Racing Against the Clock: A Meditation on Being Human in a World of Endless Possibility

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On a planet that has existed for billions of years, the human lifespan is remarkably short. Assuming I live to 80, the average age of a Canadian male, I have about 4,000 weeks on this earth. If I am lucky and healthy enough to make it that long, that gives me about 2,500 weeks left. [1]

Given the limits of our short existence, why is it that we waste so much of our time on trivialities, on fulfilling the expectations of others and neglecting our authentic selves. We spend our time carelessly while we know our mortality is something that can often be often unpredictable, unexpected and out of our control.

Constrained by Limits

Writing in ancient Rome, the Stoic philosopher Seneca observed the importance of being aware of your mortality as a check against frivolously wasting our days. In his essay On the Shortness of Life he writes,

you live as if you would live forever; the thought of human frailty never enters your head, you never notice how much of your time is already spent. You squander it as though your store were full to overflowing, when in fact the very day of which you make a present to someone or something may be your last. Like the mortal you are, you are apprehensive of everything; but your desires are unlimited as if you were immortal. 

As humans, whether we accept it or not, we are constrained by our biology – we all have limits. What this means is that we have to make choices about what things to prioritize, and how best to spend the fleeting number of weeks, hours and minutes we have left.

In his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals Oliver Burkeman makes the point that is naïve and often counterproductive to think that there will come a point when we have attained perfect order and control of our lives. When we finally reached the ideal ‘work-life’ balance that we’ve been dreaming of, crossing off every item of our never-ending to-do lists. Instead of running on the elusive treadmill of productivity, filling our lives with worry and anxiety, Burkeman advises that we should learn to accept our limitations. He notes that we are seduced,

into imagining that we might find room for everything important by eliminating only life’s tedious tasks. But it’s a lie. You have to choose a few things, sacrifice everything else, and deal with the inevitable sense of loss that results.

Technology, self-help gurus and ‘productivity hacks’ have attempted to convince us that we can do more and more with our finite time. It is true that these tools help us achieve more and eliminate mundane tasks, but it comes at a cost. The great paradox of the modern age is that technology, which was meant to save us time has left us more anxious, busy and frantic.

The smartphone has made communication much easier and more efficient. However, it has also blurred the lines between work and home life. Instant messaging has left us in a state of constant apprehension and alertness always anticipating when we’ll receive the next text message.

A consequence of being a finite human being is the necessity of making decisions which limits our options. ‘FOMO’ or the fear of missing out, is not a defect or something to be frowned upon. Rather it is a byproduct and a feature of the limited nature of our existence.

Quality Versus Quantity

Thanks to the modern advances of the industrial age, the human lifespan has more than doubled over the past century. Of course, this is a great achievement is something to be celebrated.

What gets missed however in this project to continuously increase the length of our lives is the focus on quality. That is, the ancient ideal of living a life akin to virtue and goodness.  A rich life filled with purpose, value and intention.  

What good would it do me to live a long life devoid of meaning?

Ultimately, we don’t know when our time will come. Like many, we may hope to prolong our life’s ambitions or wishful side projects for our retirement. But who knows what fate has in store for us?

An individual who is solely focused climbing up the career ladder, may neglect the need to cultivate interests and hobbies outside of work. When they are finally ready to retire, they are left with their life’s savings and an influx of free time but no idea what to do with it.

Memento Mori: Remember That You Are Mortal

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The 16th century philosopher Michel De Montaigne said that “to practice death is to practice freedom.” We know our lives will all come to an inevitable end. Rather than succumbing to fear or avoiding this basic fact of our existence, Montaigne advises us to embrace it. To accept it. To keep it at the forefront of our minds.

Allowing ourselves to be constantly reminded of our finitude and mortality enables us to give our lives a renewed sense of urgency and purpose. Once the fear is quelled, we can fully appreciate the time we are given.  Our time can be savored with our full attention and meaning.

The world is in constant flux. Our lives are entangled in a sea of uncertainties. While we can meticulously plan ahead, the only thing we can be certain about is the present moment, what is right in front of us.

In the final analysis, when you’ve reached the end of your days, what will you truly remember?

What will you desire to be known for?

Perhaps answering these questions is a starting point to allocating our limited number of days left of this earth.

Tell me, what is it that you will plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver

[1] If you do the math, you’ll come to the conclusion that I am just about 30 years.

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A Stoic Approach to Fear

Seneca: A Stoic Life

One of the things I admire about the Stoic philosophers is that they embodied the wisdom that they preached. Seneca, one of the three notable Stoics (along with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus), used the philosophy of Stoicism to navigate the turmoil and uncertainties during his life.

Although he maintained a high status in ancient Rome as a politician and financial clerk, Seneca was forced into exile by Claudius, and ordered to commit suicide by his former student – the tyrannical emperor Nero. 

