On the Shortness of Life

Do you know how to use your time?

November 22, 2022

“Life is long if you know how to use it.” — Seneca

Seneca writes in his essay On the Shortness of Life about his confrontation with finitude in the human life. In fact, the average adult has around 4.000 weeks in his lifetime. In perspective, the first modern human appeared only around 200.000 years ago. Our lives can appear to be insanely short. And one of the key questions we need to answer for ourselves is what we are going to do with those 4.000 weeks. There are infinite opportunities to go after, so our life can feel short.

Seneca says “it is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it“. He sees a lifetime as a generous amount of time to go after the highest achievements if we are fully invested. In other words, if we keep our eyes on the ball, we can achieve anything we want.

The problem Seneca describes is how we live life as though we would have infinite supplies of time and squander it wastefully on things that do not matter. It’s the trap of thinking “when I am 50 I will retire and finally start following my muse”. How will guarantee you that you make it to 50? “How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived” expounds Seneca.

In a remarkable story told at a TEDx event, Leonard Skinner shares his story of how he looked at the cost of working. If you visualize the living expenses you have on a weekly schedule relative to the income you are earning from your job, you realize that only on Friday at 10 am at work, you are starting to earn money for yourself. All the money you earn prior to that is already allocated for housing, transportation to work, and other living expenses. Simply put, the cost of working in a city at a well-respected job is significant. With this angle in mind, it becomes even clearer what Seneca says in regards to wasting large chunks of our lives on pursuits that are meaningless.

So what’s the solution to this? All this may sound like an inspiring ideal to follow. However, you still need to pay your bills and do something sensible with your life. To me, I take this as a reminder to constantly question the way I spend my time. Living the mantra of Memento Mori. Finitude is what gives meaning to our lives. And reminding yourself of that finitude is perhaps the best key to questioning your priorities. Only by questioning the way you currently spend your time, you can realize that changes are needed. And then, build up the courage to make a change. Because this life is the only life you get.