Jul 312023

Below is a piece I wrote for my Unitarian Universalist group

Tldr: We have an abundance of time, if we are intentional about how we spend it. Let’s explore how to ensure our lives are filled with meaningful moments, and avoid wasting one of our most precious resources: time.

It may seem hard to believe, but back in my college years, I was one of the COOLEST computer science students on campus (surprised?). This was back in the day when desktop computers were the size of a desk, and those large tv-tube monitors were the norm. One semester I took my hard-earned summer cash and got a brand new, state-of-the-art 18” flat screen monitor. These were the bees knees back then, and I was so proud to have one. But also that’s why I was distraught one afternoon, when my cool status was challenged.

That pivotal afternoon, I came back from class to find my roommate a little frazzled. He explained that someone came by, asking if he had seen any thefts around our place. Little did we know, that that person was actually THE thief (trying to steal some more), and that they had come through my window and stolen my *delightful* flat screen monitor. To a computer science student, that was the end of me! I mean, I still had my old CRT behemoth I could use, but my revolutionary code looked soooooo good on that slick, flat screen. I was ruined.

I was also young, and this was the first time in my life that I felt violated. I was DETERMINED to find the culprit. I spoke with our apartment security guards. With campus police. With city police. How DARE someone steal from ME?! It wasn’t about the property. It was about the principle…of taking something that was MINE.

I received suggestions to go to the local flea market, to see if my stuff was being resold there. To scour craigslist, to look for it listed there. I spent several Saturdays going to the swap meet to see if I could identify my precious monitor. MY MONITOR. I had no idea what I would do if I did find it. 

I interviewed neighbors to see if they had any insight. Called my parents, and talked to their insurance agents to see if they had any recourse. But long story short – I never saw it again

I must have spent about 30 hours, over several weeks, trying to hunt down my prized possession. And looking back, I now realize how foolish that was.

Those hours….were during the peak of my college years. I finally had friends, the professors knew me by name, and my field of study was finally clicking. Those hours…were hours I could have spent diving deeper with genius professors, hours I could have spent strengthening relationships with classmates and friends that I wouldn’t have near me for long, hours that I could have spent partying (responsibly) without a care in the world before my adult life kicked in.

In retrospect, I realize that what was really stolen from me that semester, was my time.

Time, which I’ll argue today, is the most precious resource we have.

When we normally think of precious resources we think of physical materials that are in short supply. Gold and silver. Rainforests. Natural minerals. Money. But with each of those physical resources, you might have an opportunity to get it back even after you’ve spent it, it usually has only changed hands. It may require a huge investment to do so, but it’s possible.

But time – time is the only resource, where once we spend it, it’s gone. Forever. This second right here. This moment has now passed, and I’ll never get it back. Same with THIS one. Kinda crazy to think about, right?

There’s a stoic philosopher known as Seneca, who spent a lot of time thinking about just that. He had an interesting life that was filled with crazy highs and lows. He was born into a noble family, wrote some influential plays, got exiled to an island for eight years, became the chief advisor to the Roman emperor, and then got sentenced to death by forced suicide.

In between all of that, he did a ton of philosophy, and gathered some of his thoughts in an essay called “On The Shortness Of Life”, which he wrote around 2000 years ago. I was lucky enough to come across an analysis of it by Dmitri Brereton, a self described ‘practical optimist’ who explores philosophy in his spare time.

Dmitri postulates that if Seneca were around today, he would have the following to say:

Everyone complains about how short life is, but that perspective is broken. Life is not short. The real issue is that we waste so much of it.

In fact, life is long enough for you to achieve your wildest dreams. You’re just so busy wasting it that you get to the end without living much of it.

In regards to my precious computer monitor getting stolen, he’d reply:

It’s surprising that most people wouldn’t let anyone steal their property, but they consistently let people steal their time, which is infinitely more valuable

No one is willing to hand out their money randomly, but that’s exactly what you do with your time. You’re very frugal with your physical possessions, but when it comes to your time, you’re wasteful of the only thing in the world that you should actually be frugal with

You can’t touch or feel time, so it’s hard for you to really grasp it. But if your doctor told you that you had a deadly illness, you’d spend every cent you have to try to stay alive. That’s how much your time is actually worth to you. But on a day to day basis, you treat it like it’s completely worthless, just because you can’t see it.

Now I have a strategy for this, because he’s right…time is hard to see. But check out this poster I got last year that I have hanging up in my office.

It’s a bit of an eyesore, so if it’s hard to make out what’s going on let me explain – each of those  circles represents a week of my life. Every row is 52 of them, representing each year. The goal here is to have an obvious representation of my life lived, and how much I have left to live. And let me tell you, every week when I cross off another week, it gives me a little kick in my butt, as I question – did I spend that week wisely? Especially, a few months ago when I crossed off that last circle in the year 40 – I could tangibly feel the mid-life-crisis coming on.

