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 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.

The stream we are floating down, slowly, inexorably, and beyond our control 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 instead be guided by science, reason, and evidence.

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13 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?

  3. Mess1955
    Of course it is possible! Just by keeping the effort of trying to be here and now you can conclude that at least one can stay for intermittent periods just aware of what is happening here and now. There are also many honest people around who claim that they do stay in the now for extended periods of time; a restful state of mind that has been confirmed by fMRI scans. I also think that the Buddha was not lying when he spoke about his state of presence.
    It also goes without saying that during those intermittent periods one does not think of past or future, no regrets or proud satisfactions and fears or wishes; just peace.

  4. Now is not now anymore.
    Present is past,
    The receptacle of history.
    The future is an illusion.
    I am constantly
    In the process of being
    By multiplying my selfs,
    Waiting for the last one.
    Yet, finality does not diminish
    The grandeur of life.
    If anything,
    It magnifies its transient wonder.

  5. Thanks much for the beautiful poem. However, I disagree vehemently with the last 2 sentences.


  6. I wish I had received such a postcard myself, early on. This is one of my favourite articles of yours. I feel as if life is going at breakneck speed. It’s crazy. The only comfort is to know that the people I respect, the best minds, the best people, feel the same things I feel (even though my mind isn’t great, just usable). This makes me imagine that we are all kind of sailing aboard the same ship. Hello, philosophers. Thank you.

    “The flood of Time sweeps over us.”. -Seneca

  7. I have entered the space between the present moment and eternity when my soul merges with the transubstantiated bread of life – heart of Love. It is like walking into a flame of love and waking into inexpressible joy. I understand those who have left their bodies and are unable to express the beauty of their encounter.
    Those transitory moments in time are a foretaste of a timeless existence.

  8. It’s very hard to find good quotes in the Bible amidst all its nonsense but you did find a few (along with the last one which is positively horrible). But if they give you comfort ok.

    Also, Homer expressed similar ideas centuries before in The Iliad.

    “Insignificant mortals, who are as leaves are, and now flourish and grow warm with life, and feed on what the ground gives, but then again fade away and are dead.”


    “Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men. Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth, now the living timber bursts with the new buds and spring comes round again. And so with men: as one generation comes to life, another dies away.”

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