On the shortness of life


March 2018

On the shortness of life

I am always astonished when I see people requesting the time of others and receiving a most accommodating response from those they approach. Both sides focus on the object of the request, and neither side on time itself; it is requested as if it were nothing, granted as if it were nothing. People trifle with the most precious commodity of all; and it escapes their notice because its an immaterial thing that doesn’t appear to the eyes, and for that reason it’s valued very cheaply — or rather, it has practically no value at all.


eople set very great store by annuities and gratuities, and for these they hire out their services or their efforts or their attentions. But no one values time: all use it more than lavishly, as if it cost nothing. But if mortal danger threatens them, you’ll see the same people clasping their doctors’ knees; if they fear a capital charge, you’ll see them ready to spend all they have to stay alive. So great is the conflict in their feelings. But if each of us could see the number of years before us as precisely as the years that have passed, how alarmed would be those who saw only a few years left, and how carefully would they use them! And yet it’s easy to manage an amount, however small, which is clearly defined; we have to be more careful in conserving an amount that may give out at any time.

Yet there’s no reason to believe that those people are unaware of how precious a commodity time is. They habitually say to those they love most intensely that they are ready to give them some of their own years. And they do give them without knowing it; but they give in such a way that, without adding to the years of their loved ones, they subtract from themselves. But this very point, namely, whether they are depriving themselves, eludes them, and so they can bear the loss of what goes unnoticed in the losing.

No one will bring back the years, no one will restore you to your former self. Life will follow the path on which it began, and it will neither reverse nor halt its course. It will cause no commotion at all, it will call no attention to its own swiftness. It will glide on in silence. It will prolong itself at neither a king’s command nor his people’s clamour; it will run on just as it started out on the first day, with no diversions and no delays. And the outcome? You’ve been preoccupied while life hurries on; death looms all the while, and like it or not, you have to accommodate it.

Can there be anything sillier than the view of those people who boast of their foresight? They are too busily preoccupied with efforts to live better; they plan out their lives at the expense of life itself. They form their purposes with the distant future in mind. Yet the greatest waste of life lies in postponement: it robs us of each day in turn, and snatches away the present by promising the future. The greatest impediment to living is expectancy, which relies on tomorrow and wastes today. You map out what is in fortune’s hand but let slip what’s in your own hand. What are you aiming at? What’s your goal? All that’s to come lies in uncertainty: live right now.

Hear the cry of the greatest of poets, who sings his salutary song as if inspired with divine utterance: Each finest day of life for wretched mortals is ever the first to flee.”