“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 lifespan is 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 the 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 if we want to. And 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 quickly disappears. Perhaps something is amiss in life, and part of what’s missing 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 many cults from which to choose. But I reject them all. 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.