Is life too short or do we simply waste a lot of time? That was a key concept from Seneca, who lived 2000 years ago. I had the chance to read "On the Shortness of Life" last week and ironically, it was time well spent. Here is the core quotation from the Penguin Classics translation:
"It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested... So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it."
Reading that quote was like a slap in the face, especially after opening Facebook and Instagram multiple times earlier that day. Unfortunately, some lessons take more time to process because I'm still wasting my time on social media, unsure of why I'm there. I figure that everyone else is there because they are also at home too. At home, right? RIGHT?
It is a difficult time for everyone, as many people are unable to work or have businesses that have to shut down. There are also those who are overworked and putting themselves at risk on the front lines and we are all grateful for their efforts. As many people are struggling financially during this time, Seneca said that you will not find many people willing to share their money. He continues with a hard question: but how many people are willing to give up their time?
Time is money, as the expression goes, but do you believe in it? What do you value more, or do you value both equally? For many of us the ability to make money in this time is outside of our control, but at least we are in control of our time. We can make our money back, but these moments will never come again. Reminiscing on these moment in the future would simply take future time away. Perhaps time is more valuable than how we typically treat it. "Often a very old man has no other proof of his long life than his age," warned Seneca. For many of us staying at home, this is also timely advice.
There may be some that take this concept the wrong way and want to go out instead of staying at home, but for what reason? Seneca suggested that life will feel very short and miserable to those who work hard for something and even harder to keep it. Furthermore, they achieve what they want laboriously, possess what they have anxiously, and fail to take account that the time spent to get there will never return. We can all relate to this very well, especially those who have wasted their time hoarding toilet paper and cleaning supplies. "You act like mortals in all you fear, and like immortals in all you desire." 2000 years later and things still haven't changed.
How much do we fear COVID-19, yet how much do we also desire? It reminds me of the proverb: "A healthy man has many wishes, the sick man only has one." In addition to reading "On the Shortness of Life", I also read "The Last Lecture" by Randy Pausch, who was facing a terminal cancer diagnosis at the time. He decided to record a lecture and write a book dedicated to his young children, so that he may have a chance to teach them some life lessons when they grew up. Although some book reviewers felt there were no practical lessons from his book, one key lesson was that he said he was grateful for a cancer diagnosis because he could prepare the last part of his life accordingly. For most of us, we are often very optimistic and imagine ourselves living into old age. Many of us will probably get there, but how quick do we disregard those who are currently of old age? Would it not be wise to set an example for future generations on how to act? When a similar situation arises in the future and you are now of old age, what would you like others to do? Now is the best time to lead by example.
So what is there left to do? Seneca left some extremely practical advice:
"Let us learn to increase our self-restraint, to curb luxury, to moderate ambition, to soften anger, to regard poverty without prejudice, to practise frugality, even if many are ashamed of it, to apply to nature's needs the remedies that are cheaply available, to curb as if in fetters unbridled hopes and a mind obsessed with the future, and to aim to acquire our riches from ourselves rather than from Fortune."
"The next thing to ensure is that we do not waste our energies pointlessly or in pointless activities: that is, not to long either for what we cannot achieve, or for what, once gained, only makes us realize too late and after much exertion the futility of our desires. In other words, let our labour not be in vain and without result, nor the result unworthy of our labour; for usually bitterness follows if either we do not succeed or we are ashamed of succeeding."
Let us make the most of our time at home and cherish those we get to spend time with. For some of us, it may simply be cherishing the time spent with yourself, as there will likely be a lot more alone time than we typically get. However, a final piece of advice from Seneca: "Above all it is essential to appraise oneself, because we usually overestimate our capabilities."
Let us all spend some time to appraise ourselves, because I think we will come to the same conclusion:
We are all in this together. Stay home. Stay safe.