Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “The shortness of life ”

The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and the Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long

“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today… The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and the Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long

“How we spend our days,” Annie Dillard memorably wrote in her soul-stretching meditation on the life of presence, “is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And yet most of us spend our days in what Kierkegaard believed to be our greatest source of unhappiness — a refusal to recognize that “busy is a decision” and that presence is infinitely more rewarding than productivity. I frequently worry that being productive is the surest way to lull ourselves into a trance of passivity and busyness the greatest distraction from living, as we coast through our lives day after day, showing up for our obligations but being absent from our selves, mistaking the doing for the being.

Despite a steadily swelling human life expectancy, these concerns seem more urgent than ever — and yet they are hardly unique to our age. In fact, they go as far back as the record of human experience and endeavor. It is unsurprising, then, that the best treatment of the subject is also among the oldest: Roman philosopher Seneca’s spectacular 2,000-year-old treatise On the Shortness of Life (public library) — a poignant reminder of what we so deeply intuit yet so easily forget and so chronically fail to put into practice.

Seneca writes:

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. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. 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… Life is long if you know how to use it.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

Millennia before the now-tired adage that “time is money,” Seneca cautions that we fail to treat time as a valuable resource, even though it is arguably our most precious and least renewable one:

People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.

To those who so squander their time, he offers an unambiguous admonition:

You are living as if destined to live for ever; 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… How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! 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!

Nineteen centuries later, Bertrand Russell, another of humanity’s greatest minds, lamented rhetorically, “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” But even Seneca, writing in the first century, saw busyness — that dual demon of distraction and preoccupation — as an addiction that stands in the way of mastering the art of living:

No activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied … since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply, but rejects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it. Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man; yet there is nothing which is harder to learn… Learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.

In our habitual compulsion to ensure that the next moment contains what this one lacks, Seneca suggests, we manage to become, as another wise man put it, “accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” Seneca writes:

Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who … organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day… Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied food which he does not want but can hold. So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbor, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.

Seneca is particularly skeptical of the double-edged sword of achievement and ambition — something David Foster Wallace would later eloquently censure — which causes us to steep in our cesspool of insecurity, dissatisfaction, and clinging:

It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return. New preoccupations take the place of the old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition. They do not look for an end to their misery, but simply change the reason for it.

Illustration by Gus Gordon from ‘Herman and Rosie.’ Click image for more.

This, Seneca cautions, is tenfold more toxic for the soul when one is working for the man, as it were, and toiling away toward goals laid out by another:

Indeed the state of all who are preoccupied is wretched, but the most wretched are those who are toiling not even at their own preoccupations, but must regulate their sleep by another’s, and their walk by another’s pace, and obey orders in those freest of all things, loving and hating. If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.

In one particularly prescient aside, Seneca makes a remark that crystallizes what is really at stake when a person asks, not to mention demands, another’s time — an admonition that applies with poignant precision to the modern malady of incessant meeting requests and the rather violating barrage of People Wanting Things:

All those who call you to themselves draw you away from yourself.

[…]

I am always surprised to see some people demanding the time of others and meeting a most obliging response. Both sides have in view the reason for which the time is asked and neither regards the time itself — as if nothing there is being asked for and nothing given. They are trifling with life’s most precious commodity, being deceived because it is an intangible thing, not open to inspection and therefore reckoned very cheap — in fact, almost without any value.

He suggests that protecting our time is essential self-care, and the opposite a dangerous form of self-neglect:

Nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing… We have to be more careful in preserving what will cease at an unknown point.

Illustration by Alessandro Sanna from ‘The River.’ Click image for more.

He captures what a perilous form of self-hypnosis our trance of busyness is:

No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favor. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.

