This is the final part of a five part series on Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life.
A typical person living in the Western world is expected to live until about 70-80 years old. There are other factors that come into play, such as income, lifestyle, and access to healthcare, but all that aside, the average life span of a healthy adult is about 70 or so years – if you’re lucky.
Do you know how many days that is? Answer: it’s about 25,000.
That’s about 25,000 sunrises, and 25,000 sunsets for you to enjoy during your one and only time on Earth.
Sounds like a lot, right? But there’s a small catch. If you’re like me, in your mid-20’s, you’ve actually already used up about 9,000 of them.
Okay… so that leaves about 16,000 – still, not bad right? But that’s supposing you really are going to live until your mid-70’s… which, of course, isn’t a guarantee.
What if you only lived until you were 60, or 50, or even 40? (If you’re roughly my age and you only live until 40, that’s less than 6,000 days left).
Now consider how quickly, say, the last 7 days went by. Hm, pretty quick right? It seems like it was just a day or two ago that I was in spin class, but I only go once a week, so that was a whole week ago… Now that I think about it, the last month went by quickly as well… I can’t believe we’re halfway through the year already… and it seemed like it was just a few weeks ago I was living in Japan, but that was an entire year ago now… wow, where did those 365 days even go? 365 is a sizeable chunk out of 6,000!
… and so on. So far, I’ve realised two things:
- That we all have a set number of days left, and,
- They’re going by stupidly fast.
If this is a depressing subject to you, then you might be thinking about it in the wrong way. It’s only when you realise that your time is finite that you can start to do something about it.
Knowing this, what are you going to do in the next 7, 30, or 100 days? Would you live your life differently?
Well, if you are already making the most out of your life, then the answer would be, ‘Nope! Everything is perfect!’ and that’s fantastic. But if you’re unhappy because you’re putting up with a life/job/relationship you hate, then Seneca has something to say to that:
“How late it is to begin to really 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!”
How do we know we’re going to live until we grow old? We don’t! Nobody does. So I can’t help but think – why do so many people waste their precious time being unhappy? Why do people put up with jobs they hate for 40 years, just to save up holiday time for when (or if) they reach 65?
I’m no exception to this kind of thinking. We can’t always do the things we want to, and we’ve got to make a living somehow, but if we’ve really only got a few thousand days to live, why spend them doing things that our heart isn’t into?
I’m not advocating a hedonistic lifestyle in a ‘let’s-spend-every-penny-and-destroy-everything-because-tomorrow-might-never-come’ way, but even Seneca realised it thousands of years ago, when he said that,
“[Only when life] is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realise that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.”
The saddest thing is that most people don’t realise how much of their lives they had wasted until they reach the end of it. Usually, these are the same people who don’t like thinking about death at all, because they’re living in a deluded world where if they don’t think about it, it won’t happen to them. But by then, it’s too late to do anything about it.
all their labours were but for the sake of an epitaph
At the end of your life, if everything you did could be summarised into an epitaph, what would it say? What would you want it to say?
You might not get an actual epitaph, but no matter what, you will have a legacy.
Your legacy could be celebrated by millions, or remembered by no one. At the end of your life, it wouldn’t matter to you which one of those it is. You won’t be bringing it with you anyway, wherever you’re going.
All that will matter is how you feel about it. After all, how you feel about your legacy is how you feel about the life you lived. Seneca also wrote,
“Learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.”
Which is true. But it doesn’t have to take your whole life – you could wait until you’re on your deathbed to lament on the time you could have spent on the people and things that mattered. Or you can start now, while you can.
Choose to spend today wisely, as if it was a single precious gold coin that you could never get back.
While we’re at it, we can do the same for tomorrow as well. And the day after, and the day after, until we reach the end, whenever that may be.
You could be happy from right now. Start today. Who needs a lifetime to learn how to live?
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