Given the fact that we are in existence for only a limited time, it is natural to ask oneself what is worth doing and what is not. We might otherwise find ourselves wasting time. Time is the only resource we have that we are always depleting and which cannot be replenished by finding a new source. We are here only briefly. For billions of years in the past, we were not around. No one seems nostalgic for all those vanished stars and planets and even the ninety-nine percent of all the animals that ever lived on earth and that are now extinct. But most of us are discomforted to a greater or lesser extent confronting the fact that there will come a time in the future where once again we will not be here. Certainly we will not be around during all the billions and trillions of years during which the universe will wind down inexorably and fade away.
Most people do not worry much about all those billions of years in the future, but some worry very much about what will happen in their immediate future when they die. They imagine that after dying they will be enveloped in an immense loneliness that will continue on forever. There are various religions that posit a life after death, but these accounts of a future life are never very detailed or convincing. At least, not to them. And those individuals whom I have known who do believe in heaven seem to me just as vulnerable as non-believers to those existential fears that crop up at such times when they are ill and can imagine themselves dying. These distracted men and women realize that even if they do not die right then, they will surely pass away at some future time. It is easier for them to picture themselves floating through a dark void then wafting about blissfully in heaven in the presence of God.
But we are here now.
Whether someone is religious or not, it is reasonable to think that our time on earth should be used sensibly and not wasted. Everyone can agree to that. What everyone does not agree upon is exactly which things are worth doing, and which things are not. I presume here to offer my own opinion. I do not recommend it to others. Everyone who has grown to adulthood has to sort out these matters in his or her own mind. Still, for what it is worth, this is what I think:
I think we are supposed to enjoy life and to do useful things. While we are still here, we are supposed to have a good time, and also we are supposed to accomplish something. When we are neither doing something that is useful or that is fun, we our wasting our time. This is what I mean: picture yourself running along a sunlit beach and diving into the waves. Such an act is an unmitigated pleasure. You are doing it solely to please yourself. It accomplishes nothing to improve the person you are, and it does nothing for anyone else. It is, in my opinion, thoroughly worthwhile. On the other hand, picture yourself late at night cramming for an examination in organic chemistry. There is no scintilla of pleasure in such intensive studying (that I remember.) It may not be helpful in a subsequent practice of psychiatry or dermatology, but passing organic chemistry is, and was, critically important in getting into medical school. Without putting in such an exhausting effort, no one could become a psychiatrist or a dermatologist in the first place. Although this behavior is the antithesis of having fun, it, too, is worthwhile. Indeed, for every physician it is critical to their becoming the person they want to be.
Some other examples of having fun (for me) include:
Listening to music.
Watching a movie or a play.
Reading a good spy story.
Playing tennis (at least in the past.)
Playing the piano.
Those things I think are useful or helpful, but which are no fun:
Reading about neurological pathways in the brain, or about the latest drugs.
Reading legal depositions on cases on which I may have to testify.
Visiting the hospital bedside of a friend.
Doing pushups (as I remember)
Proofreading things I have written.
Practicing the piano, or doing paper work, or doing the laundry. Or going to the store to buy a new suit.
Giving a friend a lift late at night to the airport.
Going to the dentist, or to your in-laws, or to court for a traffic ticket, or to a funeral.
Those are all things I think are worth doing. Other people would surely feel differently about some of them. They would have completely different lists.
Now, think of yourself alone on a Saturday evening, staring disconsolately at a television set while you channel surf, watching a few seconds of a cooking show, then a reality show, then sports and then the middle of a movie. You are neither enjoying yourself nor doing anything to help yourself or to help anyone else. You are wasting time. You only have so much time, and you are wasting it.
Think of the saying, “Time is money,” which is usually meant to say that you should commit yourself to making money all the time. It is true in a different way. Having money saves you time, which is the only really precious commodity you possess. Hopping into a car is faster than having to wait at a bus stop. Having enough money to buy a car is desirable. Having too much money may work in the other direction. You have to keep all of those cars in repair, which is time consuming. Driving one car after another to the garage is another example of wasting time. This is what is meant when someone says, “You don’t possess things; they possess you.” Everyone can think of things he or she did today that were a waste of time: playing solitaire, organizing old papers, arguing with somebody about politics, deciding whether this article of clothing is more flattering than that one, and so on. I am afraid much of what we all do has this character.
But it is possible sometimes in one single act both to enjoy oneself and at the same time do something useful—although usually accomplishing more of one than the other. For example, I really like reading the New York Times. I would say that I read the Times mostly to inform myself about things that are directly, or indirectly, important to how I plan my life. But I also enjoy reading it. Reading the Times is (for me) about 55% useful and 45% enjoyable. Obviously, there are others who would find no benefit or satisfaction in reading the Times; and they don’t. They would be wasting their time. Sometimes, when I read the Times, I come across a particularly engrossing or informative article, in which case the percentages change. Reading the Styles Section is, for me, a complete waste of time.
Probably most things I do, when I am doing something worthwhile, have some elements of both enjoyment and usefulness in some vague, indeterminate proportion. Here are some of them:
Jogging: 25% enjoyable, 75% useful (I am keeping in shape and holding back Alzheimer’s disease.)
Standing around in a cocktail party: 20% enjoyable, 80% useful (maintaining friendships or business contacts.)
Reading historical biographies: 88% enjoyable, 12% useful (improving general fund of knowledge.)
Writing fiction: 12% enjoyable, 88% useful. (Trying to do anything exactly right is not much fun.)
Sex: 95% enjoyable, 5% useful. (You know, improving marital relationships, health benefits, etc.)
Dining out: 45% enjoyable, 55% useful. (I like talking to people. I don’t like eating.)
Going to professional meetings: 17% enjoyable, 83% useful.(Depending on the meeting, enjoyable can range down to 11%)
Going to weddings: 12% enjoyable, 88% useful. (For the usual reasons, seeing old friends and relatives, but also having to put up with loud music, drunken conversation, toasts, etc.)
Driving to work every day: 10% enjoyable, 90% useful.
I leave out of this discussion things we may do that are perversely not in our interest. Smoking cigarettes, for instance. Those things that people do that are self-defeating or injurious to others are innumerable; and I won’t attempt to list them here. They range from careless or uncharitable behavior such as ignoring those who reach out for help, to the out and out criminal. But everyone understands that these behaviors are reprehensible and in no one’s interest. It is better to waste time than to use it to injure oneself or others.
As I grow older, I realize that I do not have to waste my time doing what other people tell me I should be doing. I do not have to visit Florida, or read the Bible from one end to the other, or attend retirement dinners, or dress in a costume for costume parties, or stay up late on New Year’s Eve. And so on. I am trying to conserve my time for things I like to do. Or things I really should do.
I do not want to suggest that everyone should be counting down the seconds and minutes we have remaining in our lives. There is no advantage to staring at a wall calendar as each day’s date is torn away. Most of us put one foot in front of the other and live well enough that way. But I would argue that there is a purpose to life, even if we will someday be dead forever. That purpose is fixed in the here and now and is embodied in what we do, for ourselves and for others. That purpose should include being useful and having a good time. (c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ or ask advice at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr-neuman-advice-column/