The Philosophy of Time

"Let us cut out all distractions and work away at this alone for fear that otherwise we may be left behind and only eventually realize one day the swiftness of the passage of this fleeting phenomenon, time, which we are powerless to hold back. Every day as it comes should be welcomed and reduced forthwith into our own possession as if it were the finest day imaginable. What flies past has to be seized at." -Seneca

Imagine a world where, in each moment, you were acutely aware of the swiftness of the passage of time. There’s a human tendency to only acknowledge this swiftness in retrospect. How am I already ___ years old? I can’t believe it’s already midway through the year. Can you believe we graduated ___ years ago? And not only is the acknowledgement of time’s passage usually in retrospect, but it’s typically in an air of lamenting. We lament the fact that we’re already so old, or that we’re already out of that situation that we’re now suddenly certain was ideal. Luckily for us, the Stoics had a solution to this perpetual melancholic nostalgia: in all circumstances, remember that everything is always changing; love this fact and live accordingly.

Everything is always changing. This is one of those truths that should be both completely terrifying and completely freeing—terrifying because all good things do come to an end (be it by our own causes or natural ones), and freeing because no singular circumstance (or your perspective) will stay the same. Change is the only constant, and Time is the objective ruler of the universe. Time is the beginning and the end of all things, a clock whose ticker only moves forward. It’s exactly because of this that Seneca tells us what flies past has to be seized at.

Are we seizing time, or passing through it? Now, most people who pose a version of that question typically follow it up with some shallow platitude that no one actually knows what to do with. You were made for greatness! Spread your wings and soar! And so on. As well-intended as these cliche motivators may be, they rarely incite real, practical change. Just oppositely, they give you the tantalizing vision of the person you’ll be “one day,” deluding you into being satisfied with that alone. But Time is the great equalizer. It is cold and unbiased, wholly uninterested in your dreams and plans. Its only concern is forward-motion, and we’d be better for thinking similarly. How you spend your time is much of what contributes to quality of life, and it’s a rare few people who are able to look back on their lives at any stage and say, I did exactly what I wanted and exactly what I was capable of. How you spend your time—your days, your hours, your minutes—is what will determine whether you’re in that rare few.

Everything is always changing, and time is only ever moving forward. 

So, how should this affect us? First, emotionally. A right view of time has significant implications on our emotional experiences. That thing that's severely upsetting you at the moment—it will change. The situation that's breeding anxiety in you, that pesky temporary physical ailment... It will all change. A week from now, a month from now, a year, and so on, it will all be different. At the very least, you will be different.

"Loss is nothing other than change, and change is the delight of universal nature, according to whose will all things come to pass." -Marcus Aurelius

If this is true, what, in the grand scheme of things, is worth being debilitatingly frustrated over? Let's take a moment and play the age-old game where we ask each other what super power we'd have if we could have one. 

I'll tell you mine. I'd wish to have the super power of being able to instantly project myself into a future where whatever is presently ailing me, emotionally, physically or otherwise, was no more than a memory of a time when my strength was tested. I'd wish for the power of simulation—the ability to morph every anxiety into a temporary setback that will soon be a lesson. Because everything is always changing, and time only moves forward. The only constant is the fact that we're losing time, and we should seek to only lose time for the things we want to lose it for. 

This brings us to the second way that a right view of time affects us: our actions. A right view of time demands that we be deliberate with our actions. Not just conceptually, but concretely. This requires that we regularly ask ourselves if how we spent our day helped pave the way toward where we hope to go. A true audit of this is where we’ll find the discrepancy between our end goals and our actions. In his book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi references a quote that poignantly captures this idea:

 “It is in the improvident use of our leisure [time], I suspect, that the greatest wastes of American life occur.” -Robert Park

Every day as it comes should be welcomed and reduced forthwith into our own possession as if it were the finest day imaginable. What flies past has to be seized at. 

Time is transient, yet we only seem to be faced with its transience toward the end of life. Time only seems like it's "running out" when we're older. Or when our health is in-question. Otherwise, we have all the time in the world. This is where we get it wrong—we should always feel like time is running out. Because it is. It's the “all the time in the world” mentality that ruins us later in life, lacing us with regret and what-ifs. We’re only aware of the unforgiving force that is time when our mortality is placed right in front of us. How much richer would our lives become if we treated them as gifts not just when they’re threatened, but always?

The crux of the matter is this: if we care about living meaningful lives, we can't afford to live without intention. Living with intention means taking ownership of your time, guarding it like you would your last $1,000. It means refusing to fall prey to destructive emotions because you know things are always changing and your energy can be better allocated. It means taking your mind out of the media and into the things that help you chip away at your goal.

Living with intention means tangibly dedicating yourself to whatever your mission is, whether it’s changing the world or just loving those around you. Most importantly, it means taking Time seriously before the stakes are high. By nature of existing in an unpredictable world, the stakes are always high. We’re only getting older, but it’s how we allocate our lives that determines whether that’s something we lament, or celebrate. 

When it comes to Time, our duty is this: run your timer down as best as you possibly can, and allocate your minutes and seconds with intention. Let your mortality, and that of others, propel you to act with even more urgency.

"It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested." -Seneca