The brevity of life

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November 23, 2022 9 min read


I was recently re-reading, Paul Graham's (co-founder of startup accelerator Y Combinator), Life is Short, and it inspired me to write a few thoughts on the matter.

There are few people (if any) who can go through life without some sort of event that reveals the brief and fragile nature of life on Earth to them. For me, it happened in my late 20s. I was rocked by an event that forced me to acknowledge the precarious fragility of life. This in turn led to me spending a lot of time thinking about the brevity of life and how suddenly things can change in our little worlds.

More specifically, I realised:

  1. Years pass us by alarmingly quickly. One day to the next might feel like a slog, but 10 years can fly by at a disheartening pace.
  2. Our lives are fragile and can change exceptionally quickly. We can be rocked, for good or bad without any warning of notice.
  3. Every moment that passes us by, wasted or not, is irrecoverable, taken from us no return policy. Time marches onward and we approach our inevitable final curtain.

The realisations above left me feeling quite unsettled (was I making the most of life? how do I cope with knowing that everything can change instantaneously?, etc) and motivated me to try to find an antidote to the stirring dread. Regardless of your beliefs of what happens when we die, there is something human about feeling overwhelmed by the transitory nature of our life on Earth.

In this post I'll try go over my experience in confronting the brevity of life and how I live each day in this context. I'm of course still learning and I'm sure my views will mature and evolve as I go, but as it stands these are my thoughts.

Life moves quickly

Shortly after the event above I stumbled across and read Seneca's On the Shortness of Life.

Seneca was a Greek stoic philosopher. If you've never read the essay above, I would encourage you to do so. It's a short read and overflowing with wisdom.

The essay is packed with nuggets of knowledge, but one quote (and probably the most famous one) that stuck with me was:

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.

That one sentence effortlessly painted a new perspective on life for me. I went from feeling exasperated by the shortness of life, to recognising that I was not making the most of time allotted to me. It was the way I was squandering life that made it feel short. I was putting off the things I wanted to do, but the sands of time weren't waiting for me. I was waiting for life to 'start' but doing nothing to enable this. I still feel that life does move quickly, days pass us by unnoticed and compound into years.

To compliment this idea, in Staring at the Sun, Yalom, an existential psychiatrist, suggests that the less we do, the more we focus on death and the 'shortness' of life. So, it was clear to me that it was time for some changes.

Jungle with clocks


Since then, I've rapidly ramped up the number of things I spend my time on. I've started spending time on things that I actually enjoy and require some interaction on my behalf. Gone (or mostly gone) are the indistinguishable days of getting sucked into work, finishing work and suffocating my thoughts in Reddit, YouTube or Netflix until bedtime.

Namely I have started:

  • Running,
    • I've always been pretty active, but I've made a point of including running in my weekly routine.
    • I feel great after doing it- it clears my head and my body feels exercised.
    • I have set myself a goal of breaking the sub 20 minute 5km/3.1 miles, so I also have something I'm working toward
  • Reading,
    • There is so much wisdom to be gleaned from reading,
  • Taking on new stimulus like Rubik's cubes, Lego®, writing, and learning new programming languages,
    • In place of the mindless activities of browsing Reddit, etc.
  • Drumming more frequently,
    • This is just fun and progress is rewarding,
  • Starting new projects I've put off for years (and actually seeing them through),
    • The journey of progress and building something is amazing,
  • Working on this blog/site,
  • Saying yes to things that draw me out of my comfort zone,
    • I've learnt these are typically the most enjoyable experiences and they tend to open our eyes to new things,
  • Journaling,
    • This one is more for making sense of my thoughts but since it is a new hobby I decided to include it
  • Spending more time in the awesome beauty of nature,
    • I find actively taking in the unbelievable details of the world that surrounds us is cathartic experience

I'm acutely aware of how trivial (and clichéd) a lof of these things are, but they are exceptionally rewarding and colour my life with immeasurable substance. Being able to look back on each day and feel I've actively made something of it instead of letting it passively pass me by is rather ineffable.

Doing more with my time has helped remedy my 1st and 3rd point above.

Reminder of point 1 and 3: 1. years pass us by alarmingly quickly. One day to the next might feel like a slog, but 10 years can fly by at a disheartening pace. 3. Every moment that passes us by, wasted or not, is irrecoverable, taken from us with no return policy. Time marches onward and we approach our inevitable final curtain.

Of course, days pass by just as quickly but looking back on them and feeling you spent them wisely is gratifying. It does a lot to ease the sensation of not doing enough with your time. I plan on writing a piece fuelling the motivation to keep doing things, but for now I have this post on building habits that might help.

The bigger picture

World view from cave

When living life actively, engaging with it and all the joys it offers it is important we also maintain a macro view of things. Along with making the most of each day, I am a strong believer in frequently confronting life and its transient nature. To me this speaks to doing things that are greater than us. A full day of substance offers ephemeral joy, but engaging in things greater than us offers sustained purpose and meaning.

I'm no sophist, but I'm going to try to touch on this a bit, please forgive my clumsiness.

Specifically, I think there is immense peace to be found spending some of your time on Earth on things bigger than yourself. For a lot of people this can be a spiritual grounding, or perhaps found in religion. There's also things like working on a project and/or on a cause that will outlive you.

Having a purpose or belief greater than our small lives offers a gentle peace. It represents something bigger than just the duration of our lives and some greater than our time on Earth. By focusing on our actions, doing kind and impactful things, and putting our heart into things that will transcend us, the brittle nature of life can be somewhat soothed.

Building on this a bit, for some people, the terror of dying is the separation from themselves and their loved ones. In his book Staring at the Sun, Yalom suggests we think about our ripple to help us cope with this. Our 'ripple' (the term sounds a bit cult-like or like something from some nefarious sect, it's not- I promise) is what we leave behind on Earth when we finally depart. It can be anything but think of it as the ripple effect of your life on earth. The waves you leave behind. Things like the memories others have of you, the love you've shown to people, any charitable work you have done, acts of selflessness and the things you did that left a lasting impact.

When it is time for us to move on, there's comfort in knowing we will be remembered by the things we do now while still on Earth. This idea motivates me to be less selfless in my actions, so as to create ripples while I'm still here. This trickles over into many facets of life. Actions that felt like difficult sacrifices or chores seldom do. They now feel like an opportunity to exercise some kindness or selflessness.

Thinking in terms of ripples might help in getting you to really dive into life, contributing to things bigger than you.

Wrapping up

I wanted to conclude by reflecting a bit on Graham's post referenced at the start of this post. I think he is right in the sense that we should cut the BS from our lives and pursue things that matter (to us). We are blessed to be here. The fact that we were born is a miracle in itself. We should not take this for granted, we should not squander life on trivial squabbles.

We need to be a bit selfish and live the lives that aren't wasted, not waiting for some event or future outcome to kick-start things. Focus on the things you care about, the things that make you who you are and keep the slime out.

Part of living is identifying what you want out of life, what it means to be you and working toward that over the course of life.

Nietzsche has two quotes on this that I think capture this idea eloquently:

Become who you are

Yalom unpacks this to mean we should identify the things in life that matter most to us (this echoes Graham's sentiments). Live boldly without fear, and an exuberance for life. Then, and only then, die without regret.

We have a responsibility to buckle up and take ownership of our lives, whether or not you feel life is short, you have a duty to shape it with meaning and package it with substance.

So, stop waiting and get to living.