But even “more idiotic,” to use his unambiguous language, than keeping ourselves busy is indulging the vice of procrastination — not the productivity-related kind, but the existential kind, that limiting longing for certainty and guarantees, which causes us to obsessively plan and chronically put off pursuing our greatest aspirations and living our greatest truths on the pretext that the future will somehow provide a more favorable backdrop:

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. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

Seneca reframes this with an apt metaphor:

You must match time’s swiftness with your speed in using it, and you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow… Just as travelers are beguiled by conversation or reading or some profound meditation, and find they have arrived at their destination before they knew they were approaching it; so it is with this unceasing and extremely fast-moving journey of life, which waking or sleeping we make at the same pace — the preoccupied become aware of it only when it is over.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his own occupation, Seneca points to the study of philosophy as the only worthwhile occupation of the mind and spirit — an invaluable teacher that helps us learn how to inhabit our own selves fully in this “brief and transient spell” of existence and expands our short lives sideways, so that we may live wide rather than long. He writes:

Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they 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. Unless we are very ungrateful, all those distinguished founders of holy creeds were born for us and prepared for us a way of life. By the toil of others we are led into the presence of things which have been brought from darkness into light.

[…]

From them you can take whatever you wish: it will not be their fault if you do not take your fill from them. What happiness, what a fine old age awaits the man who has made himself a client of these! He will have friends whose advice he can ask on the most important or the most trivial matters, whom he can consult daily about himself, who will tell him the truth without insulting him and praise him without flattery, who will offer him a pattern on which to model himself.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince. Click image for more.

Perhaps most poignantly, however, Seneca suggests that philosophy offers a kind of spiritual reparenting to those of us who didn’t win the lottery of existence and didn’t benefit from the kind of nurturing, sound, fully present parenting that is so essential to the cultivation of inner wholeness:

We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be. There are households of the noblest intellects: choose the one into which you wish to be adopted, and you will inherit not only their name but their property too. Nor will this property need to be guarded meanly or grudgingly: the more it is shared out, the greater it will become. These will offer you a path to immortality and raise you to a point from which no one is cast down. This is the only way to prolong mortality — even to convert it to immortality.

On the Shortness of Life is a sublime read in its pithy totality. Complement it with some Montaigne’s timeless lessons on the art of living and Alan Watts on how to live with presence.

Thanks, Liz

BP

Ursula K. Le Guin on Busyness and the Creative Life

In praise of the mundane, unquantifiable, impractical activities that feed creative work and fill life with meaning.

Ursula K. Le Guin on Busyness and the Creative Life

Most people are products of their time. Only the rare few are its creators. Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) was one.

A fierce thinker and largehearted, beautiful writer who considered writing an act of falling in love, Le Guin left behind a vast, varied body of work and wisdom, stretching from her illuminations of the artist’s task and storytelling as an instrument of freedom to her advocacy for public libraries to her feminist translation of the Tao Te Ching and her classic unsexing of gender.

In her final years, Le Guin examined what makes life worth living in a splendid piece full of her wakeful, winkful wisdom, titled “In Your Spare Time” and included as the opening essay in No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters (public library) — the final nonfiction collection published in her lifetime, which also gave us Le Guin on the uses and misuses of anger.

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Two decades after her nuanced meditation on growing older, Le Guin revisits the subject from another angle, perhaps the most perspectival angle there is — the question of how we measure the light of a life as it nears its sunset. Like any great writer who finds her prompts in the most improbable of places, Le Guin springboards into the existential while answering a questionnaire mailed to the Harvard class of 1951 — alumni who, if living, would all be in their eighties. (What is it about eighty being such a catalyst for existential reflection? Henry Miller modeled it, Donald Hall followed, and Oliver Sacks set the gold standard.)

Arrested by the implications of one particular question in the survey — “In your spare time, what do you do?” — and by its menu of twenty-seven options, including golf, shopping, and bridge, Le Guin pauses over the seventh offering on the list: “Creative activities (paint, write, photograph, etc.).” She considers this disquieting valuation of creative work in a capitalist society where the practical is the primary currency of existential worth:

Here I stopped reading and sat and thought for quite a while.

The key words are spare time. What do they mean?

To a working person — supermarket checker, lawyer, highway crewman, housewife, cellist, computer repairer, teacher, waitress — spare time is the time not spent at your job or at otherwise keeping yourself alive, cooking, keeping clean, getting the car fixed, getting the kids to school. To people in the midst of life, spare time is free time, and valued as such.

But to people in their eighties? What do retired people have but “spare” time?

