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On wasting time

By Webmdave ~

I retired a couple years ago and people are still asking me what I do with all my time. Responding I am working on personal improvement seems to assuage most curiosity. What I am tempted to tell them is I spend my time the same as everyone: living life. 

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested...  ― Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

Until recently my mindset resembled that of my inquisitors. I believed that a person who spends the day playing video games or watching television is wasting time. Further, I believed that if a person isn’t actively pursuing a goal such as career advancement, acquiring a degree, travelling the world, etc., then they are also just wasting time. In fact, spending time doing anything not measurably productive could be labeled a waste of time. Someone I know, when she is off work for a couple days, feels compelled to fill most of that "free time" completing household chores, maintaining the landscaping, starting craft projects, helping others with special events, etc. If for some reason she spends an entire day in quiet contemplation, relaxing or even sleeping, she bemoans having accomplished nothing. She "wasted the day." If no measurable productive activity is being accomplished, says this philosophy, then time is being frittered away. 

Where I disagree with Seneca on this topic is that not everyone – regardless of hard work, determination or investment of every minute in productive pursuit – is destined for the highest achievements in life. Natural abilities, genetic predispositions and randomly tragic circumstances affect outcomes. 

Some things are in our control and others not. ― Epictetus, Enchiridion and Selections from the Discourses

When I was a boy I would walk through the cemetery near my home and attempt to puzzle out the faded epitaphs on the oldest tombstones. Interments have been performed in that cemetery since the early 1800s and I often wondered about the people buried beneath those stones – who these people were and how they lived their lives. Some of those lives have been over for two centuries. Except perhaps a paragraph or two recorded in a family history, their accomplishments and failures are forgotten. My great grandfather is buried near my home. He fought in the Civil War and died before the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Considering the incomprehensible age and expanse of the known universe when compared to the diminutive extent of this planet and the ephemeral nature of all life, any discussion judging comparative values on how we spend our insignificant spans of time is probably silly. There is no one alive today that knew him or met him. I am aware of his military service record because I possess his discharge paper and some other documents. I also have a copy of his obituary that was published in the local paper. Some research on the Internet helped me find out he enlisted in the New York Cavalry at the age of 16 and census records indicates he was a carpenter. Whatever else he did in the military or in civilian life is lost to time. All his "productivity" is dust. 

Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt graduated from Harvard and plunged into politics, rising from the New York State Assembly to become New York City police commissioner. Then in 1901 he rose to the highest office in the land at age 42 after an assassin killed President William McKinley.  His life was crammed with excitement and exploits which fill volumes. His "Rough Riders" Calvary unit received more publicity than any other Army unit in the Spanish American War. The Teddy Bear was named in his honor of after he refused to shoot a bear during a Mississippi hunting trip in November 1902.  Yet, very few people I know have the slightest inkling about this man, often confusing him with his fifth cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt. The bold and daring accomplishments adorning Teddy's life is mostly forgotten. And, if any memory does endure of all his striving after the wind, it brings him no satisfaction as he's not here to enjoy it. 

Considering the incomprehensible age and expanse of the known universe when compared to the diminutive extent of this planet and the ephemeral nature of all life, any discussion judging comparative values on how we spend our insignificant spans of time is probably silly. 

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. –  From Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan.

Eventually no one will remember anything that anyone has done. So why is it so imperative that every minute of my transitory life be filled with “productive” activities, however that term is defined? 

Nothin' lasts forever but the earth and sky. It slips away. And all your money won't another minute buy. Dust in the wind. All we are is dust in the wind – From Dust in the Wind by Kansas

I worked diligently fulfilling the expectations put on me by parents, society, employers and others for over 60 years. I provided materially for my family, paid my debts, tried to repair my mistakes and generally did my best to be a compliant, obedient, productive citizen. Now that the kids are grown and I have the good fortune of having acquired sufficient retirement income to sustain my needs, I spend my time almost exclusively in pleasures that interest me and help make my life satisfying.  

By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of [...] delicacies of a luxurious table that produces a pleasant life. It is rather sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs that lead to the tumult of the soul. – Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

The absence of responsibility I now feel when it comes to fulfilling others' expectations of me is a tremendous relief. Carefree freedom from most emotional drama is very pleasurable. The reasonable portion of tranquility finally available to me makes my life pleasant.

Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search thereof when he is grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more. Therefore, both old and young ought to seek wisdom. –  Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus.