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One of my favorite writings on philosophy is On the Shortness of Life, an essay written nearly 2,000 years ago by Roman philosopher Seneca. One passage I often revisit is about the importance of being greedy with your time. Seneca warns us that if we’re not careful, most of our days (and consequently our life) will be consumed by the demands of other people and fruitless activities. Here’s the specific passage:
Consider how much of your time was taken up with a moneylender, how much with a mistress, how much with a patron, how much with a client, how much in wrangling with your wife, how much in punishing your slaves, how much in rushing about the city on social duties. Add the diseases which we have caused by our own acts, add, too, the time that has lain idle and unused; you will see that you have fewer years to your credit than you count.
Look back in memory and consider when you ever had a fixed plan, how few days have passed as you had intended, when you were ever at your own disposal, when your face ever wore its natural expression, when your mind was ever unperturbed, what work you have achieved in so long a life, how many have robbed you of life when you were not aware of what you were losing, how much was taken up in useless sorrow, in foolish joy, in greedy desire, in the allurements of society, how little of yourself was left to you; you will perceive that you are dying before your season!
Seneca is issuing an urgent wake up call: Don’t let yourself reach the end of your life and look back only to realize that very little of your time on Earth was actually spent doing things you wanted to do. Don’t let petty activities and the constant demands of others determine how you spend your life.
This message that Seneca preached nearly 2,000 years ago is as relevant today as ever. So many of us spend our days doing work we don’t want to do, running an endless amount of errands, subjecting ourselves to pointless meetings, and a myriad of other trivial tasks. Most of us do these things because we don’t have freedom to spend each day how we want. We let technology steal our time, consumer goods steal our money, and debt steal our freedom.
I can imagine if Seneca was alive today he would be appalled at how most of us spend our time and money. I’m sure he would be preaching the same message but with a slight twist. It might sound something like…
Consider how much of your time was taken up with Facebook, how much with Twitter, how much with Netflix, how much with fake friends, how much in worrying about your social media following, how much in keeping up with sitcoms, how much in replying to emails at all hours of the day.
Add the stress which we have caused by our insatiable consumerism, add, too, the time that has been spent cleaning excessively large houses; you will see that you have less time to yourself than you think. Look back in memory and consider how much student loan debt you took on, how much credit card debt you accepted, when did you ever have time to spend with your children, when did you have time to sit and stare at a sunset, when your mind was at ease, when you had time to do meaningful work to make a mark in the world.
How much time have advertisers robbed you of life when you weren’t aware of it, how much time was spent trying to prove your success to the world through buying your McMansion, your new car, your designer watch, your flat screen TV, your expensive dinners at fancy restaurants, all in an attempt to make your peers jealous, failing to realize how much money you actually spent buying things that improved your life, you will perceive that you are letting life slip through the cracks!
The message is the same, but the activities that steal our time have changed. Many of us let social media, consumer goods, and work-related demands steal huge portions of our days. We let debt put us in tight financial situations and the newest gadgets steal our money. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
We can all benefit from the wisdom of Seneca. Each of us can take back our time and money by being a little more picky about who we let consume our attention, with what we spend our hard-earned money on, and with what type of lifestyle we choose to live.
Through being more intentional with our time and money we can create a life that we’re proud to look back on when we’re old. We can reject debt, prioritize saving, deny excessive consumerism, and spend our time instead doing work we love and hanging out with people we cherish. We can take comfort in knowing that we lived life how we wanted to, and not how the world told us we should.
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