I am not exactly retired, because I never had a job to retire from. I still work, though not as hard as I did. I have always been and am proud to consider myself a working woman. But to the Questioners of Harvard my lifework has been a “creative activity,” a hobby, something you do to fill up spare time. Perhaps if they knew I’d made a living out of it they’d move it to a more respectable category, but I rather doubt it.

Virginia Woolf and her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, illustrated by Nina Cosford for Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography by Zena Alkayat.

A century and half after Kierkegaard extolled the creative value of unbusied hours and ninety years after Bertrand Russell made his exquisite case for why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness, Le Guin examines the meanings and misconstruings of “spare” time in modern life:

The question remains: When all the time you have is spare, is free, what do you make of it?

And what’s the difference, really, between that and the time you used to have when you were fifty, or thirty, or fifteen?

Kids used to have a whole lot of spare time, middle-class kids anyhow. Outside of school and if they weren’t into a sport, most of their time was spare, and they figured out more or less successfully what to do with it. I had whole spare summers when I was a teenager. Three spare months. No stated occupation whatsoever. Much of after-school was spare time too. I read, I wrote, I hung out with Jean and Shirley and Joyce, I moseyed around having thoughts and feelings, oh lord, deep thoughts, deep feelings… I hope some kids still have time like that. The ones I know seem to be on a treadmill of programming, rushing on without pause to the next event on their schedule, the soccer practice the playdate the whatever. I hope they find interstices and wriggle into them. Sometimes I notice that a teenager in the family group is present in body — smiling, polite, apparently attentive — but absent. I think, I hope she has found an interstice, made herself some spare time, wriggled into it, and is alone there, deep down there, thinking, feeling.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss.

Two millennia after Seneca placed the heart of life in learning to live wide rather than long and a century after Hermann Hesse contemplated how busyness drains life of its little, enormous joys, Le Guin examines the vital difference between being busy with doing and being occupied with living:

The opposite of spare time is, I guess, occupied time. In my case I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always has been and it is now. It’s occupied by living.

An increasing part of living, at my age, is mere bodily maintenance, which is tiresome. But I cannot find anywhere in my life a time, or a kind of time, that is unoccupied. I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with construing Virgil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, with walking if I can walk and traveling if we are traveling, with sitting Vipassana sometimes, with watching a movie sometimes, with doing the Eight Precious Chinese exercises when I can, with lying down for an afternoon rest with a volume of Krazy Kat to read and my own slightly crazy cat occupying the region between my upper thighs and mid-calves, where he arranges himself and goes instantly and deeply to sleep. None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it. What is Harvard thinking of? I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters is a wonderful read in its totality, replete with Le Guin’s warm wisdom on art and life. Complement this particular portion with German philosopher Josef Pieper on why unoccupied time is the basis of culture, English psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why a capacity for “fertile solitude” is the basis of contentment, and two hundred years of great thinkers on the creative purpose of boredom, then revisit what I continue to consider Le Guin’s greatest nonfiction masterpiece: her brilliant essay on “being a man.”

BP

Civil Rights Legend Rosa Parks on the Meaning of Life

“We are here on earth to live, grow up and do what we can to make this world a better place for all people to enjoy freedom.”

“The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately,” Seneca counseled two millennia ago as he contemplated the shortness of life and urged us to live wide rather than long. But the question of how to fill the width of life’s shortness with meaning remains the most perennial inquiry of the human experience.

In 1988, the editors of LIFE Magazine posed this very question before 300 “wise men and women” ranging from celebrated authors, actors, and artists to global spiritual leaders to ordinary farmers, barbers, and welfare mothers. In 1991, they released The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here (public library) — a collection of the responses, illustrated with a selection of beautiful black-and-white photographs from the magazine’s archives that answered the grand question in ways subtle and symbolic.

Among the respondents was the great African American activist Rosa Parks (February 4, 1913–October 24, 2005), celebrated as “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement,” whose historic act of courage and resistance in refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger 33 years earlier had become a major catalyst for the civil rights movement.

