“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” ~ Seneca the Younger
By Dr. Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Carpe diem: seize the day. The Roman poet Horace said it first and said it best, as with so many things. Yet many English poets have put their distinctive stamp on the carpe diem motif, exhorting us to seize the day, to make the most of life, to ‘gather ye rosebuds while ye may’, in Robert Herrick’s well-known phrase, or to ‘Stop and consider! Life is but a day’, as Keats has it in ‘Sleep and Poetry.”
Our time here is brief. It begins with birth and ends with death.
The other morning, a friend showed me his two-month-old granddaughter. She saw me and smiled beautifully. Grandpa was so proud, as he should have been. That afternoon, I learned of the recent death of a 93-year-old neighbor. He was a nice man with a great sense of humor and was intellectually very sharp. Sadly, his wife of over sixty years was transferred to an assisted living facility. The stark juxtaposition of the two events on the same day might have been ironic if not for my keen awareness of how brief our lives are.
The human experience is one heavily influenced by the linear perception of time. The invisible and relentless sands of time run their course from the second we’re born. That creates a profound yet tacit awareness of life’s finitude. The notion that life is short is universally shared, spanning all cultures, civilizations, and epochs. However, the shortness of life is not so much a universal truth as it reflects human attitudes, priorities, and perceptions.
How we perceive the passage of time varies greatly depending on our age, experiences, and mental state. In childhood, days seem to last forever, and the concept of years is almost unfathomable. As we age, the perception of time speeds up. Days, weeks, and months blend, and years pass rapidly. Each unit of time feels faster as we accumulate more experiences.
However, the perception of life’s brevity is not merely a product of psychological time perception. It’s also deeply entwined with how we choose to spend our time. People feel that life is short because they are burdened with unfulfilling tasks. And overworked in jobs that leave little room for personal growth or enjoyment. The feeling of life’s shortness then becomes a mirror reflecting a life that is out of alignment with personal values and aspirations.
The Shortness of Life and Value
The shortness of life, paradoxically, underscores the immense value of our time. Each moment becomes precious when our time is limited. This understanding encourages us to engage fully with each moment and spend our time in meaningful and fulfilling ways.
However, understanding and appreciating the value of time is easier said than done. Modern society often pushes us into a state where we are constantly behind and unable to slow down. Productivity takes away our ability to savor life’s moments.
To challenge the feeling of life’s brevity, it becomes crucial to cultivate a balanced relationship with time. While productivity is important, so is time to relax, have relationships, and self-reflect. These equally important activities add depth, meaning, and joy to our lives. By investing time in these areas, we expand the quality of our life, even if we can’t physically extend the quantity of our years.
It’s also important to cultivate mindfulness, the ability to be fully present in each moment. Mindfulness helps us slow down our perception of time and truly savor our experiences rather than rushing through them. It can be cultivated through meditation, deep listening, or simply paying more attention to our daily activities.
In conclusion, the feeling of life’s shortness is a complex phenomenon, shaped by our perception of time, how we spend it, and the societal pressures we face. Life is not too short, but we’ve been too distracted to live it fully. We must cultivate mindfulness. We must create a rich and fulfilling life, regardless of its length.