“So it is — the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but we are wasteful of it.”
Thus reads the first chapter of Seneca’s essay On the Shortness of Life. That 40 page text, written in the middle of the 1st Century, remains as relevant as ever for the 21st.
Consider the original purpose of the text: convincing Paulinus — a rich superintendent of Rome’s grain supply — to retire. Seneca wasn’t just encouraging idlers to get off their butts, he was analyzing how Rome’s most powerful people waste their lives away.
“You have all the fears of mortals and all the desires of immortals.”
In the first few pages, Seneca illustrates how frugal most people are with any resource, except for time.
We’re careful not to waste our money, our food, our clothes, even our battery life. Yet, we throw away tens of hours a week. Our budgets do not include a column for time. Our wallets and our watches seem completely unrelated as we set them side by side on the counter.
Ironically, the accumulation of possessions often decreases the amount of time we have for ourselves. We pressure ourselves to work to be able to afford our toys. Then — drowning in post-purchase rationalization — we pressure ourselves to use them. We climb into our brand new stainless steel washing machines with a smile. We press the vice cycle. We spin, hoping to get to the end of it, yet the cycle never stops and only leaves us more agitated.
To make your life longer, consider time as a resource and don’t waste it on vices.
Even the Most Powerful People in History Were Dissatisfied
Seneca moves on to describe how the most powerful men were never deeply fulfilled by their positions of power. They were secretly longing for their responsibilities to drift away.
“You will see that most powerful and highly placed men let drop remarks in which they long for leisure, acclaim it, and prefer it to all their blessings.”
In a public letter, the most powerful man in the world, emperor Augustus, was fantasizing about a time where he could lay his greatness to the side and enjoy tranquility.
Cicero — another influential giant — wrote about how he felt like “half a prisoner” in his luxurious villa.
Upon obtaining unprecedented power, most men became prisoners of it. Their time was now torn between their allies, their subjects and their enemies; leaving none for themselves.
To make your life longer, don’t pursue power for its own sake. You will never have enough — power or time.
“The mind that is untroubled and tranquil has the power to roam in all parts of its life; but the mind of the engrossed, just as if weighted by a yoke, cannot turn and look behind.”
Seneca emphasizes the utility of the three parts of life : past, present and future.
The past is certain. When we take a moment to meditate on the past intentionally, we learn from it and improve our future by not repeating our mistakes. Equally, when we take a moment to plan our future intentionally, we assure ourselves to live better once that time becomes present.
The key word here is “intentionally”. Most of the time we are lost in thought about the past or the future. This unintentional wandering seldom helps us. It only makes us more regretful or anxious.
How to Make Your Life Longer
Yes, the present is the only moment we have and we must use it wisely. Yet — despite popular trends — living fully is not as simple as going full ‘YOLO’.
To make your life longer, learn from the past, commit to the present and plan your future.
‘By such means, they seek the reputation of being fastidious and elegant, and to such an extent do their evils follow them into the privacies of life that they can neither eat nor drink without ostentation.’
You’d think Seneca predicted Instagram with this last quote.
Even in the midst of pleasures we were so desperate to achieve, we feel like their enjoyment is not enough. Others have to know about it too. In the age of social media, the external validation of how we use our time feels more rewarding than the actual use of our time.
That trip to Machu Picchu will feel like a lonely tree falling in a deserted forest if I don’t post about it, right? Which ties to Seneca’s next point: filling up time with useless information.
As the means to spread information evolve, the amount of trash information increases. When we’re not busy seeking validation for our own banalities, we mindlessly engage with the banalities of others. Our brains marinate in celebrity gossip, sports statistics, biased news reports, mundane music, predictable movies and the impulsive musings of a mentally challenged president.
Don’t just look for more information, build a better filter. Examine which piece of information improves your life. Ignore the rest.
To make your life longer, don’t seek external validation and don’t fill your mind with trash.
Learn from the great minds of the past
Seneca argues that the philosopher makes his life longer by combining the wisdom of all the wise who lived before him. He makes friends with long departed people who filtered their lives to the most valuable information.
When it comes to the quality of our lives, there are many variables we cannot choose early on: our genes, our place of birth, our parents, our school system and the rest of our childhood environment. Yet, we can choose our mentors.
Human knowledge is spread more broadly than it has ever been. The conclusions of people who made it their life’s work to discover how to live better are available to us. They have created a springboard over past mistakes so we don’t have to waste time committing them.
To make your life longer, learn from the great minds of the past, for they faced the same challenges you do.
Don’t lose the day in expectation of the night
“They lose the day in expectation of the night, and the night in fear of the dawn. […] New engrossments take place of the old, hope leads to new hope, ambition to new ambition.”
In the last chapters, Seneca reminds us of the hamster wheel of busyness. The satisfaction of one desire will only create the next one. The achievement of one goal will only bring forth the next.
This is not a call to inaction. The Hydra is there. If we do nothing it will kill us prematurely. Yet, if we keep busy by chopping its heads, our problems will literally multiply. Heracles didn’t vanquish the Hydra with strength alone, he needed Iolaus’ wisdom to burn the open stumps.
To make life longer, don’t throw your time at the Hydras heads: politicians, employers, clients, advertisers, acquaintances, lovers, strangers, neighbors, etc. Instead, take a step back and give more time to yourself.
Ultimately, if you want a longer life you have to consider time as the most precious resource; abstain from pursuing power for its own sake; learn from the past; commit to the present; plan for the future; forego external validation; abstain from trash information and determine who crudely steals your time to keep more of it for yourself.
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