Humanity has always been fascinated by the concept of time. In the hopes of grasping such an abstract idea, man has tried to interpret it in an infinite number of ways, each of which has contributed to our current understanding.
Nowadays, we are well aware everything is bound by time, and we always try to stress this fact to motivate ourselves. Nonetheless, our awareness of the fragility of life causes us to have a rather unhealthy relationship with time.
“Hustle mentality” is an example of this.
We tend to associate time with productivity, and subsequently, we consider every second spent doing something non-work related as wasted. Having free time makes us feel guilty and we are obsessed with keeping ourselves as busy as we can to feel accomplished.
A work-oriented mindset is useful to set one’s priorities straight, but it can quickly become harmful if it forces us to focus excessively on the wrong things. If we don’t acknowledge the faultiness of this behavior, we may let years of our lives slip from our hands.
Throughout history, most philosophies questioned the existence of a correct use of time in a rather theoretical way. However, Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s Stoicism — a school of thought that values knowledge and reason over emotions — took a more pragmatic approach.
Seneca’s inquiry into the concept of time is a recurrent topic in most of his works, such as “Letters from a Stoic,” but the moral essay “On the Shortness of Life” represents its culmination.
The title is voluntarily misleading and provocative because the author’s aim is to reject the common assumption that life is short. On the contrary, Seneca wants to teach people how to use their time wisely to live a fulfilling existence.
According to him, men’s traditional partition of time into past, present and future categories causes unnecessary distress because such dimensions cannot be controlled. They reject the past and live anxiously in the present, which they waste worrying about the future.
Having this mindset means living in a perpetual state of unease and discontent, which can make life seem incredibly short.
To overcome such misery, the philosopher gifts his readers with some precious advice that is incredibly modern and applicable today.
First, Seneca states the majority of our time is wasted by futile activities. We engage in them in hopes of profit and to trick ourselves into feeling occupied.
Instead, our time should be conserved jealously and spared for activities that will improve our existence. There is no point in running from one place to another if we only do it because we are clueless about what to invest our energy in.
It would be more valuable and enriching for us to search for activities that have a positive impact on our souls because only those can make our lives seem longer.
Our materialistic tendencies fool us into thinking we can only lose tangible things. In the meantime, we waste our most valuable asset.
“But as soon as it comes to squandering time [people] are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy,” Seneca wrote.
Seneca also debunked our anxious attitude toward the future. Our irrational fear of what has not yet happened arises from picturing the worst possible outcome.
Rather than focusing on irrational fears, we should take advantage of the present and make the most of the day we are living. Focusing on one day at a time is the only rational way to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
“We die every day,’’ hence we need to feel content and satisfied with ourselves before falling asleep. We can then rely on knowing we accomplished something instead of avoiding our plans.
Although it is natural for us to consider time as an exogenous entity, we must change our perspective and take full ownership of the time we are given. Only by doing this can we become our own masters and create both a purposeful life and a healthy balance between productivity and happiness.
Seneca’s philosophy is accessible even nowadays not only because of the topics he discussed, but also because he always presented himself as an imperfect wiseman. Though he didn’t always practice what he preached, he made sure he was constantly learning new lessons and bettering himself.
Similarly, we should not pretend to drastically change our lifestyles. The only lifelong activity we should be pursuing — with no fear of wasting time — is learning, and “it takes the whole of life to learn how to live.”