Thoughts & Insights

Life Is Long

Probably only a minority of people would agree with such a statement; most people would have the diametrically opposed view that life is actually far too short.

The American Ray Kurzweil (author of The Singularity Is Near), who has spent many years developing and following a systematic regime to prolong his own life, believes that relative immortality will be within the grasp of some eight billion people as early as 2030. Other scientists are more modestly confining their efforts to research on methods to prolong human longevity by up to 150 years. Yet I very much doubt that this will have any effect on most people’s basic feeling that life is actually too short.

But the really interesting question hidden away behind this gut feeling about the shortness of life is why do we feel that our lives are too short? In other words, what is it precisely that we think we can’t do because our life-spans are too limited?

Obviously, nobody lives long enough to fulfill each and every one of their dreams. Somebody living in the twelfth century might have dreamt of flying around the world, but this dream could never have been realized during their lifetime. But would they have been happier if they could have lived another 800 years to board a plane and fly round the world? Simone de Beauvoir has explored this question poignantly in her wonderful novel Tous les Hommes sont Mortels (All Men are Mortal). “It takes the whole of life to learn how to die.” wrote the Roman philosopher Seneca. Death is just as much a vital part of life as procreation and birth.

But what about those wishes, dreams and plans that we can realize? What do we put things off till tomorrow or the day after or some undefined point of future time although we could do them today if we really wanted to? Isn’t the notion that we would do it if only life were a little longer just a fatal piece of self-deception? Especially since none of us knows when our lives will come to an end. Isn’t the real key to happiness knowing what really is important in this life and using our own allocated time so that the really important things have precedence – day after day? Isn’t the question of with what and with whom I spend my time more important than the question of how much time I have? The first question I can control; the second one I can’t.

It’s the qualitative side of life, not the quantitative, that shapes and colors our sense of happiness, and decides whether we view life as being (too) long or (too) short. “Life is long if you know how to use it” said Seneca over two thousand years ago. And his wisdom is just as relevant today as it was then. And this could also be the sense of Brian Eno’s and David Byrne’s song Life Is Long on their marvelous album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Click below to hear it: