How to Live a Finite Life

Consider yourself in decades rather than minutes or centuries.

Posted Jul 15, 2018

As I blogged here, the proper way to live is not like the gardener who told Zorba the Greek that he lives each day as if he’ll never die, nor is it to live as Zorba replied, as if each day will be his last. The sensible way to live is as if your life will last about as long as the actuarial tables say it will. If you have hours to live, don’t waste them reading blogs; if you have forever, there’s no need to rush into the learning of a trade or profession. This perspective requires you to make peace with death, which, as Eckhart Tolle said, is the opposite of birth, not of life.

Some forms of psychopathology are usefully considered as problematic framings of time horizons. Impulsive people, for example, act as if the world will exist, or will exist in a predictable form, for only a few more days. Borderlines can be thought of as people whose functional autobiographies extend into only the recent past; they often act as if they are defined by events that occurred in the last 10 minutes. When people act as if only the next few minutes matter or as if history is no guide to the future, we call them anxious; when people act as if the story is over or as if time moves so slowly that nothing matters, we call them depressed.

It’s best to frame your life in a time horizon of decades or, at the end of life, in years, but we are bombarded with messages that life is measured in minutes and seconds. “Tomorrow is over-rated” says an ad campaign to encourage intoxication. Social media and constant connectivity exacerbate this. I must respond to this text, answer this call, and keep up with likes for my latest post. High-speed automobile travel gives split-second decisions life or death consequences. Time clocks at work and starting times for meetings and amusements like movies make us aware of the importance of minutes. Competition between firms and between employees within firms has made constant availability an expectation of clients and bosses. An hour delay matters, and a day or two without responding to an email seems to communicate disdain.

A visit to Grand Canyon can recalibrate your drift toward a shortened time horizon by reminding you of a context framed in millions of years. It can also activate a geological awareness you can bring home with you, where the plains of your town can remind you of their former submersion, or the mountains in the distance can remind you of orogeny and not just of snowboarding. Too much of this can lead to nihilism, or to waiting for end times, or to the kind of impulsivity associated with a very short life (in this case, because it seems short compared to geological time). Still, it’s useful to offset the barrage of messages that minutes and seconds matter by appreciating geology, gazing at stars, and reading history. The last is particularly appropriate as a perspective-gainer if you find yourself watching the news or a newsfeed for more than a few minutes a day. Recalibration can also strengthen a frame of centuries for political and cultural questions, since it’s not just ourselves but also future generations that concern us when considering such topics. Politicians are generally concerned only with the next election, so they consider cultural and political questions in a time frame of months.

Other ways to recalibrate your time horizon to decades include reading biographies, literature (especially literature than unfolds over years in the characters’ lives), and classics (writings that have stood the test of time). Ecclesiastes is about this very subject, but it is also a reminder to frame time more broadly when you realize that Seneca and Epictetus understood people as well as contemporary psychologists do. Tolstoy provides a similar context, but it’s also a reminder that we are alive for decades that his best books are so long. You might need to dig in with a book rather than blog posts if you want a recalibrated perspective, and until the end of life, it’s a good use of your time. I’m glad you’re reading this, but it’s feeding your anxiety or depression if you let its brevity distract you from longer episodes.

One of the reasons that psychology has lost its way is that professors are evaluated yearly. Like fund managers who are evaluated quarterly, and therefore imitate other fund managers so as not to stand out negatively, yearly evaluation of researchers saps their creativity. They design studies that can be funded, implemented, and written up in a matter of months, when, for example, the data are fairly clear that good therapy usually takes a year or two. They can’t afford to spend a decade learning how to do therapy before researching what works best, so they miss a lot of things. The design research that can be funded and published rather than research that can answer questions about reality.

I have no problem with taking any occasion at all to reflect on how you are going about living, but to evaluate your life performance on New Year’s Day or on your birthday is generally a mistake. These reflections tend to be content-oriented rather than process-oriented: “Have I found love?” versus “Am I doing what I can to find love?” A longer evaluation period could lead to getting in shape physically and psychologically, making sure you are not annoying or boring, and assessing your value on the dating market rather than going home with the best available partner as your birthday (or your sister’s wedding) approaches. If you had to do surgery in the next year, you would learn tricks; if the time frame were a decade, you’d knuckle down in college and go to medical school. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to psychotherapy training is the belief that it shouldn’t take decades to achieve expertise, or even one.

Look up your likely durability on a life expectancy calculator and plan accordingly.