand and we will no longer curse the encroachment of time.