Life isn’t short

A couple days after Halloween, a dear friend in Thailand wrote me “Happy Loy Krathong Day! Hope you enjoy the full moon night.” So in the parking lot after work I did notice the full moon, but my first thought was not happy enjoyment, but instead pain at the fast passing by of time.

Or more precisely, the awareness I describe here that hits me “late at night at the end of a vacation … A wake-up call.”

They say the full moon can make you romantic, wistful or even crazy. And it was a little crazy to be thinking, “Man in the moon following me no matter how fast I travel.” I was reminded of the opening lines of Wilde’s Salome, set when “the moon is shining very brightly”

THE YOUNG SYRIAN. How beautiful is the Princess Salome tonight!

THE PAGE OF HERODIAS. Look at the moon. How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman. One might fancy she was looking for dead things.

I even muttered “I hate the moon.” (Later I Googled that phrase and got back 4,000,000 hits!)

Then in the next few beautifully waning days of Silicon Valley autumn, I found myself asking “Will I ever see a beautiful day again? Is this the last one? Should I stay outside and not waste it?” Strange and crazy, common and natural. I’ve had similar thoughts at the summer solstice, too, thinking “I’ve got to squeeze as much out of this summer as I can!”.

The moon symbolically is often related to water. I wrote earlier that “Time is not a river“, yet in a notebook I found

Time is rushing by like a torrent, not drifting by. Makes my stomach hurt.

This is a common feeling.

In popular music, for example,

So much time to make up everywhere you turn
Time we have wasted on the way
So much water moving underneath the bridge


Seven years went under the bridge
Like time was standing still

Sometimes the message is more direct, such as

You better get yourself together
Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead

Yes, and the somewhat manic incantation in the chorus can’t change that

Well we all shine on,
Like the moon and the stars and the sun

Enough with popular music. Well, just a few more

And then one day you find
Ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run
You missed the starting gun


But life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant to last

and perhaps this inversion of Ol’ Man River

Dirty old river, must you keep rolling
Flowing into the night?

The shortness of life is a common theme in painting, too, for example, see these Wikipedia entries on “vanitas“, “still life” (nature morte), and “la danse macabre“.

It’s pretty much everywhere you look, really, from movies

This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.

to science fiction

Time is your total capital, and the minutes of your life are painfully few.

to drama criticism

In the romantic era, there was a wonderful convention of drama critics eulogizing great actors on their retirement. William Hazlitt, for example, would turn poetic on such occasions, noting how “these partings with old public favourites” reveal to us “the shortness of human life, and the vanity of human pleasures. . . . They are links that connect the beginning and the end of life together; their bright and giddy career of popularity measures the arch that spans our brief existence.”

Even the devil himself is working against the clock, according to Revelation 12:12

Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.

And I would be remiss not to mention Henry Miller’s famous, ironic line in Tropic of Cancer mocking T.S.Eliot’s Wasteland

The cancer of time is eating us away.

I really have no idea what Umberto Eco is trying to say here

We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.

Huh? But maybe there’s a connection with lists like “1,000 places to see before you die” and “bucket lists”.

According to Danny Kaye

Life is a great big canvas, and you should throw all the paint on it you can.

Earlier I wrote

An oft-quoted cynic said, “Life is like a buffet; it’s not good but there’s plenty of it.” On the contrary, my life has been like a gourmet restaurant; it’s great but the menu is in a foreign language. And at a gourment restaurant you wouldn’t ask the chef to dump the meal in a blender so you could wolf it down faster.

So is life a big sausage casing you ought to stuff until it can’t hold any more, a gut buster pizza with all the toppings, a dash around the grocery store at closing time piling the cart to overflowing with one of everything? (For a more nuanced version of this feeling, see also 13,000 in a lifetime.) “Life is a limited time offer.

Of course, I feel the shortness of life strongly, get the feeling of having “missed the starting gun”, and so on, but does it make any sense?

We should always be suspicious of universally felt emotions, such as life being short, couldn’t get things accomplished efficiently, various kinds of guilt and shame, etc., because these seem likely to be illusions, programmed into us either by genes or memes.  According to a saying popularly, but probably falsely, attributed to Einstein, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

According to Susan Ertz

Millions long for eternity who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Naturally, because self-preservation is a primary drive. As Nikita Khrushchev said of Francis Gary Powers

Everything alive wants to live.

