June 18, 2009
Forgetting to live
By Gary Hayden
'There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living; there is nothing that is harder to learn.' - Roman philosopher Seneca
In my last column, I shared some insights from the Roman philosopher Seneca's essay, On The Shortness Of Life. In particular, I described some of the many ways in which we can fritter away our time on unsatisfying and unrewarding tasks. This week, I will explore this topic further.
Past, present and future
'Life is divided into three periods,' Seneca wrote, 'that which has been, that which is, and that which will be. Of these, the present time is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.'
Every day, swiftly and silently, life flows on. The present recedes into the past; the future glides into the present; and then it too vanishes into the past. More quickly than we ever imagined, life's journey draws to an end.
The tragedy is that most people are so 'engrossed', so caught up in the day-to-day busyness of life, that they become aware of this too late. 'Then at last they reflect how uselessly they have striven for things which they did not enjoy, and how all their toil has gone for nothing.'
According to Seneca, a careless, unreflecting approach to life deprives us of the blessings of the past, the present and the future.
Squandering the past
The past is the only period of life that is safe and secure, and not subject to the vagaries of fortune. Past memories are, in Seneca's words, 'an unanxious possession'. We can call them up at any time and enjoy them as often as we wish.
But the engrossed are so caught up in the day-to-day whirl that they never take the time to look back. Their lives are like a bottomless well, swallowing up the past as though it never existed. Their lives 'vanish into an abyss'.
Furthermore, those who do not live wisely are more likely to look back on the past with regret than rejoicing. There is no pleasure in looking back on wearisome tasks and missed opportunities.
Neglecting the present
'Present time is very brief, so brief, indeed, that to some there seems to be none; for it is always in motion,' wrote Seneca. Yet for the terminally busy, the present time is all there is. Their minds are so preoccupied with the business of the moment that everything else is pushed aside.
Worse still, they are so distracted by their busyness that even the present is robbed of its sweetness.
Fearing the future
The future has its pitfalls too. Can anything be sillier, Seneca asked, than those who spend every waking moment preparing for the future; wasting today in anticipation of tomorrow? Reasons for anxiety will never be lacking, no matter how hard we work or how prosperous we become.
'Very wretched, therefore, and not merely short, must the life of those be who work hard to gain what they must work harder to keep.' They spend their entire lives preparing to live.
By now, readers may wonder why I have spent so long focusing on the negative. After all, I have spent two entire columns describing the ways in which we fritter away our time and squander the blessings of the past, present and future.
I have taken my lead from Seneca himself. This is precisely the method he adopts in his essay. Like a wise doctor, he uses every argument at his disposal to convince us of the seriousness of our condition before prescribing a cure.
In my next column, I will redress the balance and see what positive insights Seneca has to offer and what advice he gives to those who want to live life to the full.
'But those who forget the past, neglect the present and fear for the future have a life that is very brief and troubled; when they have reached the end of it, the poor wretches perceive too late that for such a long while they have been busied in doing nothing.'- Seneca
Gary Hayden is a freelance writer who specialises in education, science, philosophy, health, well-being, travel and short fiction.