Happiness and Other Small Things of Absolute Importance (2016)

5.

In Search of Lost Time

Time is a subject too complicated to understand, and issues associated with time seem to go beyond human perception. St Augustine, in Confessions, Book 11, wondered about it too: ‘What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know.’

Certainly, whatever happens to us happens in time. There’s a time to be born and a time to die, and a time for everything in between these two points in time. Time starts a countdown the moment we’re born, constantly flowing toward the Kingdom of Great Darkness beyond.

In a lecture I attended once, the speaker concluded by saying that now we were all 90 minutes closer to death. People in the audience chuckled, but the speaker remarked, quite angrily, that what he said was actually rather sad. The passing of time is a deep and sad truth that no man or woman can change.

Timemory

Time is a notion closely and even immediately associated with the concept of memory. Does memory have meaning if time doesn’t exist? What meaning does time have in the absence of memory? We can’t speak about time without reference to memory, and vice versa. That’s why the title of Proust’s masterpiece is translated as both In Search of Lost Time and Remembrance of Things Past.

All things happen in the realm of time and pass into the field of memory. By the time I play the second bar of a Scarlatti sonata, the first bar has already taken residence in my memory centre. Everything that happens to us immediately turns into memory: the first time I saw snow falling; a bee that stung me in first grade; hugs I’ve given and received; the birth of my children; the Amalfi Coast on a summer vacation; my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary; war experiences; the first time I saw my wife – it’s all there, stored in my memory, and nowhere else.

Certain residents of the House of Memory choose to live in the basement. Our minds cannot readily recall each and every experience we’ve had, and that’s not to say we would even like to remember everything. Absolutely not. We all have things we wish we’d never experienced, and still more things we’d love to forget. Still, we can’t trust our memory to remember or forget things just because we want to. It appears that our memory is not under our command.

How should we train memory to learn to forget?

Stanisław Lec

Classical physicists tell us that time flows uniformly, but we know that’s not true. When we were children, time flowed leisurely. It started picking up speed when we became teenagers and has been accelerating ever since. Heading toward my sixth decade, I’ve noticed that time travels at scary velocities. Days and even weeks fly by in an instant. That’s why Schopenhauer said that from the youth’s point of view, life is an endless future, while from the elder’s point of view, life is but a brief past.

Time is relative, of course: our happy moments tend to be fleeting, while sorrowful moments sometimes take residence inside our house and, joining several other uninvited guests, refuse to move on. At moments of grace, we can shout: ‘Yes! This is great! Hold it right there for a moment.’ But time doesn’t listen: our call goes unheeded. We can’t stop time, not even for a fraction of a second.

Often, with the passing of time, stories or episodes that amused us on first reading take on deeper and sadder meanings when you read them again. Here’s one of the saddest:

To Stop a Minute

(Alice and the King are running very fast, when Alice, who is nearly fainting, turns to the King)

‘Would you – be good enough,’ Alice panted out, after running a little further, ‘to stop a minute – just to get – one’s breath again!’

‘I’m good enough,’ the King said, ‘only I’m not strong enough. You see, a minute goes by so fearfully quick. You might as well try to stop a Bandersnatch!’

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, Chapter 7

Everyone knows what ‘to stop a minute’ means in everyday life and in a given context, but the King understands it differently, which is normal, because kings always understand things in ways ordinary people don’t. Actually, the King understands things literally.

I must confess that whenever I read this piece, I’m saddened a little because, as we’ve seen, we know that you really cannot stop a minute, a second, or even a moment. Everything passes, and time is constantly flowing in the wrong direction. Still, things are never that simple, and this time … it can even be a good thing.

Often, under dire and even intolerable circumstances, the fact that time passes encourages us and gives us the strength to cope and deal with issues we couldn’t have tackled otherwise. So here’s yet another profound truth: time is our greatest enemy and our best friend.

An old Middle Eastern tale sheds some more light on this insight.

There was a king who was wise, generous, and humble. One day he asked his court philosophers to find him the world’s wisest sentence – a phrase that would be so wise that it could match every situation, make you happy when you’re sad, and sadden you a little when you’re too happy. The king wanted it engraved on his ring.

After contemplating this request for three days and nights, the sages returned with the following, very wise and most precise insight:

This too shall pass.

The king had it engraved on his ring.

Time-wasting

As you already know, I tend to take time for myself occasionally in which to do nothing. This is a very important and spiritual thing for me. Quite a few people, however, simply don’t get it. They make the bizarre argument: ‘Haim, doing nothing is silly. You’re wasting time.’

Time, I always reply, is wasting anyway. No matter what I do or don’t, time is wasting. That’s the very nature of time! Just read this sad dialogue between Alice and the Mad Hatter, which takes place during the Mad Hatter’s Tea-Party.

Alice sighed wearily. ‘I think you might do something better with the time,’ she said, ‘than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers.’

‘If you knew Time as well as I do,’ said the Hatter, ‘you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him.’

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ said Alice.

‘Of course you don’t!’ the Hatter said, tossing his head contemptuously. ‘I dare say you never even spoke to Time!’

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, Chapter 7

You are really wasting time only when you do things you don’t have to and you don’t really enjoy doing.

The Shapira–Gefen Principle

British poet Edward Young once wrote in his monumental long poem Night Thoughts: ‘The bell strikes one. We take no note of time, / But from its loss.’ (Night I)

I mean, have you ever heard of anyone who saved time for later? Could the world’s most diligent man, who eventually becomes the world’s richest man, walk into a Swiss bank later in his life, open a secret safe and withdraw ten years he had saved?

‘All my possessions for a moment of time.’

Queen Elizabeth I’s famous last words

Time is wasting all the time, but it would be wrong, silly and even cheating a little to say that time is passing. It isn’t. Time stays; we pass.

Time goes, you say? Ah, no!

Alas, Time stays, we go …

Austin Dobson, ‘The Paradox of Time’ (1886)

Why do people hurry so? What’s the rush?

The Russian singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky, who achieved unbelievable fame during his lifetime and had an immense effect on the Russian culture, wrote in one of his songs that ‘Everyone is always on time when they come to visit God.’

And, indeed, you have no reason to hurry: no one has ever been late at the Pearly Gates, and no one ever will be.

Quiz: The Meaning of Life

One morning, just as Israeli poet David Avidan wrote (see page 10), I awoke and the morning did not awake in me. The problem was that I only realized this when I was already on my way to teach a psychology class. I hate lecturing when I’m not at my best, so I started thinking up ways to avoid giving a class. Then I noticed it was April Fool’s Day, and though I was quite tired I came up with a strategy to salvage the situation elegantly. I decided to give my students a surprise quiz on a really surprising subject. I walked up to the blackboard and wrote in huge letters:

Surprise Quiz Write a short essay on the Meaning of Life worth 30% of the final grade.

Now, when students see the magic words ‘worth 30 per cent of the final grade’, they get so uptight that they can’t even remember their own names, let alone the date. Pleased with myself for coming up with such a brilliant way to get through a class effortlessly, I sat back in my chair and relaxed. As I reached for my bag to pull out the newspaper, I noticed that the students were making strange noises. I looked at them and they seemed troubled. Some were shifting impatiently in their chairs, some were tapping their pens on the desk, others stared blankly at the ceiling, trying to find some revelation there. Finally, one student couldn’t hold it in anymore. He rose and angrily yelled at me: ‘You can’t ask us to write about the meaning of life. We didn’t prepare for this at all! And it’s irrelevant for the course.’

Did you hear that? The student was not prepared for it? He thought the meaning of life was irrelevant! He’d actually never considered the meaning of life. Amazing.

What is even more amazing is the fact that even people who don’t have a clue about what they want to do with their lives are still certain they must hurry.

A man who does not know what he wants to do with his life is like an athlete who arrives at the stadium, but forgot what his designated sport is.

Ryünosuke Akutagawa

Time appears right at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland, when we encounter the hurrying and hard-pressed Rabbit who keeps looking at his watch. Whenever I read this passage, I can’t help thinking that many of us are like that speeding Rabbit – always in a hurry and always late. It must be part of the nature of rabbits. Eeyore, Pooh’s donkey friend, complained that Rabbit (yes, that’s another rabbit from another children’s story: we have a Rabbit in both Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice in Wonderland) asked him how he was, but kept running like mad and never waited to hear the answer. That made me think of a new definition for ‘friend’. A friend is one who asks ‘How are you?’ and sticks around to hear the answer. In other words, one who gives you a piece of his time.

One of the great disadvantages of hurry is that it takes such a long time.

G K Chesterton

This is the time-saving paradox we live through in this day and age. Man has invented all kinds of contraptions – fax machines, microwave ovens, planes, iPhones and so on – that are meant to create more time for us, but the result is just the opposite. Once, when a person wanted a cup of tea, he had to go the forest, cut some wood, chop it down, start a fire, bring a bucket of water from the well, put some in a kettle on top of the fire, and wait for the water to boil – and all the while, he had plenty of time. Today we hit a button and we have boiling water in six seconds while we make a phone call – but where has the time gone?

Once, if we wanted to visit Italy, we took a ship and cruised the ocean for days that were filled entirely with free time. Today we have to catch a taxi to the airport, catch a plane and spend the few flight hours constantly busy – we eat, drink, watch an in-flight movie, do some dutyfree shopping, and boom: we are there without even a minute to spare. Our attempt to save time has made time vanish completely. People were never as short on time as we are today.

