On The Shortness Of Life

flowers that represent the cycle of life

We spend ourselves passively watching endless Netflix shows littered with actors and actresses who shapeshift into personalities we think we want to be. We dive headfirst into an ever-growing library of content from creators who place their highest values on extravagant displays of affluence and privilege.

We ignore virtues for the promise to satisfy insatiable sensations of greed and lust, drowning in dopamine laced with images of OnlyFans, Instagram, and mediaHubs.

We act mindlessly, bowing to our physiology and submitting our minds to capitalism and consumerism, never experiencing a measure of fulfillment because the next best thing is just another upgrade, just another “Pro” version, just another “S” series away.

Why do we pile wealth on top of wealth when we ourselves are so small.

We metaphorically set out to sea on a stormy night with no clear vision of where to go, heavy waves crashing against our ship and tossing us about. We are lost. It’s only when the sea is quiet and the storm is calm can we take a moment to locate ourselves in space and set sail for solid ground.

On the Shortness of Life is a book that explores the common cliche that “life is short.” Life is not short — it is only perceived as short. The author of the book, Seneca, a Roman Stoic philosopher who lived from 4 B.C. to 65 A.D, suggests that much of life is squandered on menial tasks and things that don’t really matter.

In the age of social media, it’s hard to disagree. I’m guilty of laying on the couch for hours scrolling through TikTok videos and Instagram feeds, searching. For what? Another dopamine hit. Another engagement laced in horny, greedy vices.

What starts off as 2 minutes to check my notifications turns into 2 hours of scrolling through a string of 30-second videos. Do I regret it? I’m a participant of the age we live, a prisoner of the moment. Do I wish I had spent my time instead of in a worthy cause? If I had to decide between the two, I would easily pick the latter.

So why then, at the end of our lives, do we believe that we’ve squandered our time; why do we lay on our deathbeds unaccomplished and unfulfilled when both activities are of the human condition? It’s because one set of activities has its basis on a set of rewarding virtues while the other sets itself in demanding vices.

On the Shortness Of Life preaches one overarching message — cut down on distractions so you can pay attention to the things in life that really matter — the things that lead to a long, fulfilling life.

This essay is broken up into two parts; the first part explores Seneca’s primary argument, which is that time is our most valuable commodity, that we should give up vices such as greed and lust for the practice of virtues, and we should express ourselves in a manner that’s free and honest, that is in a way that is not bound by the people or objects of our immediate existence.

The second part of this essay explores my thoughts, how these claims line up with our current cultural views, and what we can do to honor our virtues.

Part 1: Lessons From Seneca

1. Time is our most valuable commodity

Use it wisely in pursuit of your greater purpose; cut down on distractions and avoid preoccupations that otherwise steal your time.

for what can be above the man who is above fortune (p. 8)

Seneca suggests that time is our most valuable commodity, not money or material things. Though our culture is obsessed with the pursuit of capitalism, that is our obsession with materialism and idolizing the wealthy while ignoring virtue, there comes a point where the pursuit of money, status, and more stuff becomes enslaving.

The thought of pursuing more money captures a person’s thoughts and corrupts the mind, leading to a cycle of pursuing superficial commodities that are short-lived in their novelty and serve no purpose other than to increase our burden and strengthen ties to materialism. We’re obsessed with how we spend our money and with the ownership of things instead of concerning ourselves over how we spend our time and attention.

Seneca writes,

Men do not let anyone seize their estates, and if there is the slightest dispute about their boundaries they rush to stones and arms; but they allow others to encroach on their lives — why, they themselves even invite in those who will take over their lives. You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide up his life! People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy. (p. 4)

In this passage, Seneca argues that people put their values in material wealth, “rush[ing] to stones and arms” when that wealth is threatened. He compares wealth against time, suggesting that people are quick to squander their time even though it’s our most valuable commodity. On the other hand, people are willing to defend their money even at the cost of their life.

This begs the question — is it better to be a wealthy dead man or a poor man living?

Seneca argues that we are quick to fight others who threaten the ownership of our property or governmental rights to goods, but we fail in defending against perpetrators who put little value on our most valuable resource, time.

In other words, we’re quick to argue with our bosses over salaries and we’re quick to take those to court who threaten our ownership or right to capital, but we neglect to fight those who threaten to steal our time, a fixed and finite resource. People should be more concerned with how they spend the clock than how they spend their wallets.

My brother once said to me, “You can trade time for money, but you can’t trade money for time.”