Dmitri as Seneca continues:

It’s even worse when people come up with deferred life plans. They’ll say something like “When I’m forty, I’m going to retire and write a book” or “I’ll do this thing I hate right now so I can make money, then in ten years I’ll do what I really love”.

Seriously? You think that the universe is going to let your life proceed the way you want it to? What guarantee do you have of even making it to that age?

When he says that I’m immediately reminded of my father in law, who worked long hours, for 45 years straight, only to retire, and in the first year of retirement had a major stroke, and was left paralyzed and unable to speak, for the rest of his life. Breaks my heart.

Putting things off for the future is the biggest waste of a life. You deny yourself the present by promising the future. You’re relying on the future, which is outside of your control, and abandoning the present, which is the only thing you can control.

The whole future lies in uncertainty – so live immediately.

Now, to me, that sounds great. I’d love to go to the beach everyday and not stress about reality, work, bills, health, but that’s simply not practical.

But I think what we need to take away from this, is that our time is finite, and we need to be careful if we’re spending it on a path where we only care about the end result and not the journey.

We should live our lives intentionally, and be aware when our time is stolen from us little by little. We should avoid spending time on things that don’t really matter to us.

On a personal note, this year has been a tough one for my family. We’ve suffered a lot of loss. 

Back in April, Kelly’s dad (who I mentioned earlier), was placed on hospice and she held his hand as he struggled to take his last breath.

A month later we learned that our family dog Zelda had an aggressive form of bone cancer, and had to say goodbye to her shortly after.

And while we were trying to escape that double dose of grief by spending time at my grandparent’s lake cabin, we learned it was to be sold and we wouldn’t be able to continue our annual family vacations there.

This was some heavy stuff for us. 

In this time of mourning, I recalled all the good times I had with what I was losing. I cried, a lot. It sucked. It still sucks. But I did realize that what I was grieving was the memories, and that those weren’t going anywhere. 

I’d still always have the moment I asked Terry for his blessing to marry his daughter.

I’d still always be able to recall the comical time when we brought our first baby home from the hospital and Zelda refused to come inside because she was outside barfing, as she was no longer the top priority and couldn’t handle that.

I’d still have the memory of my grandpa shouting ‘Atta boy!’ after I got up on a single ski behind his speed boat at the lake.

And I can’t help but think of the quote that is popularly attributed to winnie the pooh, though upon research shows that might not be the case – but the quote “How lucky am I to have had something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

Yes, I am lucky to have had so many meaningful moments with that which I’ve lost. Could it be that I’m so emotional with these memories because they were such meaningful moments? That I spent the time with Kelly’s dad, with my first dog, with my childhood vacation spot so purposely and so intentionally…and that’s what made them so impactful? And if so, then I don’t have a solution to grief (that’s still hard), but instead a confirmation that I spent my time wisely with those that I’m mourning.

There was something special about that lake house that I lost. It was in the middle of nowhere, and you couldn’t get cell phone reception, a good TV signal, and for a long time no internet. So whenever I was there, I was spending quality time with those around me. Playing cards. Time in the water. Watching sunsets. Being retrospective on life. I have SO many memories of those vacations.

And it makes me realize, we live in an age of countless digital distractions, always begging for our attention. Emails. Likes. Alarms. Text messages. Tweets. Infinite scrolling.

Tom Johnson, a technical writer from Seattle talks about when he was asked to join a book club, and documents his journey starting a new book:

Sometimes, I’d occasionally pull out my phone without any particular reason, unlock the screen, and just stare at it dumbly, not sure which app to open. When I caught myself doing this, I was kind of shocked, but also too desensitized to act. In every spare moment of inattention, I occupied my focus with my phone’s information. Something was wrong.

Cal Newport, an author in the digital minimalist movement reiterates “The urge to check Twitter or refresh Reddit becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life.” 

Has anyone else noticed this? You’re trying to focus on something, yet for some reason instead of the task, you decide to distract yourself with a social media feed? It makes being productive pretty difficult.

It’s not entirely our fault…I recall a conversation with my wife where she was distracted with her phone after we had put the kids to bed and it was finally ‘our time’. When I challenged her why she was glued to her phone, she responded that she had a million emails to respond to. And if she didn’t respond to them now, then she’d have 2 million by tomorrow morning. Can I blame her for wanting to get ahead of that queue?

Seneca would say:

In your mind, you genuinely think you’re going to live forever. You think you have an infinite supply of time, and you keep spending it on the first thing that pops up without giving it much thought.

We live in a world that requires so much of our precious time. How do we manage that?

To be honest, I don’t have a simple solution for that. There’s been countless books and methods on time management, because everyone works differently and no single approach will work for you. But they typically have one thing in common, and that’s logging your time.

Now you don’t have to do this every day, but I challenge you to just take 1 day, perhaps next week, and log where you spend it. How long did breakfast take? What about that ‘quick’ phone call you had to make? Where did the time go, and were there moments where you were ‘killing’ time before the next thing?

At the end of the day look back at that log, and reflect on it. Seeing how you spent your time, are there any changes you’d want to make tomorrow?

