Book: On the Shortness of Life

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it”

I just finished reading a short essay called On the Shortness of Life by Seneca the Younger, written to his friend Paulinus. This essay was written in 49 AD but could just as well have been written today, because Man has still not learned to stop wasting his most precious resource; time.

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.”

Every now and then I question if what I’m doing with my time is really meaningful, if it matters at all in the grand scheme of things, and to be honest I doubt it does. I’m not sure if anything you do really matters though.

I’m busy, that’s for sure, but am I busy about the right things? As Henry David Thoreau once said, “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

Being busy about amassing fame or fortune are two things Seneca advise against because chances are that if or when you attain these things you realize that they’re not what you wanted in the first place, and by then you might already have reached the autumn of life.

I can certainly improve in this area and Seneca gives some useful advice, including taking more time for yourself and ponder the big questions in life. Live for yourself and not for someone else.

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!

The #1 thing I took away from this short essay is this: Don’t put off plans into the future that you can start now. Because the future might look very different from what you imagine, in fact it might never even arrive. So whatever plans you have, whether it’s writing a book or taking up gardening or something else, figure out a way to begin now! Your future self will thank you(unless you’re chasing fame or fortune, in which case you might find out it’s not what you were looking for).

You can read the essay for free online or get it on Amazon. Highly recommended.