Time is long, but life is short.

Stevie Wonder (2000 AD)


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

Seneca (1 AD)

At a recent dinner with friends we were discussing how swiftly time seems to be passing today. Sure, time is time, but somehow, no matter that an hour this year is the same sixty minutes as an hour ten years ago, every aspect of the pace of life does seem to have quickened.  Information on every topic imaginable is at our fingertips, items can be ordered while sitting at your desk and arrive at your doorstep the next day; full seasons of thousands of programs are available on your television so you can binge watch several years of shows in a weekend. Patience may be a virtue, but as a society we don’t seem to value it…we want it all now and we can easily get it (even if we can’t afford it.) And if life isn’t satisfactory the way it is, we can change jobs, change partners, move to new locations, take vacations, buy a new car, or renovate the kitchen, in a constant search to find some sort of palliative to our ennui, to reassure us that life is good, or can be and we’re going to figure out how to make it so, even if it kills us. And then, one day we wake up and we are forty or fifty or sixty or, if we’re lucky, seventy or eighty and we wonder where the time went, just when we are finally ready to live our “true” lives, realizing that life really is short, and we probably wasted a lot of it. 

A number of years ago when my daughter was ten, she told me that her life “was going too fast.” Even at that tender age, she felt the swiftness of time since technology has sped up our daily lives, but that feeling of time’s swiftness isn’t new. Over two thousand years ago, Lucius Anneas Seneca (known as Seneca the Younger) wrote about the swiftness of life and the “spitefulness of Nature.” Apparently, one of the constant truths of mortality, no matter the century, and especially as one ages, is the general feeling that, “born for a brief span of life…” it “rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all, save a very few, find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live.” (Seneca I) We waste our years on diversions, distractions, commitments, jobs, perhaps never really feeling we have lived our truest lives, and just when we begin to understand that, moaning about the paltry and fleeting remainder of our lives, it’s time to depart. 

In his essay On the Shortness of Life, Seneca presents a different perspective on the brevity of life which, although written in the first century A.D., seems as current as today. He states, “It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it,” and continues, “the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it.” (Seneca I) I have reached that time in my life when I am evaluating what I have done, what I have yet to do, and how I can live the remainder of my life valuing the time I am given and wasting as little of it as possible. I didn’t expect to receive such timely wisdom and advice for this stage of my life from a man who lived two thousand years ago. His words took me aback; he was right! I had to admit I have lived much of life as if I “were destined to live forever,” with no thought to my “frailty ever entering my head” and of how much time had already gone by of which I “took no heed.” How many times I had a plan and yet “how few days have passed as (I) intended, and “when my mind was unperturbed.” How much of my life was spent “in useless sorrow, in foolish joy, in greedy desire, in the allurements of society and how little of myself was left to me.” (Seneca III)

I have a variety of talents which I have tapped, have had several successful careers, given time to organizations, raised a family and have habitually been running as fast as I can. Now, as I have less commitments and more time, I can see that I have valued busyness perhaps above all else, and I have somewhat proudly valued the accomplishments of that busyness. Seneca in his straightforward wisdom reminds me that, “There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living; there is nothing that is harder to learn.” He also reminds us that we don’t “set a value on time” and “all use it lavishly as if it cost nothing.” And yet, time is “the most precious thing in the world.” (Seneca VIII) In self-reflection now, I see the blessings and wisdom of “being” and not “doing,” (busyness) because nothing is “worthy to be taken in exchange” for the precious gift of time. (Seneca VII) 

We have endless opportunities to value our time and choose wisely every day. Seneca reminds us that, “Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.” After reading Seneca’s words, I am committed to wisely investing the rest of the time I have. Now, while my “blood is hot,” I will “enter with brisk step on the better course. In this kind of life there awaits much that is good to know- the love and practice of the virtues, forgetfulness of the passions, knowledge of living and dying, and a life of deep repose.” (Seneca XIX) Thanks to Seneca, I see that Stevie Wonder has it backwards … life isn’t short; it’s just as long as it needs to be to do what we are meant to do, but we must use it wisely.  

Pamela Econoply Woodnick


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