Rosa Parks in 1955, the year of her arrest, with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the background
Rosa Parks in 1955, the year of her arrest, with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the background

65-year-old Parks writes:

I was born in the South, fifty years after slavery, when racial segregation was legally enforced. I listened to my grandparents talk of their lives as slave children and was aware of the Ku Klux Klan’s activities in our community after World War I. Racial pride and self-dignity were emphasized in my family and community because of the seeming insecurities and concerted efforts of many whites to make blacks feel and act inferior to them. I was, therefore, determined to achieve the total freedom that our history lessons taught us we were entitled to, no matter what the sacrifice.

Echoing Anaïs Nin’s unforgettable assertion that “it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar,” Parks argues that the wellspring of that dignified freedom is a kind of moral wisdom that sees past our differences and into our shared humanity:

Human beings are set apart from the animals. We have a spiritual self, a physical self and a conscience. Therefore, we can make choices and are responsible for the choices we make. We may choose order and peace, or confusion and chaos. If we choose the former, we may cultivate and share our talents with others. If we choose the latter, we will isolate and segregate others. We can also expand our vision to include the universe and the diversity of its people, or we can remain narrow and shallow and isolate those who are unfamiliar.

To this day I believe we are here on earth to live, grow up and do what we can to make this world a better place for all people to enjoy freedom. Differences of race, nationality or religion should not be used to deny any human being citizenship rights or privileges. Life is to be lived to its fullest so that death is just another chapter. Memories of our lives, our works and our deeds will continue in others.

By her own measure, Parks lived a life of extraordinary and enduring meaning, its legacy woven deeply into the very fabric of modern society.

Dive further into the enormously elevating The Meaning of Life with more responses from Carl Sagan, George Lucas, John Cage, Annie Dillard, Stephen Jay Gould, Arthur C. Clarke, and Charles Bukowski, then revisit Viktor Frankl on the human search for meaning, Albert Einstein’s pithy answer to a frustrated young woman’s question about why we are alive, Tolstoy on finding meaning in a seemingly meaningless world, and Martin Luther King, Jr. on enveloping our differences in an ethic of love.

BP

How You Spend Your Life: A Cinematic Sum of the Hours, Days, and Years Spent on Mundane Activities

An awakening anatomy of the average life’s two years of boredom, 6 months of watching commercials, 67 days of heartbreak, and 14 minutes of pure joy.

How You Spend  Your Life: A Cinematic Sum of the Hours, Days, and Years Spent on Mundane Activities

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in reminding us that presence is more rewarding the productivity. But how, exactly, do we spend our lives?

That’s what English filmmaker, illustrator, and composer Temujin Doran — maker of incredibly lyrical documentary-style cinematic meditations on everything from the rise of mass media to the art of protest to the life and death of mountains — explores in this wonderful and pause-giving short film based on the title piece from neuroscientist David Eagleman’s book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (public library). At its heart is a clever thought experiment jolting us out of our hubris and reminding us that however puzzling the linearity of time may be, the particular linearity of events through which we live our lives is precisely what makes our lives not only tolerable but thrilling.

Eagleman writes:

In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.

You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet. You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it’s agony-free for the rest of your afterlife.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant. You spend six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line. Two years of boredom: staring out a bus window, sitting in an airport terminal. One year reading books. Your eyes hurt, and you itch, because you can’t take a shower until it’s your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower. Two weeks wondering what happens when you die. One minute realizing your body is falling. Seventy-seven hours of confusion. One hour realizing you’ve forgotten someone’s name. Three weeks realizing you are wrong. Two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Seven hours vomiting. Fourteen minutes experiencing pure joy. Three months doing laundry. Fifteen hours writing your signature. Two days tying shoelaces. Sixty-seven days of heartbreak. Five weeks driving lost. Three days calculating restaurant tips. Fifty-one days deciding what to wear. Nine days pretending you know what is being talked about. Two weeks counting money. Eighteen days staring into the refrigerator. Thirty-four days longing. Six months watching commercials. Four weeks sitting in thought, wondering if there is something better you could be doing with your time. Three years swallowing food. Five days working buttons and zippers. Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events. In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.

Complement with Seneca, writing two millennia ago, on how our busyness shrinks our lives and Mary Oliver on how rhythm gives shape to existence.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated

:)