The largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose. What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years be behind us are in death’s hands. –Seneca
When I was a kid and looked at pictures of my dad like the one above, he seemed so old to me. He seemed to exist in a place so far distant that it inhabited a completely different universe than mine. He was assuredly an adult. He had begun life, and he knew it.
A few weeks ago as I was holding Gus, I thought about those old photos, and the thought struck me like a thunderbolt: This is your life. I’m sure this revelation seems quite obvious, what else would it be? But what I mean is that I realized that my life had come full circle. Those old pictures of my parents? Now that was me. That time that had seemed so far away had arrived. This was my life.
There’s nothing like having a kid to make you acutely aware of your own mortality. As Jerry Seinfeld observed when he had kids, “Make no mistake about why these babies are here – they are here to replace us.” It’s amazing to look at a baby and realize he is a completely new person, a new person who literally has his whole life ahead of him. This little creature hasn’t even gone to kindergarten yet. And that’s when you realize that a third of your life is over, a whole dang third of it.
I realized I had always expected that at a certain point some signal would be given, some change would come over me, and then I would know that my “real” life had started. After all, if people always ask what you want to be when you grow-up, you figure one day you’ll simply know you’ve grown-up, that you’ve hit that milestone and are officially an adult, and that all adults get initiated into this special knowledge. I thought this moment would come when I went off to college or graduated from it, or when I got married, and surely when I had kids. But that transformative moment never came. Each day was just like the rest. I had been living my life all along. This was my life.
The shortness of life, the fact that one must enjoy the journey instead of focusing on a destination, is surely one of the most popular themes of books, songs, and movies. And so I was almost hesitant to tread where many have trod before with this article. But the fact of the matter is that all those calls to seize the day just go in one ear and out the other, they exist as a cloud of white noise until you have your own, personal “this is your life” moment. A moment when the brevity of life hits you like a ton of bricks and knocks the wind out of you. When you finally understand, deep down in your soul, that the clock’s been running since your were born and keeps on ticking away. So perhaps for some man, somewhere, this post will serve as that wake up call.
Food for Worms
That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once:
how the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were
Cain’s jaw-bone, that did the first murder! It
might be the pate of a politician, which this ass
now o’er-reaches; one that would circumvent God,
might it not? …
There’s another: why may not that be the skull of a
lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillets,
his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?
In Act V, Scene 1, of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet and Horatio converse with a pair of gravediggers in a cemetery. When Hamlet looks upon the skulls of the dead, he imagines the life they had once enjoyed in the flesh. This leads him to picture the bones of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, once mighty men, now moldering in the dust like any other mortal. The reality of death hits Hamlet right in the gut, and he has a “this is your life” moment.
In looking for old photographs to use on AoM, I’ll often find a picture particularly arresting; the vividness of the man’s life at the time the camera flashed upon it jumps out and holds my gaze. And I’ll take a minute to look at his face, to think about the way his day to day life felt no less real than mine does, that his present, his world, felt no less important, that his feelings and aspirations felt no less vital. And how his body is now lying six feet underground somewhere. His life felt just as endless as ours does and yet he has vanished from the earth. 100 years down the road someone might look at our face in an old wrinkled photograph and wonder about the life we lived. Hold that image in your mind for a second…
It’s a moment captured very well in the famous carpe diem scene in the film, The Dead Poets Society:
No Time Like the Present
Why do we always put off doing what we dream about until some point in the future? Researchers have found that humans are very bad at predicting “resource slack.” When asked to guess how much money and time they’ll have in the future, they accurately predict that their financial situation will remain relatively the same, but they think that their free time will expand. This creates what is a termed the “Yes…Damn!” moment….which happens when you say yes to a commitment that’s a few months away, thinking you’ll have plenty of time to do it when it finally comes around, only to realize when it arrives that you’re just as busy as you ever were. Yes…Damn!
This blind spot in our perception is why we confidently tell ourselves that we’ll start that business, lose the weight, repair our relationship, get organized…in a few weeks or a few months, because then we’ll have more time. It’s an illusion. It’s a self-deception that allows us to soothe the pangs of our unfulfilled desires with the panacea that now is not the right time. The mirage of the time-filled future can string a man along until he’s 80, has one foot in the grave, and realizes that the expanse of time he imagined would open never appeared.
When I was in a college, I remember a mentor told me that I’d never have as much time in my life as I had right then. I didn’t believe him at the time; with a heavy course load and a job I felt incredibly busy. And then I got married and got a job. And then I had a baby. Looking back I cannot believe how much time I had back in college. Buckets of time have not opened up as I’ve gotten older–quite the opposite. And I’ve come to realize that the time I think I need to accomplish what I want to do will never magically materialize. It’s now or never.
“The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live.” Reflect, my esteemed Lucilius, what this saying means, and you will see how revolting is the fickleness of men who lay down every day new foundations of life, and begin to build up fresh hopes even at the brink of the grave. Look within your own mind for individual instances; you will think of old men who are preparing themselves at that very hour for a political career, or for travel, or for business. And what is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old? -Seneca
We live in a culture that prizes and seeks “once-in-a-lifetime” moments. But in reality every moment is a once-in-a-lifetime moment. You’ll never be 25 years old on March 21, 2011 at 8:00 am ever again. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment; once it’s gone, it’s gone.
Time goes so slowly, we age so slowly that it’s almost impossible to understand and to realize that time is a finite commodity. It feels as though we are standing still, when in reality we are all traveling on a train that is ever hurtling onward. Look out the “window:” you will never see the scene you glimpse in that instant ever again; it fades immediately into the distance, gone forever. Breathe in, breathe out. Life just moved on a bit and you’re a little bit older.
It at once becomes starkly clear the great tragedy in always waiting for your life to begin. If you wait for your life to start, it never will. This is your life, right now. Whether you’re in a college dorm room, or your first apartment, or a brand new house in the burbs. Whether you’re single, dating, or married. This is your life. Whatever it is you want to do, whatever it is you want to change about yourself, whatever it is you want to see and feel and experience in this lifetime, you can’t put it off until your life begins or it will never happen. Get started now. And start savoring these every day, once-in-a-lifetime moments.