Sunday, May 1, 2016

Reaching the Half-Way Point of Life

I expect that tomorrow morning will be pretty much like every other weekday morning for me. I will wake up at five o'clock and stumble downstairs to turn on the coffee maker (I've never figured out how to work the timer). I'll put in my regular hour-and-a-half of writing on House of the Proud before I have to start getting ready for work. Then I'll shower, get dressed, grab the lunch my wife will have packed for me, and head off to teach my students for the rest of the day.

There will just be one difference. I will be a forty-year-old man.

Yes, I know that forty is the new thirty and all that. I know that lots of people who read my books are older than I am and have already gone through this particular moment in their lives. But I can do math as well as anybody else and I can see that the average life expectancy in the United States is about eighty years. In other words, I am in all likelihood about halfway through my time on this little ball of dust that we call Earth. It's a bit unsettling. As is my habit, I turn to history and flip through the words of those who came before me to make sense of this rather profound realization.

On August 18, 1805, Meriwether Lewis, along with William Clark and the other members of the Corps of Discovery, was near the Continental Divide in what is now Montana. He had just made contact with the Shoshone Indians, who gave them the horses they would need to make the difficult crossing of the Rocky Mountains and reach the Pacific Ocean. As he usually did, Lewis wrote in his journal and, after making a few routine descriptions of the various activities of the members of the expedition that day, he decided the dwell a bit on the fact that it was his thirty-first birthday.

This day I completed my thirty-first year, and conceived that I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this Sublunary world. I reflected that I had as yet done little, very little indeed, to further the happiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now sorely feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended, but since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions and at least endeavor to promote those two primary objects of human existence, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestowed on me; or, in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.

Reading these words brings tears to my eyes, for I know exactly how Lewis felt. If all the waking hours of my adult life were color-coded on a spreadsheet, with green indicating "well-spent" and red indicating "wasted", how many would be green and how many would be red? It's impossible to know the answer, of course, but I suspect that I would be grief-stricken if somebody were able to tell me. After all, every one of us only has so many boxes in the spreadsheet of life. Lewis was heartbroken at the time he had wasted, though one can argue that he did more than all but a very tiny number of other people to advance human knowledge and human happiness. How, then, should most of us feel?

When I was a university student, I spent much more time playing computer games and watching television than I did reading or studying. When I go back and visit the campus of my alma mater, Texas State University, I could tear my hair out in rage to think at how many more books I might have read if I could have taken all the hours I spent on the computer or in front of the television and applied them to reading. After all, nobody on their death bed is going to say that they wished they had spent more time playing Call of Duty or watching reruns of Friends. On the other hand, if I never get around to reading all of the great classics that sit on my shelf, or expanding my mind by reading the best books about history or science, I know I will bitterly regret it.

I remember one night in the spring of 2001, which I now rank as one of the most important nights of my life. I had already established a rule that I would never turn on the television unless there was a specific program I intended to watch; I would entirely refrain from turning the television on "to see what's on". Unfortunately, I found that the time I saved by doing that had simply become consumed with my computer game playing. I had gotten back from class in the later afternoon and begun playing Red Alert: Command and Conquer. Before I knew it, it was well past one o'clock in the morning and I was still playing. It hit me instantly, like a brutal punch, that I could have spent those many hours expanding my mind by reading or studying. Without a second's thought, I took the disk out of the drive, gathered up all my other computer games, went outside, and tossed them all in the dumpster. I have never played a single second of a computer game since that moment and have never regretted it.

Turning forty and passing the halfway mark of the average lifespan certainly forces one to reflect on the shortness of life. In the opening words of his essay On The Shortness of Life, the Roman philosopher Seneca said it far better than I ever could.

The majority of mortals, Paulinus, complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live. Nor is it merely the common herd and the unthinking crowd that bemoan what is, as men deem it, an universal ill: the same feeling has called for complaint also from men who were famous.

But then Seneca goes on:

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. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is - the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it.

Today, I'm trying to absorb the lesson that Seneca is trying to teach me. Do I really need to check my email so often? Is that extra half hour spent on paperwork at school, long after the students have left, just to triple check that it's absolutely perfect, really worth it if the alternative would be to spend a half hour doing a puzzle with my three-year-old daughter on the floor of our kitchen? Should I really be watching funny YouTube videos when I could be reading Homer, or a biography of Peter the Great, or a book about the most recent discoveries in quantum physics? And should I really be "vegging out" with NetFlix when I could be having a candlelit dinner with my wife?

I have as much time in each day as did Cicero, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, or any of my other heroes. I live in an age where such things as dishwashers and laundry machines have made my life vastly easier than the lives of those who came before me. I have no excuse, none whatsoever, to ever say that I don't have enough time to do the things I want to do. I've always wanted to learn French. What's stopping me? I've always wanted to make amateur astronomy a bigger part of my life. What's stopping me? I've always wanted to plant a vegetable garden in my backyard. What's stopping me?

There are any number of things that I want to do which I don't do due to a perceived lack of time. What's stopping me from doing any of them? Nothing, except my own laziness. Well, as I embark upon what I hope and expect to be the next forty years of my life, I hereby resolve to spend my time wisely and fully and to waste not a moment. I have children to raise, a wife to love, family and friends with whom to spend time, and books to write, Best to get started and make haste.

We all have only so many grains of sand in our own personal hourglass. Each one that falls without being used well is, in a sense, a little bit of death that could have spent living. And until I head to what Shakespeare called "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns", I plan on living as much as possible.

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