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On the Shortness of Life
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.” — Henry David Thoreau, 1856
As I considered the concept of time and our relationship with it, my thoughts inevitably turned toward the same thing that plagues so many other time-thinkers: the brevity of it.
It’s not that we have less time than our ancestors. We certainly have greater choices on where and how to spend our time, though. And therein lies the problem.
With the increased number of options before us, is it any surprise that our worth seems to be tied to the speed by which we can do, share, or post things?
“Tardiness is next to wickedness in a society relentless in its consumption of time as both a good and a service—as tweet and Instagram, film clip and sound bite, as sporting event, investment opportunity, Tinder hookup, and interest rate—its value measured not by its texture or its substance but by the speed of its delivery.” — Lewis H. Lapham, 2014 1
Nor should it shock you in the least to know that whenever humans are presented with technological wonders — promised as time-savers — it makes our lives more harried and stressful.
H.G. Wells captured the essence The Time Machine, as his Time Traveller described the sensations and his observations of time travel. His remarkable machine was equipped with a saddle, a starting lever, and a stopping lever, and it afforded him a particular view of time that could almost be a description of how we feel on certain days:
“I was already going too fast to be conscious of any moving things.”
How often are we focused on the device in our hand, the next item on an endless to-do list, and a destination where we are awaited? Living from notification to notification or event to event, we’re constantly pulled away from observing the wonder of our surroundings.
If you’re enjoying this, don’t miss out on what thousands of other readers already know: stories like this from history inform our future.
Consider Phileas Fogg, who, in Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, has an opportunity to circumnavigate the globe, heading through sites such as Brindisi, Suez, Bombay, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Yokohama, San Francisco, New York City, and London. Who among us wouldn’t enjoy spending time in these world-class cities?
Fogg was in a race against time, hopping from steamer to train to elephant and other conveyances as he gained and lost time. In the end, time was indeed money for Fogg, who wagered £20,000 (equivalent to £1,803,710 in 2021) on making the trip in the appointed time.
But if we remove about 1,800 years from Fogg’s Victorian journey and place ourselves in Ancient Rome, we need only to heed the words of Seneca, who wrote On the Shortness of Life.
He reminded us that those who are really alive are those who
“not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own.”
That is what Timeless & Timely is all about. Learning from the incredible experiences, knowledge, and wisdom afforded to us by history, philosophy, and literature.
Seneca wisely appreciated the interrelation of past, present, and future, noting that they coexist in the same moment: we can grasp the past in our recollection, use the present, and anticipate the future. Those of us who fail to appreciate any of these are missing out:
“Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.” — Seneca
When we don’t consider history, we miss an opportunity to prepare ourselves for the future. How short-sighted and selfish to only live in the present, to treat the world around us as if we haven’t seen trends or cycles of behavior previously.
Not that you need to become some kind of history nerd; whatever we choose to study helps us understand our place in the world. The more we learn, the more we realize our insignificance and the value of the short time we have here.
Seneca, a favorite Stoic, brings to mind the concept of memento mori, that Stoic principle that reminds us of our own mortality. By living every day as if it might be our last, we have an opportunity to live more fully:
“You are living as if destined to live forever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply — though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.”
Some suggestions on how to get the most out of every day and out of every relationship:
We have only one life on this earth. And that means we have limited time to spend on work.
More importantly, we will be remembered for how we spent time with our family and friends. For, in the end, those relationships are all we have.
Life is short.
“Are we being good ancestors?” – Jonas Salk, 1992
The 10,000 year clock or the Clock of the Long Now is designed to help us think long-term rather than in the moment. (How Stuff Works)
As he went to sleep one night, Eckhart Tolle asked himself, “Why does my life feel unbearable? Why do I keep having these thoughts?” He woke up in a state of calm and spent the day “walking around, wandering, observing, fully engaged in the present moment — a state he continued to exist in for several years.” Eckhart Tolle’s Way of Looking at Time Will Make You Happier Today. (Medium)
What is the worth of a day? Once, a day was long. It was bright and then it wasn’t, meals happened, and school happened, and sports practice, maybe, happened, and two days from this day there would be a test, or an English paper would be due, or there would be a party for which I’d been waiting, it would seem, for years. Days were ages. Love bloomed and died in a day. Time, like memory, is fickle. (Psyche)
“My stern chase after time is, to borrow a simile from Tom Paine, like the race of a man with a wooden leg after a horse.” — John Quincy Adams, 1844
Where did the commuting time go? The pandemic has overtaken our time. And that’s the thing with time: it will fill any vacancies. (Harvard Business Review)
What is the difference between monochronic and polychronic cultures? (YouTube)
Time is a sinkhole. "It feels like I’m seeing this place in some sort of dystopian View-Master, each image on the wheel darker than the next." Photographer Updates Postcards Of 1960s Resorts Into Their Abandoned Ruins. (Flashbak)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“Our allotted time is the passing of a shadow.” — Book of Wisdom, c. 100 BC
🎧 The joint podcast project between The Economist and Slate, The Secret History of the Future, looks at “A Brief History of Timkeeping”. The first mechanical clocks were made to summon monks to prayer. Ever since, timekeeping technology has often been about control and obligation. But underneath a mountain in Texas, a new kind of clock is being built that’s meant to alter the way we think about time. Can it force us to connect our distant past with our distant future, tick by tick?
📚 A Wrinkle in Time is an iconic novel that continues to inspire millions of fans around the world. Madeleine L’Engle won a Newbery Medal for this young adult novel about time travel, adventure, and the ultimate battle between good and evil.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.