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How will you look back on your life?

Last week I wrote on this page about the importance of saying NO many times in life – of not chasing after every vaguely interesting thing; of setting your own priorities and agendas; of understanding the power of focus.

It’s funny how serendipity works. A day or so after writing that column, I found myself seated at a learning institution. I had been asked to address the staff of Strathmore University on the subject of “leadership unusual” – to launch an internal leadership academy that has been two years in the making.

Sitting next to me was the university’s much-respected vice-chancellor, professor John Odhiambo. Just before the event kicked off, I whispered to my venerable neighbour what a pleasure it was to see things still being done bang on time by Strathmore – not a minute late.

The good professor whispered back, with a mathematician’s precision: “If you don’t waste time, you get to have more of it!”

That very evening, I picked up the next book on my reading list, lying in wait on my bedside table: Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life, a long letter written by the noted sage to a friend. It was as though I was being prompted to think even more about time, and the importance of using it well. In the opening paragraph:

“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. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.”

What was the ancient Roman philosopher telling us? That most lives are long enough to get done the things that need to get done. Seneca went on to say that most lives are wasted, egregiously so. Some are in the grip of “insatiable greed.” Others are lost in “a laborious dedication to useless tasks.” Some lives are spent “soaked in wine,” others are “sluggish with idleness.” Some men are “worn out by political ambition;” others by “the greed of trading.” And many, he points out, are “occupied by either pursuing other people’s money or complaining about their own.”

I can only applaud. I have seen this many times in my own years on this planet: so many lives engrossed in bizarrely inconsequential things: the obsession of having power over others; the compulsion of amassing absurd, unusable amounts of money; the insane focus on sensual pleasures; the protracted wallowing in miseries long past; the frittering away of hours on petty arguments; the desire to attend every possible social function; and the willingness to live life out in a perpetual state of drunken oblivion.

And at the end of it all, it is exactly those folks who will be found wondering on their deathbeds where their lives went, and what little they have to show for their time on earth. To them, Seneca adds: “Assuredly your lives, even if they last more than a thousand years, will shrink into the tiniest span; those vices will swallow up any space of time.”

Why is it we are so unable to see the things that matter, the things that constitute the bigger deals of life? Shall I spell some out? Quiet contemplation of life’s mysteries. An attempt to think deeply about the problems of the world, and their solutions. Dedication to doing work, no matter how humble, to a high standard, and teaching that standard to others. A willingness to be of service to a higher cause, one that improves lives other than our own. A commitment to pass the torch of knowledge on to others, so that the human race continues to evolve.

Those are long-term aims, things that demand our time and reward it. So many, nonetheless, are willing to throw away their most precious belonging, in Seneca’s words, in the company of “moneylenders and mistresses.”

You can work out for yourself which things should receive your precious time. Here’s the acid test. Picture yourself on your deathbed, many years hence. Will you be bemoaning how short and pointless your life was; or embracing its end as a time to rest after a life well lived?

(Sunday Nation, 23 September 2018)

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