How to Appreciate the Shortness of Life

How to Appreciate the Shortness of Life

Life is short.

As men (women live a bit longer), we have about 27,922 days of life. Total.

670,140 hours.

If we deduct the 8 hours we sleep per day, and we are left with 446,752 hours

Chances are that some, not all, of you are also working a minimum of 40 hours a week. Maybe you are doing something that fulfills you, but chances are this work brings you money and little else. Subtract that from the number above. 

Long commute to and from work? Subtract that too.

Everyone’s math will vary.

Some of you might have more or less obligations to account for. Either way, one thing is certain.

We don’t have as much time as we think we do.

We waste thousands upon thousands of our hours on jobs that are meaningless to us. We let menial tasks and unimportant situations overwhelm us,  neither bring value to our lives.

I’m convinced the majority of people think there is a “do over,” that when we hit the end of our life, there is a reset button that lets us live it all over again. It’s the only way I can explain the irresponsible waste of years I see around me.

We have one life to live. Our expiration date is unknown, and a long life is far from guaranteed. 

Here is some cool math for you.

Between 1967 and 1974, bones were discovered in Ethiopia. These remains were determined to be roughly 195,000 years old.

195,000 years. 

Using our 2016 life expectancy (76.5, for men), that is 2,549 lifetimes. Don’t kid yourself; we are but small blips on the screen of life’s montage. No more or less important than the billions of people have come and gone before us. Maximize life.

Make it count.

The Return

Most people use travel as an escape. Yet we know that the temporary removal from everyday life doesn’t change anything in the long run. The problems are still there when you get back.

And even though most people complain endlessly about their life, they seldom do anything about it.

Why? They are comfortable.

Yes, they may be unhappy, but this alone isn’t enough to spark change.

Seneca on Travel

Comfort trumps happiness.

People will spend years unhappy and bored out of their mind, and will not change their circumstances in any meaningful way as long as they are comfortable. Unless pushed to the brink or faced with a daunting, seemingly insurmountable challenge, most people are too lazy to change and improve.

I recently spent 10 days in Italy, visiting Venice, Florence, and Rome. Before leaving, I wrote about traveling with a purpose; not to escape, but to reboot, absorb a new culture, and return to your everyday life refocused and grateful.

We visited almost every recommended attraction in the three cities. I can’t recall how many churches and museums we visited, but it was a lot.

Halfway through the trip, some of the artwork and such began to blend together. Not only was the sheer volume of artwork overwhelming, but so was the level of detail, the creative flare of the style, the unique angles and depth of the artist’s imagination.

Michelangelo's tomb

 Michelangelo’s tomb, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy

There is a term called Stendhal syndrome,a psychosomatic disorder that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to an experience of great personal significance, particularly viewing art.”  a person feels dizzy and overwhelmed after viewing too much art.”

This phenomenon is particularly common in Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance movement, and home to brilliant creations – from art to sculptures to architecture. Of the above symptoms, I guess I was confused more than anything.

How was all this brilliance produced so quickly and at such an amazing level of detail?

Appreciate Hallowed Ground

I recently discussed the concept of hallowed ground, a term I came across on a Ryan Holiday article describing places that are historically significant. The idea is that we visit such places to reflect and imagine; understanding we are all part of a bigger web of humanity, both past and present. Hallowed ground doesn’t need to be someplace extraordinary either, think graveyard, old church, famous birthplace, etc.

Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore

Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy

Holiday’s vivid description below captures the essence of hallowed ground:

“We read the biographies of great men and see similarities in ourselves. We see a plaque for a division that fought and was slaughtered, and it might pain us to know that we’ll likely never warrant even a generalized marker like that. We fail to realize all of these events are just blips on the larger radar of life. The difference in posthumous recognition between Ulysses S. Grant and an infantryman means nothing to either of them. And in turn between Grant and a greater general—Ghenghis Khan, let’s say—matters less still, even though one’s achievements echo louder and have for longer than the other. All dead. All trod upon by you and I today.”

Life is bigger than any one person. We often get caught up in the nuances of it all, letting negative emotions govern our sense of being. Anger, disgust, greed, jealousy – often these emotions dominate our lives. We also worry about things outside of our control, and give our all in the pursuit of material possessions and financial greed.

But for what?

We all end the same way.

Our final chapter has the same ending. 

So how does one experience an abundant life?

First, avoid stressing out over petty situations. Realize that we only have control of our life, and ours alone. Attempting to dominate the thinking and actions of those around us is a fruitless affair.

Second, learn to appreciate the past and those who have come before us. This keeps us grounded and humble. We realize how small we really are, part of the trail of human existence that stretches further than the mind can comprehend. Work hard, but enjoy life, for it is short and fleeting.

While in Italy, I made sure to reflect on the significance of what I was seeing. Admiring the Colosseum in Rome, the Uffizi Museum in Florence, the canals in Venice – all made me feel part of something bigger – walking the same paths of millions of people before me.

Michaelangelo's David

Michelangelo’s David, Accademia, Florence, Italy

I found it difficult to comprehend the genius creations of the Renaissance masters.

Michelangelo, Rafael, Brunelleschi, Bellini, da Vinci, Caravaggio. These men were more than “creative types.” Their ways of thinking and methods of creation were undoubtedly the product of advanced intelligence.

In today’s society, these men might have contributed their genius to a more modern field. Or maybe not?

I can’t help but wonder about the talented artists and creative personalities that might go to waste in today’s data driven, technologically dominated world.

How many Michelangelo’s sold their dreams away to work at a computer all day?

We shall never know.

Joy of Life Matters

My trip to Italy reinforced a very important belief I hold; the need for a simplified life.

People there seemed happy and joyful. I am aware of the fallacy in such guesswork, but there was a noticeable difference in how people acted in comparison to the high-stress environment I am used to in America.

I remember one specific instance fondly. It was a Tuesday night, around 10pm. We went to a tiny Trattoria (Italian restaurant serving simple foods), and I saw a group of 8 middle-aged women having dinner. They were talking loudly and laughing. Then, they began to sing together. In watching them, their happiness in that moment was clear as day. In all my years, I had never seen anything like it, certainly not here at home. I have to believe this is a product of their way of life – of putting family, fulfillment and experiences over the hunt for money, workplace recognition, and excess consumption.

The Italian culture seemed very different. Many people owned a small business, where they worked alone or with another person or two. Some businesses (mostly churches) were closed 2-3 hours during lunch. The method of transportation was overwhelming by foot, then by bicycle, moped, scooter, bus, and finally, car. They lived a life practical to their surroundings. The Italians I saw were not overburdened by demanding bosses, a maze of corporate red tape, and exhausting commutes home. More than anything, they seemed happy with less.

Home in America, most people I see on a daily basis are stressed out and self-absorbed. They walk around like zombies, barely surviving from one coffee to the next, and avoiding human contact like the plague. Our society does a great job of hammering the need for consumerism into our collective mentality; own everything and you will feel great! If only that were true.

Instead, people become a slave to debt and overwhelmed by financial commitments. This ensures they stay in the cycle: make money, spend money, owe money. Such a stressful life leaves little room for relaxation and joyful experiences. This corporation driven, consumerism lifestyle is detrimental to our mental and physical health. I’m convinced it’s one of many factors that explain why less than 3% of Americans are living a healthy lifestyle.

Final Thoughts

I’m not advocating a lifestyle that shuns hard work and achievement. Not at all.

However, I am saying that we all should step back from time to time to look at what we are doing and if we have enough. If our efforts and struggles are bringing us true satisfaction, or if we are doing it for selfish, regressive reasons, such as overindulgence and excess competitiveness.

Remember: Success is arbitrary – different from one person to the next – and if we aren’t careful, we risk running ourselves into the ground for something that really does nothing for our sense of being. Fulfillment is important. Find your reason. 

Seneca on Abundance

Ask yourself: Do I really need more?

Long-term happiness is a product of having enough, but not of sacrificing health and fulfillment at the cost of too much. We are always peddled things we don’t need. Add our natural inclination to compete, and we often make decisions that are not in our best interest (even though they seem to be in the moment).

Happiness and fulfillment are internal feelings, and vary from person to person. Sure, external factors matter. But an unsettled internal state will always hold us back. Understand that less is more, a simple life is better than a complicated one. Relationships matter. Reflection matters. Laughter matters. A sense of purpose and WHY matters.

Don’t waste your life. 

Don’t let too much time pass thinking you have plenty of time in the future.

Life is short.

Enjoy it.

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  • I noticed that your writting improved a lot! The last articles you published (include this one) resonates a lot with me – and hopefully other people – and encourages me to reflect life for what is it: life 🙂

    The important question is what oneself wants OUT of this life.

    A simple question with an uneasy task to find the answer.

    I am from Germany and here most of the german people acting like you described it:

    Wasting their life time with working a lot (often over times) to get more money and hopefully able to buy themselfes “happiness” (often means smart phones, designer clothings, 1x one week vacations, “Tittytainment”…).

    Happy and rich looking outwards (thanks to credits), but sad, anxious and full of anger inside.

    I don’t want to judge them, I am (most of the time) a liberal!
    But it is obviously that the eastern and south countries of europe prioritize the family and experiences over their jobs and yeah…. just like you I think because of that fact they are happier in general and sometimes I miss that view on life here in germany.

    If I tell people that I am only work half-time (30 hours) to have more free time, I usual get the look “you are kind of weird.”

    Their problem, not mine 🙂

    Anyway. Good article and all the best!

  • Thanks for the great comment Daniel.

    This was a great line:

    “Happy and rich looking outwards (thanks to credits), but sad, anxious and full of anger inside.”

    If history has taught us anything, it is that wealth alone does not complete someone. We all should have passions and goals that we work hard towards, but blindly and foolishly wasting away one’s years in the pursuit of advancement (corporate) in a foolish endeavor. It’s important to find internal peace above all else.