Yet, simultaneously, we all know that we’re going to die someday, that “Life is a suicide mission”, that “No one gets out of here alive”, that we’re all “born on death row”.

So then isn’t life fleeting, short? Well, compared to what? Yes, we exist in only a tiny corner of this universe’s spacetime, and, if, say, a different sperm had won, then easily not even that. (See also “Pencil tip of the long now“.) Yes, your life is a raindrop hitting the ocean, at most making a few tiny ripples. Over the eons, the water it was formed from has evaporated and fallen, evaporated and fallen, and it will keep cycling like that for eons more to come.

But what if our raindrops took twice as long to merge into the ocean, or ten times as long? If everyone lived as long as Methuselah instead of “three-score years and ten”, we’d still feel the same. Very suspicious. What’s going on here?

Similar to Brian Tracy’s comments in “You are never going to get caught up“,
according to Robert J. Ringer, regarding feeling overwhelmed,

there are two basic realities that I think are essential to absorb.

First, given that time is a limited commodity, it really isn’t possible to get everything done. […]

The second important reality is that the compulsion to get everything done has no logical basis. Why do you need to get everything done? Is it possible that our obsession with wanting to get our lives neatly filed away is nothing more than an unconscious preparation for dying? If so, forget it. You can spend a lifetime chasing the elusive dream of having every aspect of your life in order, but to no avail.

Not so ‘unconscious’ for me. For example, I periodically, and with little success, try to downsize my “personal effects” so that there’s less for someone after me to sort through, and even sillier, less to embarrass me. Talk about foolish vanity!

According to Robert Shapiro

When I was young, I imagined that everything I wrote would be preserved forever. Future biographers would seek out every letter, diary and memorandum to capture the essence of my creativity. My first laboratory notebook still captured the same emotions. On page one I had printed, very legibly, the following preface: “To Posterity: This volume contains the authentic record of ingenious and original chemical research conducted by Robert Shapiro, currently a graduate student of organic chemistry at Harvard University.”

Reality gradually whittled down my grandiosity, and I recognized that my published papers had the best chance of survival.


I no longer write with the expectation of immortality in print. I am much more tempted to contribute to Internet discussion forums, blogs, and media which may not persist. I seek my reward from the immediate response that my efforts may bring, with little thought to the possibility that some stranger may see my words centuries from now, and wonder about the life that was led by the person who wrote them.

I wrote once of  “watching the juice of my life dribble away”. There are related impulses to make up for lost time (“think of the years I wasted making all of those mistakes being a bum”, etc.) and, for some, to somehow “redeem suffering“. And there’s the fear of death hitting the buzzer and saying “Time’s up, put down your pencils.” We think

OMG! I’m going to be 60 in less than x years, I’ve got to get moving, turn on the turbochargers! “There’s still time to change the road your on.” Hopefully I’ve still got n number of years, and maybe I can redeem myself in that time.  Got to recycle that wasted time by learning from my mistakes! …

In “I wasted my life” or “I’m wasting my life”, who is “I” and is the phrase meaningful?

I’m reminded of a joke by Emo Philips

I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.

and Nicholas Humphrey’s theory of “A self worth having“.

We say that someone gets cheated if they die young and that we shouldn’t feel bad for someone who dies old and has had their chance at life. Does any of this make sense? Who is the entity that can be cheated and so on? Where does the notion of a soul fit in?

People try to “live long and prosper” and feel guilty if they don’t cram a maximal amount into that time, as if they were supposed to be “getting their money’s worth” at an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Maybe if you have a grand project you’re trying to finish and you’re worried about your time running out, then I could see a sensible concern with life being short. (“Longevity has its place.”) But very few people are actually working toward a serious purpose, and this feeling of “I”, maximizing what it gets as integrated over time, is probably just a useful illusion.

According to Mark Ferguson (talking about reincarnation on LinkedIn)

What I do find interesting is working with people from cultures where there is a ingrained acceptance of reincarnation. They seem to live a more balanced life and aren’t as pushy. I think this is because if you believe that you get many lives to live, there’s no need to fit everything into this one. There will be another one along soon enough!

Yet again, the notion of someone getting a life to live, and if they had additional lives, they wouldn’t need to cram it all into this one.  This illusion of someone with a chance to live for a while is a strong one.  But as I wrote above, our life is like a raindrop hitting the ocean with some momentary ripples, and you and I are pretty much instinguishable from the rest, and from the ocean.  This despite my tag line, which I still believe, that “in all the world there’s no one like you or me”.

