The Essential Context of Time

Image courtesy of Jeff Golenski and Unsplash

All we have is time. I know, I know a heady proposition, but I think it might actually be true. Think about it for a second. Time defines our existence. It provides the bookends for pretty much everything. And the funny thing about time is that its context is both finite and infinite. As humans, it offers us an explicit and unimpeachable beginning and end. We are born, we live and we die. That’s pretty much it. As a universe, a vast collection of animate and inanimate objects, time is infinite. Even if there was a beginning, and there might be a big bang end, it won’t really be an end. The energy left behind will become something else, the end will be a beginning.

As we tend to ignore the infinite and unfathomable nature of the universe (and our infinitesimal role in it) we also ignore the finite truth of our own existence. And therein lie a problem and an opportunity. We approach our daily lives as if we will live forever, and in that infinite view of what is decidedly finite, we tend to make the wrong choices or worse, no choices at all. Our actions are fueled by the belief that we can always do it or deal with it tomorrow, and that just fundamentally isn’t true. There may not be a tomorrow, which suggests we should act differently today. 

In the book I have been writing I explore this topic of finite time and how it should impact our choices. A brief excerpt is here:

You know that expression “Life is too short”? Well, this cutting edge philosopher and statesman from around 20 AD named Lucius Seneca the Younger penned a compelling treatise suggesting it wasn’t an issue of length but rather of the choices we make along the way that determines a sufficient and worthy life. He opined:

“It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. 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.”

Well invested means making the right choices which arguably would be made better if we all recognized that our time was finite, our days on this earth numbered, which in fact they are. Imagine for a second (more time context) that there was a flashing red LED display in your kitchen that was a countdown of how many hours you have left on earth? Wouldn’t it change your time management approach? Wouldn’t you think twice about the investments you were making or not making, about how you were frittering away your precious life, or perhaps avoiding taking the risks to get what you really want? The consequences are huge and yet we all have a hard time seeing them because we have a hard time embracing the essential context of time. 

In her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, ex-hospice nurse and now author Bonnie Ware consolidated years of listening to the about-to-be departed and summarized their final thoughts (regrets) down to this:                  

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.

3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Interesting right? And particularly interesting when you look at those regrets through the context of time. I am pretty sure that if we all embraced our time as finite, our end as sort of near, we’d find an infinite pool of courage, we’d walk away from work that did not honor or nurture us, we’d start telling the truth about how we feel, the good, the bad and the ugly, we’d reach out to friends and maybe even tell them we love them, we’d wake up every living day and be thankful that we were still alive and be excited about what we were going to do with our finite minutes, hours, and days ahead.

Fundamentally we’d look at every action through the lens of this simple question: “Is this expenditure of my time worth the loss of my time?” My bet is that we’d start making very different investment decisions. My guess is that we’d stop looking at our phones (85 times a day according to one study), we might start making more intentional plans on how we’re going to use our time (What are you doing this weekend?), and we might stop giving others our time without seeking something in return. And we might decide to make the most radical investment of all, we might decide to do nothing with our time in order to do something meaningful with our time.  By that I mean we might invest more of our time in just being, sitting with our thoughts, contemplating our past, present and future, and planning how we’re going to use the rest of our time on earth to make the most of our time.   

The challenge with all this, as logical as it is, is that we don’t really believe it. Or better said, our primal beings won’t let us accept it. We are hard wired to survive and in that wiring comes a capacity to delude ourselves in order to avoid what we perceive as undue risk taking and ensure that our Maslow-codified basic needs are met. The rationale for living as if our time is finite is overwhelmed by our reptilian brain and its slithering need to just exist.

The result is the five regrets. And under-funded 401ks. Chronic health conditions. A litany of unintended and not-so-good consequences that are largely derived from our inability to embrace the simple truth that we are not immortal and that this show is going to end, and maybe soon. Ironically it appears as if death is the only antidote to all this. The problem, of course, is that our death is, well, the end of our time. So even when we finally get it we have no time left to do anything about it, other than feel regret. But the death of loved ones can serve as a shock treatment of sorts, an all too stark reminder that time is finite and an inner questioning of why we are wasting ours.

Sadly but truly, too many of us need the death of another to value the life (and time) we have. We need a calamity to force clarity, we need tears to motivate us to seek more joy, we need the discomfort of it all to value what we have in the here and now. Loss motivates an appreciation of living and a desire to live it with more gusto, to take more risk, to make better choices that align with who we really are and how we really want to be. For a few days and maybe even weeks after the phone call or the funeral, we get it. And then we lose it. The clarity fades, the motivation to live our lives differently dissipates, and then we fall back to abusing our time, under using our time, living in the lala-land where we think our time is infinite. Until the next loss, or until we wake up on our deathbed surrounded by pillows of regret.

It does not have to be this way. Yes, our time is finite. But how we choose to invest it is, well, an infinite choice. We can choose to embrace the essential context of time as good news not bad. As motivation not threat. As an omnipresent friend, not a lurking enemy. As Seneca shared, it’s not about how much time we have; it’s about how we choose to invest it. That may be the only choice that really matters in the end. Of time that is.