Here’s a short anecdote — my dad died of cancer in 2018. He was 56. Growing up, I remember he always talked about retirement. He was one of the hardest-working men I know. He would wake up at 5 am every day to get to work. He would wake up early on the weekends to get yard work done and get to church. He immigrated to the US from the Philippines, bought a home, saved a good amount of money, and stockpiled a great deal of stuff — but he never reached retirement.

Don’t feel bad for my dad because we lived an exceptionally fulfilling life relative to others. My dad was a giving man, he took us traveling, and he took care of his family — but that doesn’t deny the fact that he left a lot of money on the table when he passed away.

Denzel Washington once said, “You will never see a UHaul behind a hearse.” That’s because you can’t take anything with you when the curtains call. All you have left at the end of the day is your human experience.

I share these anecdotes to put an emphasis on valuing time over material wealth.

A person who isn’t bound by money is free to explore the human experience. My argument isn’t to say that money isn’t important — it’s greatly valued in our society as a way to exchange services and goods across a vast spectrum of human interests. This rhetoric places a greater value and emphasis on putting a greater priority on our time when considering how we’d like to spend it, whether that’s in pursuit of more money or more experiences.

This leads to the next question, “how can we put our time to good use?”

We put our time to good use by chasing after our purpose in all facets of life. If you don’t have a purpose, it’s best to put energy towards the discovery and cultivation of that purpose. Some people go through their entire lives never finding their purpose, only to find themselves on their deathbeds with a mind full of unfulfilled memories and an empty heart.

While searching for your purpose and while practicing your purpose, establishing a set of virtues to follow and defining a set of vices to avoid will help you in navigating unchartered seas.

2. Virtues Over Vices

How do you know which practices are vices and which are virtuous? The answer is Self Awareness.

Self-awareness is the basis for all self-growth. That’s because self-awareness is the precursor to finding out what you like and what you don’t like, which will eventually lead to your purpose. “What gets measured, gets managed.” A person who keeps track of how he or she spends their time can then manage that time.

Recognize that every person up until this point is an accumulation of where they spend their energy and time. If a person spends themselves in vices, they become their vices.

Seneca writes

“Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man” (p. 9)

A person distracted by many different things will be least concerned with actually living a life that’s worth living — they’ll end up squandering their life force by spending their attention and time on frivolous experiences that don’t contribute to their greater purpose. That’s because most things in life serve to distract you from your purpose.

Those with the greatest levels of self-awareness can shift the direction of their lives towards the direction of their purpose. Self-awareness leads to recognizing what activities are good for your life and what activities are distractions. For the most part, there are only a handful of activities that move you towards your purpose. Everything that doesn’t fall into that handful of human experience should be ignored for the most part because they only act as distractions. If you pay attention to those distractions for too long, you’ll find yourself off course.

In extreme cases, some will spend their entire lives falling victim to distractions. Some unfortunate people experience a level of addiction that becomes debilitating, distracting a person from paying attention to basic needs, like self-care, let alone giving them ample space to work through obstacles and move towards their purpose. For most afflicted by addiction, whether to drugs, social media, and porn, fighting that addiction can mean the difference between a productive person and a distracted person with no motivation.

It is truly better to do nothing than to engage in vices or too many distractions. At least when doing nothing, your mind has time to process the information that you intake on a day-to-day basis. That’s why sleep and meditation are such powerful tools for the body and mind — these activities give your body and brain the chance to process thoughts and experiences on a subconscious level. In a way, these activities allow the body and mind to recover and recuperate from the bombardment of outside influences.

On the other hand, when a person is constantly intaking information, whether that’s with listening to music, scrolling through social media, reading trashy journalism, and otherwise occupying oneself with activities not related to their greater purpose, a person rarely gets a chance to recover from the virtuous activities of the day. Even worse, a person engaging in vices harms themselves. While occupied in degenerative acts, a person allows their life force to slowly dissipate.

Instead of engaging in vices, it's better to spend one’s time in virtuous acts instead of vices. The best way to avoid vices is first to recognize what activities are vices.

The two major vices that consume the majority of those that consider themselves an overwhelming failure at the end of their lifetime are lust and greed. Most shortcomings of people stem from the pre-occupation of these two vices.

