Life is Fleeting

Live not as though there were a thousand years ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours.” ~ Marcus Aurelius

I recently scribbled this quote on my youngest daughter’s birthday card. Just her luck, her father is a philosopher! Seriously though the fleeting, ephemeral nature of life is a basic tenet of Stoicism and Buddhism, a basic motif of Proust and Shakespeare. What is it about the passing of time that is so compelling yet disturbing, and what can we learn from it?

An 80 year life span is a 960 months or about 29,000 days long. Think of that, an entire life. If you are middle-aged and will live another 40 years that’s only 480 months or about 15,000 days. And for someone my age with a life expectancy of maybe 20 years, that’s 240 months or about 7,000 days. This is shockingly brief.

Part of what is so compelling about this brevity is that this stream we are floating down, slowly, inexorably, and without our control or consent is … life. We are thrown into the world, imagine endless possibilities if we are lucky and then, suddenly, time has passed. We can’t stop it, rewind it, or fast forward it even when we want to. What of our destination? Looking back on almost 60 years of living I feel a kinship with Yeats:

When I think of all the books I have read, and of the wise words I have heard spoken, and of the anxiety I have given to parents and grandparents, and of the hopes that I have had … my own life seems to me a preparation for something that never happens.

Perhaps this is what’s so disturbing about time. It refers to a now unreal past, a vanishingly short present, all while leading to a future that never arrives. Perhaps something is just amiss in life, and part of that something manifests itself in time’s flow. Personal immortality has been proposed to ameliorate our worries. But I reject the comfort of charlatans, of purveyors of salves. As Diderot put it: “Lost in an immense forest during the night I have only a small light to guide me. An unknown man appears and says to me: ‘My friend blow out your candle so you can better find your way.’ This unknown man is a theologian.”

Today we have an endless variety of cults and demagogues from which to choose. But I reject them. Instead I will keep my candle, my little light of reason, even though I am lost in time. No longer in the Dark Ages, I will not be guided by the blind. I will be, as Buddha counseled, a lamp unto myself.

4 thoughts on “Life is Fleeting

  1. When reading “It refers to a now unreal past, a vanishingly short present, all while leading to a future that never arrives.” I was reminded of a quote I once heard awhile back. It revolves around the concept of waiting, which can go hand in hand with the concept of time because waiting involves the passing of time. “We are always waiting for something. Waiting for the weekend, waiting for exams to be over, waiting for our 18th birthday…and when what we were waiting for finally arrives, we just let it go and are already waiting for the next thing.” This wasn’t how it went word by word but the gist of it is the same: that we, as humans, are incapable of appreciating time no matter how precious it may be. Once our gratification is fulfilled, we empty that bucket and wait to be gratified by our next desire or want.

    This goes to show that by nature, we enjoy and demand instant gratification. And that’s why I think it’s so difficult for us to realize how scarce time is. We are constantly looking forward to the next best thing, we never bask and slow down to appreciate things that we have grown accustomed to. Time is something we pay little attention to. In fact, most of the time, I feel like we want time to pass quicker. Why focus on something that most of us seem to feel like we have an unlimited supply of? Everyone is aware of the fact that we only have this one life. This one “960 month” life. But when addressing it, especially at young ages such as 20 years old, we think “well I have only lived 7,000 days, there’s still so much time.” That’s the whole point though: there isn’t. I don’t believe there will ever be enough time if one does not learn to truly appreciate every second to the fullest extent possible, that life has to offer us.

    The problem is determining how to truly appreciate time. It is easy to acknowledge this problem but it is an entirely different thing to try and fix it.

  2. Vanessa,
    Yes, I agree with your take. However, “truly appreciate every second to the fullest extent possible” is difficult for me. I find constantly trying to be in the infinite now very exhausting. Maybe I’m just addicted to ruminating about the past or future. Thoughts anyone?

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