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Maybe it’s just a function of getting older but I find myself increasingly reacting to things with the thought that life’s too short. It’s a kind of shorthand for “Remember what’s worthwhile and what’s a waste of time, and this is a waste of time.” This is a generally helpful perspective. It reminds me to be wary of getting bogged down in trivialities, petty things that don’t matter or even activities that require too much patience – cooking highly elaborate recipes, or reading lengthy tomes only because I feel I should.
True, what is a waste of time for me may be eminently worthwhile for someone else, so a list of the 10 commandments of what life is too short for may not be forthcoming. Whether or not life’s too short to learn Latin, or to grow carrots, can only be a matter of personal judgment.
It could still be a useful exercise to ask yourself the question, as a way of focusing on what you value. But there are a few things worth bearing in mind. Life may be too short for excessive house pride, for instance, but it inevitably has to include a certain amount of routine and maintenance. If we raise the bar too high, demanding that life should only involve deeply meaningful activities, we may become intolerant of the fact that it is actually largely made up of small things and cannot be extracted from quotidian practices.
Reminding yourself of life’s brief span can also be used to justify a potentially unwise course of action – as in “Life’s too short not to have this affair.” Or it could end up as a strategy – conscious or unconscious – to evade domestic or personal issues, or health concerns: just have fun, avoid difficult conversations, keep downing the wine. In short, ignore the long view.
There is something to that philosophy. But although life may be too short to harbour disproportionate worries about marginally raised cholesterol, it is also too short to risk making it even shorter by failing to attend to your long-term wellbeing.
It seems to be the people who waste the least time, cramming as much as possible into their lives, who most feel the shortness of life. Those who appreciate the value of each day are not inclined to waste too many.
So if you do use your time well, what exactly is life too short for? After all, the things that people most value can usually be comfortably fitted into an average-length life. Three score years and 10 is plenty of time to have a satisfying long-term relationship, raise a family or have a career. Even the exceptionally talented do not generally need more time to realise their potential. Few scientific or artistic geniuses produce their best work late in life.
It’s true that there are too many books to read, films to see, places to visit for one lifetime. The number of experiences we could have is infinite, so if we make their accumulation the measure of a life well-lived, even the most energetic are going to miss out on almost everything. But much as we like doing all these things, the difference between having seen or not seen Niagara Falls, for example, is insignificant compared with the difference between having met or not met your spouse, or having spent your life painting or not painting.
This suggests that life will seem shorter the more we focus on the number and variety of things we want to do in it. If, however, we think more about how we live day by day, then we can settle into a way of being that is rewarding without the constant craving for more and frustration that we can’t do everything we want.
That won’t necessarily make the feeling that life is too short completely go away. Most obviously, life is not long enough when it has been brought to a premature end by illness or accident. And there are some people, places or even activities we feel we could never get enough of. Life is indeed too short, but if we use it well enough, not quite as short as we might think.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrink&sage@shrink&sage.com