Seneca writes,

It is those who are on a headlong course of gluttony and lust who are stained with dishonor. Examine how all these people spend their time — how long they devote to their accounts to laying traps for others or fearing those laid for themselves, to paying court to others or being courted themselves, to giving or receiving bail, to banquets. (p. 9)

Gluttony and lust are the basis for most dishonorable vices. In this passage, Seneca asks readers to examine the lives of those who spend themselves in such vices and to measure whether those experiences have led to a noble and valuable life, that is the progress of one’s purpose, or whether those practices have led to the squandering of one’s time.

Greed and lust are consuming vices that debilitate people the same way disease eats at an individual’s life force. The wealthy are concerned with their wealth, a state of mind that occupies space and time and takes away from spending energy in living the wide range of human experience. Wealth then becomes a burden to many. Those who bound are bonded themselves. The veil of society and sophistication influences the individual.

Consider how a person occupies themself with activities that lack nobility — how often have men fallen trap to the pursuit of sex or related acts only to find themselves subject to the lure of a succubus. Consider how many men spend their money and time with the preoccupation of unattainable women.

Consider how many people fall victim to the overindulgence of food or money — how often have those with great affluence continued to ask for more though their basic natural needs have already been met? Consider how much people spend themselves in the pursuit of frivolous junk that only serves to occupy space and drain the earth of its raw natural resources.

How much of our time and energy is spent in the pursuit of buying things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like?

The better choice is to cut down on vices and concentrate on the aspects of life that are most valuable over a lifetime. You’ll find the pursuit of mastery in a given field leads to great fulfillment and offers immense value in becoming a subject-matter expert and being a contributor to an evolving humanity.

While virtuous practices may not offer the same immediate gratification the way vices do, those willing to delay gratification experience greater rewards. Those willing to delay gratification, avoid vices, and focus their attention on their virtues reclaim their time and repurpose their energy towards fulfilling their life’s purpose.

Virtue isn’t any one practice but a set of values present within practices. The act of writing for an author is not virtuous in itself, but the practice of discipline and the pursuit of greater enlightenment are virtues present in the author’s writing practice. The same principles of virtue are the same for martial artists, entrepreneurs, and practitioners of all types.

Vices, in a way, are similar to virtues in that there is no one activity that can be considered a vice. Sex itself is not a vice, but the over-indulgence in lust and the presence of greed in sex categorizes such an act under vices.

Vice versa — the same goes for virtues. The more an individual engages with virtuous acts, that is acts that reflect the qualities of good virtues, the more rewarding their experience over a lifetime of acts.

Those who live for virtue receive life’s greatest rewards.

The better choice is to pursue the state of euthymia, what Seneca calls, “Tranquility.”

By definition, euthymia is a state in which an individual avoids outside influences in pursuit of their purpose, often experiencing a tranquil state of perseverance and diligent determination.

Part of finding tranquility is experiencing balance in one’s way of life, making sure to include common human appreciations like self-care, spending time with family, and taking the time to smell the flowers.

Part #2: Seneca in the Age of Social Media

Media threatens our attention at every touchpoint. Programs like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, and Netflix are designed to keep users engaged with their applications. These companies use these tactics to incentivize advertisers to spend their budget on advertising on their platforms. Over time, the ads become more sophisticated and recommend the products commonly consumed by their peers.

Imagine scrolling through Instagram when you find an ad for a pair of sneakers you were just looking at. Imagine continuing to scroll and finding your friends wearing the same set of sneakers. This experience offers social validation, persuading you to pull the trigger and make a purchase

When advertisements are paired with images of your friends wearing the same clothes, the social validation is hard to ignore. You as the user are more likely to engage in a purchase if you’ve seen your friends have already done the same.

The answer isn’t completely eliminating social media — though I’ve since deleted my Facebook and Instagram. Social media platforms still serve as very powerful tools for connecting people. Many small businesses and content creators depend on social media platforms for growing their audience engaging with their community. These tools are especially essential for small businesses that want to compete with big-name brands in the market. The power that social media has given to the individual business owner cannot be ignored. But there comes a point the individual has to make a choice with how to spend their time.

Part #3: Actionable Items

1. Write down a list of the most distracting activities in your life and describe how they affect you. Be honest with yourself — this is crucial for self-awareness.

2. Make a commitment to yourself to avoid falling victim to addiction. Cut out bad habits immediately, like doing drugs or engaging in sexual activity outside of a committed relationship.

3. Find your purpose.

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Resty Grey

Resty Grey

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📍 Los Angeles | Radical free thinker and essayist 🧠 | Advocate for better humans with action and open conversation 💭 | Essays about philosophy and mindset ✨