In your own time: how to live today philosophically | Philosophy

AArguably the most pointless observation ever made by an ancient Greek philosopher (setting aside, for now, Pythagoras’s theory that beans contained the souls of the dead) was Epicurus’s argument that we need not fear death. , because we will not be present when it happens. Nobody bothers about the fact that they didn’t exist before their birth, he reasoned, so why feel bad about the fact that you won’t exist again soon?

But I have never met anyone who found this remotely comforting. It would be one thing never to have been born in the first place. Once you are born, you are committed whether you like it or not. And growing old is inevitably a matter of getting closer and closer to the certainty that, at any moment, your finite time will run out before you’ve done more than a handful of the unlimited number of things you could in principle have done with or spent more time with. a little blink of time with the people who matter most to you.

“Until now, life seemed like an endless upward slope, with nothing but a distant horizon in sight,” said a patient quoted by psychotherapist Elliott Jaques, who coined the term “midlife crisis,” but “now Suddenly it seems to have reached the top of the hill, and further on is the downward slope with the end of the road in sight.” “Down” is the correct word here, for multiple reasons, one of which is the implication of acceleration. As if it wasn’t cruel enough that your time is running out, you’ll also experience your waning months and years passing faster as you age. This way you will have less and less time, and each portion of that time will feel less long.

However, what is really noteworthy about finitude-consciousness is not the fact that it eventually grabs most of us by the throat (at any age between 35 and 65, according to Carl Jung, the great explorer of the “second half of the nineteenth century”). life”) but that we managed to avoid it for so long. After all, from the point of view of the cosmos, a 10-year-old who is destined to live to 90 is a little further from the end than he will be when he’s 80. It’s a testament to our evolved talent. It is by postponing the confrontation with mortality that we manage to do all sorts of worthwhile things—launch careers, raise families, acquire possessions, produce art—that we might give up if paralyzed by the knowledge that it would all be over so soon.

In the second half of life, however, there is much to be said for giving up the fight against the truth. A central feature of the modern experience of time is that we focus too much on instrumentalizing it, on dwelling exclusively on our future purposes, rushing our lives to some point at the end of the day or week when we can finally relax, or to some time farther in the future. Like when you finally get to the top of your to-do list, or when the kids leave home, or you quit work. The result is what has been called the “when-at-finally” mentality: the feeling that real fulfillment, or even real life itself, has yet to come, so the present experience is simply something to behold. to pass, on the way to something. better. The person caught in such a mentality, wrote John Maynard Keynes, “does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor, indeed, the kittens, but only the kittens of the kittens, and so on until the end of cat-dom”.

It’s hard to shake the perspective completely. But getting older helps, because the awareness that time is running out makes it increasingly untenable to live for the future. At 20, it’s easy to imagine that real life hasn’t started properly, but at 40 it’s a bit of a stretch, and at 60 it’s just absurd. And so it becomes easier and easier to face what has always been true: that this is real life. That there is no imminent moment of truth when you finally feel in a better position to do whatever it is you really want to do with your time, and that the only viable time to do it is right now.

This is the point where any sane person will feel at least a modicum of regret: they understand the truth that life is not a dress rehearsal for something better, but they desperately wish they had discovered it decades earlier. The trick is not to try to deny or eradicate regret, but also not to let it stop you from seizing the moment, because refusing to live fully on the grounds that you should have lived more fully in the past is just as foolish as refusing. live fully on the basis that you are still hoping to live fully in the future.

This, I believe, is the kernel of truth in the clichéd advice about the importance of “living in the moment”: not that you should try to meditate in a mystical state of total presence or concentration, but simply acknowledge the fact. that the past is past, and soon you won’t have any future left, so you better be here. It’s not that bad. Quite often, it’s wonderful. And in any case, there is no other place to be.

Oliver Burkeman’s most recent book is Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How To Use It, published by Vintage (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.

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