In a typical Stoic fashion, on his death bed, Seneca urges his friends, family and followers not to fear death. Dying with dignity and courage, he argues that it is only through death and the ephemeral nature of our existence which gives life meaning. It is not the duration of one’s life that is of significance Seneca claims, but rather the endeavours and meaningful pursuits that one engages which makes life worthwhile.   

 In his consolation to his friend Marcia over the death of her son, Seneca writes that we should always be prepared for the unknown, directly confront our fears and cherish our existence. Nothing should be taken for granted.

That person has lost their children: you too, can lose yours; that person received sentence of death: your innocence too, stands under the hammer. This is the fallacy that takes us in and makes us weak while we suffer misfortunes that we never foresaw that we could suffer. The person who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.

Seneca, On Consolation to Marcia

Letters from a Stoic

One of the more notable works left behind by Seneca is the Letters from a Stoic. Near the end of his life, Seneca wrote 124 letters to his friend Lucilius offering philosophical insight and consolation, highlighting many of the key themes in Stoic philosophy.

My favourite in this collection is Letter 13 – On Groundless Fears.  In this letter, Seneca encourages Lucilius to practice resilience providing  questions to consider when assessing the validity of his fears.

Many of our fears Seneca notes are unfounded. We can not control the external world, but we can control our interpretation of it. Much of what we fear are fabrications produced by our mind which, if properly evaluated and critiqued, have no basis in reality.

 Even if unfavourable events do come to fruition, we do not know what the future holds. It may perhaps be a blessing in disguise.

To expand and identify these key ideas these I created a graphic which summarizes the questions and maxims Seneca urges us to consider when we are faced with anxiety or fear. In the thought bubbles are direct quotes from Seneca’s letter which speak to these concepts.

If you want to listen to an audio version of these letters I highly recommend Tim Ferris’ Tao of Seneca.  

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Philosophy as an Antidote to the Ills of Modern Society

We live in an age of unprecedented change and exponential growth. It would have been unimaginable to someone a few decades ago to believe that we would have access to all of the world’s knowledge in the palm of our hands. As Yuval Noah Harari points out in his book Homo Deus, many of the issues we now face in the West come from excesses rather than deficiencies. For instance, in many countries, more  people die from obesity than malnutrition. Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now, does a great job of charting the tremendous progress in humanity in eradicating disease, reducing violent conflicts and expanding human life expectancy. While we still undoubtably face challenges, for the most part, our basic needs of ‘food, shelter and clothing’ have been met. This must be seen as a great feat and accomplishment of human civilization.  

Despite all this progress, it seems increasingly apparent that there is a cloud of worry and existential angst hanging over our society.  Author Jonan Hari attributes this to a culture that has sold us ‘junk values’. That is, we have been conditioned to believe that we must pursue self-gratification, status and constantly feed our egos to be happy. This may provide us with a short-term pleasure, a quick dopamine rush, but it is a far cry from Aristotle’s notion of happiness as human flourishing known as eudaimonia.  UofT Professor and cognitive scientist John Vervaeke accurately reflects on our current situation in his brilliant series YouTube series ‘Awakening from the Meaning Crisis.’

The consequences that stem from this are significant. We are in a mental health crisis. According to data from CAMH, a mental health illness will affect 1 in 2 Canadians by the time they reach 40. Furthermore, our social and political institutions are degrading. Although social media was intended to foster cooperation, it has made our politics, attitudes and opinions more divisive. We are now more polarized, unwilling to make compromises or see eye to eye with those who disagree with us.  We are addicted to online platforms which drive our egos. They pull us towards narcissism as we continually try to glamorize our lives and outdo one another.    

These issues presented cannot be solved strictly though business, science or technology. Likewise, we can’t simply buy our way out of this through material more wealth or new products. The writer Aldous Huxley presents us with this vision in A Brave New World in which he constructs a world where individuals receive instant gratification for their desires and are able to escape all suffering and malaise by taking a drug called Soma. I don’t think this is the way forward. A shallow and empty society where we are merely passive consumers is not one that we should aspire to.

On the contrary, I think we can learn a great deal from philosophy, particularly practical philosophers such as the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were deeply concerned with how humans can live a good life, one of purpose and meaning. They were far more interested in developing noble character and virtue than pursuing external pleasures such as fortune, fame or wealth.

I am starting this blog because I want to reflect on the knowledge and wisdom presented to us from philosophy. This wisdom can help us put life into perspective and address our questions of meaning and purpose. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, but philosophy can be the start of a journey of introspection and contemplation. Each person may be drawn towards a different beliefs, ideologies and thinkers. That is ok. However, I think self-reflection is critical, and as Socrates once said “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ll come along and enjoy the journey with me!

AA