“But life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present and fear the future”, wrote Seneca. The Stoic philosopher believed that each one “Snatches away each day as it comes, and denies themselves the present by promising the future”, so they make a big mistake very difficult- if not impossible – to repair: not being aware of the importance of the passage of time, not understanding that it is the only “possession” that, once delivered, we cannot recover.
Don’t let others decide what you will spend your time on
“I usually miss myself when I see some asking for time and the others, the ones requested, willing to give it to them. One and others attend to what time is called for, none to time itself: it is asked as if it were nothing, as if it were nothing, it is given. It is playing with the most valuable asset of all, but it is being fooled by what it is an incorporeal good, who is not in sight, so that it is considered very cheap, more so, that its price is almost nothing […] Nobody will give you back those years, nobody will give you back your own person again.”
Seneca thought that we are greedy with our properties, but when it comes to spending time we are wasteful, without realizing that it is really our most valuable asset, what we can give and we’ll never get back. That is why it encourages us to be aware of the passage of time, without panic but also without neglect.
Seneca’s warning to his friend Paulino goes through the centuries to sound like an alarm signal also to us: “The condition of all the busy ones is of course unfortunate, but those who do not even work on their own occupations is more miserable: they sleep according to the dream of another, they walk according to the steps of another, they receive orders to love and hate, which are the freest actions of all”.
Therefore, Seneca encourages us not to let others decide what we should do with our time because that is equivalent to allowing them to decide what we dedicate our lives to. We need to be more aware of the decisions we make daily, those that can turn our life into a black hole through which days, weeks, months and years escape without devoting ourselves to what really gives us happiness, pleasure and satisfaction.
Live the present as if there was no tomorrow
” You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed […]You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire”, said Seneca indicating our tendency to live suspended between the past that no longer exists and the future that has not yet arrived, turning fears into chains that bind us and suffocate the illusions.
His solution to that existential problem was to live the present, fully and consciously. He wrote: “Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”
The philosopher did not intend that we should stop planning, but that we should not become obsessed with it and, above all, that we should not postpone the happiness and joy that we can enjoy in the present to the universe of more or less uncertain possibilities that the future holds. We can and need to look forward, but we must make sure we look back to the here and now.
Seneca’s message is as simple as powerful: only when we face our own mortality do we manage to fully enjoy every moment. After all, “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” We have to regain control of our time, and with it, control of our life, before it is too late.
Séneca, L. A. (2012) De la brevedad de la vida y otros diálogos. Globus Comunicación: Madrid.