And I want to be clear that not every moment has to be ‘productive.’ It’s 100% okay to do nothing. To take a nap if you need it. If you do get joy out of checking facebook to catch up with friends that’s fine. The key is to be *intentional* about doing it. Think to yourself “I’m choosing to do this because I want to. Not because it’s the routine. Not because I’m bored or distracted. Not because someone else is asking me to do it. But instead, I know that I’m choosing to spend my precious time on this activity.”

When I take that perspective, and a solicitor comes to the door asking for a moment of my time, I’m okay saying ‘No thanks,’ and then returning to my kids. When someone asks me to volunteer, I’m not going to, unless it’s an activity that I’m happy to be a part of. I’m definitely going to think twice before taking a new job that requires extra commuting in traffic. And (I’m still working on this part), but when I have a few minutes to ‘kill’ before I head to work, perhaps instead of bringing out my phone to check the latest news, instead I’ll sit and listen to the birds, or take a moment of reflection.

I know I titled this “The Secret to a Long Life”, and if anyone else is as literal as I am, they might be looking for an exact formula for living longer….and…I’m not going to let you down… I actually do have one. For in my research I came across something known as the Blue Zones Power 9. 

Blue zones are geographic areas where people consistently live longer than the world average. Areas like Ikaria (uh-car-ia), Greece, and Okinawa, Japan. What could it be about them or these zones that increase their longevity? Some researchers got together and studied them and their environments, and came up with the following 9 habits:

1. Move Naturally

People who live the longest engage in regular, everyday activity rather than specific exercise routines. They maintain active lifestyles through tasks like gardening and manual housework.

2. Purpose

Having a clear sense of purpose, or a strong reason for waking up each day, can extend life expectancy by up to seven years.

3. Downshift

People in the Blue Zones still have stress, but they manage it with daily rituals like ancestor remembrance, prayer, napping, and happy hour.

4. 80% Rule

This practice involves stopping eating when 80% full, which can aid in weight management.

5. Plant Slant

The diets of people in these regions are mostly plant-based, with beans being a major component. Meat is consumed sparingly—about five times per month and in small serving sizes.

6. Wine @ 5

All but one of these regions consume alcohol moderately and regularly. They typically drink one to two glasses of wine per day, often with friends or food. Unfortunately, you can’t save up all week and have 14 drinks on Saturday.

7. Belong

Nearly all the people who live the longest participate in some form of religious community, regardless of the specific faith. Regular participation in religious services can add several years to life expectancy. – hey – you all are doing that right now!

8. Loved Ones First

Those who live the longest tend to prioritize their family. They keep aging parents and grandparents close or in their homes, commit to a life partner, and devote time and love to their children.

9. Right Tribe

Long-lived individuals are part of social circles that encourage healthy behaviors. Studies show that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious – being around those that have healthy habits helps you tremendously.

I can’t make any promises, but according to the researchers of that study they predict the average person’s life expectancy could increase by 10-12 years by adopting a Blue Zones lifestyle. Kinda cool.

I’ve spoken a lot today on our personal time, but before I close I want to examine the inverse of that. Other people’s time. If we know how valuable time is to us, how should we be treating other people’s time? If you agree that time is our most precious resource, then perhaps there’s no better gift you can give to someone than time. 

Spending focused time with them. 

Ensuring we don’t waste their time. 

Thinking twice before we cancel plans, and ensuring we’re not late or making them wait for us.

Perhaps even giving them time by taking something off of their plate.

Pretty powerful gift.

Has anyone here heard of the 5 Love Languages? You know where I’m going with this… it’s no surprise that ‘Quality Time’ is one of them. For some people, nothing says “I love you” more than your full, undivided attention. To be honest, Quality Time isn’t even MY love language, but I can vouch that when my wife gives me uninterrupted focus with phones down. Eye contact. And really shows an interest in how I’m spending my time, I feel her love so deeply.

I think dying is scary. It freaks me out that I’ll no longer have any more time on this earth. But something tells me that if I’m on my deathbed and I’m filled with memories of time well spent with my kids, my wife, family, this earth, this loving community, then I might be more at peace with it. Because I think what I’m scared of is not death, but waste, taking my life for granted. And even if I don’t live a long life, if I live a fulfilling life, that may be enough.

In closing, I’d like to express my deepest gratitude to each of you. Time, is our most invaluable resource—never to be regained once it has passed. That you have chosen to spend some of your precious time here with us today, is an honor I do not take lightly.

I hope our reflections inspire you to treasure each moment, living fully, loving profoundly, building a life filled with meaning and connection. 

As you go forth, I wish you a chance to view each second as a unique opportunity, a chance to craft an intentional life. 

May each tick of the clock echo with purpose, joy, and of course, abundant love.

Thank you for your time. May it be so.

  One Response to “The Secret to a Long Life”

  1. I was lucky enough to hear this live. Really great insight! Thank you, Shane.

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