According to “Making the most of it: Study reveals motivating factor for enjoying the present

It is common knowledge that when something becomes scarce, its value goes up. This concept does not just apply to material goods—time can be an extremely valuable commodity, especially when it is in short supply. According to a new study, thinking that we have a limited amount of time remaining to participate in an activity makes us appreciate the activity that much more and motivates us to make the most of it.


Kurtz notes that although it may seem counterintuitive, these findings support the idea that “thinking about an experience’s future ending can enhance one’s present experience of it”. In addition, Kurtz suggests that “focusing on the fact the experiences like these are fleeting enhances enjoyment by creating a ‘now or never’ type of motivation”.

But according to a reader comment on it

yes, normal experience also suggests that this result is generally true, at least in one sense of ‘enjoying’. It’s doubtful whether this is a very profound sense of ‘enjoying’, though […]

May I propose an alternative perspective?

— “thinking about an experience’s future ending” is no way of living in the present.

— ‘participating in as many events as possible’ is hardly a way to tap into the contentment that is the hallmark and birthright of the non-egoic, non-achievement-oriented, non-titillational, level of human consciousness

— A ‘now or never’ type of motivation” generates anxiety (lack of peace) as well as stimulation

— Noticing that ‘experiences are fleeting’ is what contemplatives especially Buddhists train themselves to do in relate to everything. But the purpose there is not to consume as many experiences as possible while there is still time. It is, rather, to be able to look with equanimity at the starting, ending, scarcity, and abundance of these and all experiences. This, of course, will never excite the advertisers.

According to Stephen Covey’s second rule, we should “begin with the end in mind”

To begin with the end in mind is to begin with the image of the end of your life as the frame of reference by which everything else is measured.

According to Steve Jobs

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Maybe the feeling of the shortness of life is a useful illusion if you don’t take it to extremes, and just treat it as a tactic.  For example, if you think as if you’re going to live forever (or a very long time), that’s good for keeping things in perspective and possibly for remembering to take care of yourself (preserving your most important capital), but you might also say “I’ll go travelling when I’m retired, I’m too busy now”. But you might not actually live that long and, if you do, you might not be physically able to do a lot of the things you could now.

If you think instead as if you don’t know for sure that you’ll be alive this time next year or that you’ll ever see your family again, then you might have a sense of urgency or “Oh, what the hell, why not?” that prods you into taking actions that are enjoyable, rewarding, contributing, etc. or into savoring the special moments.

To feel that life is short shouldn’t compel you to cram it full like a sausage, but, as a tactic, that sense of urgency, of “now or never”, could possibly be useful. When fueling regret or desperation, it’s a negative force, but in moderation and channeled, it could encourage you to take some chances, have some fun, and move as if “life is a dance”.

Aside: Wow, gentle reader, that turned out to be kind of a “rambling manifesto”, didn’t it? It would be a daunting task to spin that straw into a coherently golden essay. (That makes me picture Nabokov, the butterfly collector, at the Montreux Palace Hotel shaping his index cards into books.) But maybe I shouldn’t get so hung up on that. What’s really so wrong with a loosely connected web of thoughts that haven’t been entirely tamed like a Le Nôtre garden? Yes, an essay is easier to read, as it walks you down a particular garden path, but does the perceived need to essayify potentially take something away from the reader, too? I’m reminded of Michael Leyton, in Symmetry, Causality, Mind (p. 519),

In cubism, Picasso is the first artist to discover that sight is a creative act. Sight is an active exploration and manipulation of objects. Sight constructs the world, and in so doing, is a free agent.

Aside: It’s sad that for many people contemplating geniuses like Nabokov, Le Nôtre, and Picasso is disheartening rather than inspiring. “You’ve either got it or you don’t.” What a waste!


1 Comment

  1. Ever since a friend of mine passed away, I’ve contemplated the “point” of doing things, enjoying things, and remembering things if people I love are eventually going to die. I lost the will to eat the foods I enjoy, and play video games. I constantly thought about life with a negative viewpoint until I read this article. I want to thank you. It’s shown me that regardless of the amount of time I pour into it, I should enjoy it like I did before my friend passed away. Thank you.


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