Racing Against the Clock: A Meditation on Being Human in a World of Endless Possibility

On a planet that has existed for billions of years, the human lifespan is remarkably short. Assuming I live to 80, the average age of a Canadian male, I have about 4,000 weeks on this earth. If I am lucky and healthy enough to make it that long, that gives me about 2,500 weeks left. [1]

Given the limits of our short existence, why is it that we waste so much of our time on trivialities, on fulfilling the expectations of others and neglecting our authentic selves. We spend our time carelessly while we know our mortality is something that can often be often unpredictable, unexpected and out of our control.

Constrained by Limits

Writing in ancient Rome, the Stoic philosopher Seneca observed the importance of being aware of your mortality as a check against frivolously wasting our days. In his essay On the Shortness of Life he writes,

you live as if you would live forever; the thought of human frailty never enters your head, you never notice how much of your time is already spent. You squander it as though your store were full to overflowing, when in fact the very day of which you make a present to someone or something may be your last. Like the mortal you are, you are apprehensive of everything; but your desires are unlimited as if you were immortal. 

As humans, whether we accept it or not, we are constrained by our biology – we all have limits. What this means is that we have to make choices about what things to prioritize, and how best to spend the fleeting number of weeks, hours and minutes we have left.

In his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals Oliver Burkeman makes the point that is naïve and often counterproductive to think that there will come a point when we have attained perfect order and control of our lives. When we finally reached the ideal ‘work-life’ balance that we’ve been dreaming of, crossing off every item of our never-ending to-do lists. Instead of running on the elusive treadmill of productivity, filling our lives with worry and anxiety, Burkeman advises that we should learn to accept our limitations. He notes that we are seduced,

into imagining that we might find room for everything important by eliminating only life’s tedious tasks. But it’s a lie. You have to choose a few things, sacrifice everything else, and deal with the inevitable sense of loss that results.

Technology, self-help gurus and ‘productivity hacks’ have attempted to convince us that we can do more and more with our finite time. It is true that these tools help us achieve more and eliminate mundane tasks, but it comes at a cost. The great paradox of the modern age is that technology, which was meant to save us time has left us more anxious, busy and frantic.

The smartphone has made communication much easier and more efficient. However, it has also blurred the lines between work and home life. Instant messaging has left us in a state of constant apprehension and alertness always anticipating when we’ll receive the next text message.

A consequence of being a finite human being is the necessity of making decisions which limits our options. ‘FOMO’ or the fear of missing out, is not a defect or something to be frowned upon. Rather it is a byproduct and a feature of the limited nature of our existence.

Quality Versus Quantity

Thanks to the modern advances of the industrial age, the human lifespan has more than doubled over the past century. Of course, this is a great achievement is something to be celebrated.

What gets missed however in this project to continuously increase the length of our lives is the focus on quality. That is, the ancient ideal of living a life akin to virtue and goodness.  A rich life filled with purpose, value and intention.  

What good would it do me to live a long life devoid of meaning?

Ultimately, we don’t know when our time will come. Like many, we may hope to prolong our life’s ambitions or wishful side projects for our retirement. But who knows what fate has in store for us?

An individual who is solely focused climbing up the career ladder, may neglect the need to cultivate interests and hobbies outside of work. When they are finally ready to retire, they are left with their life’s savings and an influx of free time but no idea what to do with it.

Memento Mori: Remember That You Are Mortal

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

The 16th century philosopher Michel De Montaigne said that “to practice death is to practice freedom.” We know our lives will all come to an inevitable end. Rather than succumbing to fear or avoiding this basic fact of our existence, Montaigne advises us to embrace it. To accept it. To keep it at the forefront of our minds.

Allowing ourselves to be constantly reminded of our finitude and mortality enables us to give our lives a renewed sense of urgency and purpose. Once the fear is quelled, we can fully appreciate the time we are given.  Our time can be savored with our full attention and meaning.

The world is in constant flux. Our lives are entangled in a sea of uncertainties. While we can meticulously plan ahead, the only thing we can be certain about is the present moment, what is right in front of us.

In the final analysis, when you’ve reached the end of your days, what will you truly remember?

What will you desire to be known for?

Perhaps answering these questions is a starting point to allocating our limited number of days left of this earth.

Tell me, what is it that you will plan to do with your one wild and previous life?

Mary oliver

This article was originally posted on my personal blog alifeofvirtue.ca

Source Image: Pexels Free Photos


9 thoughts on “Racing Against the Clock: A Meditation on Being Human in a World of Endless Possibility

  1. Excellent post. With a retirement career in insurance, I meet people ranging from the inert to the hyperactive. Its not my paygrade to pass judgment on anyone, but neither extreme makes much sense. Time is our most precious asset, and sharing enjoyment in life perhaps our most precious activity.

  2. I love when you say – The great paradox of the modern age is that technology, which was meant to save us time has left us more anxious, busy and frantic – I feel like if we have been cheated. I think that I become more and more distracted and that I find also more difficult to focus on one thing at the time. But when I retire I will be plenty of things to do 😉

  3. Excellent post Andrew. I meditate on death every morning. I think about the death of my loved ones too. Nothing sobers me up quite as well! “You have to choose a few things, sacrifice everything else, and deal with the inevitable sense of loss that results.” I think freedom becomes meaningful when we give up. When we make commitments to the things we truly value at the expense of everything else. Thank you Andrew – this helped open my eyes today 🙏

    1. Thank you AP2, indeed the paradox of choice in the modern world can be paralyzing. Commitment and responsibility always involve a restriction of freedom, which is a good thing, if it is what provides you with meaning.

  4. I love your acknowledgement that “The smartphone has made communication much easier and more efficient. However, it has also blurred the lines between work and home life.” We live in a semi-reality, where life is mediated by the technologies we created, meaning the creation is now managing and re-creating the creator. And as you mentioned the “state of constant apprehension and alertness always anticipating when we’ll receive the next text message,” Alan Watts referred to this as chasing the will-o-the-wisp. We squander our lives chasing or waiting on what’s next. Montaigne was my initial entrance into philosophy and Stoicism. I read his “Of Cannibals” and it’s been a beautiful ride ever since. Great post, Andrew.

Leave a Reply