At the Tea-Party scene in Alice, time never changes and the clock never moves forward (or backward) because the Mad Hatter has killed Time – literally, physically. In a way, the tea party participants live in a constant present, because only the present exists. In his own way, Pooh too has killed time: he has stopped the clock right at the time to munch on something.

When I’m 64

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once said that getting old is one of the most surprising things that can happen to a person. Only literary or cartoon characters never grow old. The Little Prince is well over 70; Winnie-the-Pooh recently had his 90th birthday; and Alice deserves our respect for having been around for the past century and a half. The three of them are still full of youthful vigour and will remain so forever (or at least until the Age of Culture ends).

Most of us fear old age, trying to postpone it as much as we can. Wise King Solomon offered a frightening description of old age: while the sun, moon and stars keep shining, the old person’s world is swallowed by the Kingdom of Darkness. When we were younger, the sun would reappear after the rain, but for the old folks the clouds never disperse and it rains again as soon as the rain stops. As the old man weeps, tears run from his eyes, but not always down his cheeks: at times his tears run into his soul. His legs wobble, his hands tremble and his spirit is shaking, in fear and terror and awe.

Old Man, Solomon said, you have few teeth and the taste-buds on your tongue are gone too – you’ve had enough to eat and taste in your long life. Your eyes can’t detect shapes and have grown dim – you’ve seen enough in your lifetime. You have very little to do, but you’re always tired – you’ve done enough this time around. You sleep light because every sound startles you – you’ve slept enough. Your ears no longer pick up the sounds that used to please you. This world is growing silent and dark. Life is coming to an end and the Kingdom of Terrible Mystery awaits you.

King Solomon’s view of old age as ‘evil days’ is correct, but perhaps so is its opposite: ‘old age is a time of joy’. Remember the definition of ‘profound truth’? If not, reread ‘A Page That Really Matters’ (page 47).

I don’t know what will happen to me when I’m 64, so I have no opinion on the matter. All I can do is guess

However, many studies have shown that the intuitive view that many of us share, whereby happiness diminishes with age, is wrong. Professor Yang Yang, of the University of Chicago, in an important sociological study of 2008, unequivocally showed that Americans actually grow happier with age. In the introduction to her study, Yang wrote: ‘The age effects are strong and indicate increases in happiness over the life course.’

I’m quite certain that some of my readers, who have not lived many days under the sun, are surprised by this finding. ‘How can my grandfather be happier than I am? He has no teeth!’ ‘And what about grandma’s osteoporosis? Is this joy?’ ‘They don’t party as much as I do!’

Well, many good things come with age, primarily self-integration and self-esteem. When you’re old, you really don’t have to do anything you don’t want or like to do (such as working under a loathsome boss). You begin to understand what really matters.

My parents’ experience taught me how important friends are as you grow older. They have three pairs of very good friends. They meet often, speak on the phone a lot, celebrate their birthdays together, watch movies together, and those who feel better drive those who don’t feel as good to hospital when necessary. When I was less aware of the importance of friends, I tried to talk them into moving to a bigger house in a nicer place than theirs, but they refused, using all types of excuses. Today I know the real reason: they simply wanted to stay close to their friends. What good is a big and fancy house if it’s filled with loneliness?

Psychological studies on happiness reaffirm the importance of friendships, but they also indicate that we don’t make enough efforts to acquire and maintain them.

In any event, I want to tell you about an educational experience I once had. Several years ago I spent a night in the enchanting Italian town of San Gimignano. Most of the tourists who visit the town spend a day there and leave at dusk, but after a nice afternoon nap I went for stroll in the dark and quiet town. It was quite empty. Lots of candles were burning at the tops of the medieval towers. It looked magnificent. Suddenly, I heard loud and happy voices coming from Piazza della Cisterna and started walking toward them. As I turned the corner, I witnessed a human sight that thrilled me almost as much as the beautiful mystery of the town’s vistas had just done. There, in the middle of the square, the old men and women of the community had placed a huge table, laden with pizza, plates of bruschetta and dozens of bottles of wine. They ate and drank and chatted loudly, looking like they had no cares in the world.

I told myself, and later my wife, that when I retire I’ll go there to sit with those elders and embrace the simple joys of life.

François de La Rochefoucauld said that people are never as happy or as miserable as they think. We can’t understand this when we’re young. The smallest thing can elevate us and send our soul soaring, while even the tiniest thing might crush us. While old age is rarely accompanied by great festivity, the elderly no longer get too depressed by the small events of life either.

Marcel Proust said that when a man is young, he tries hard to win the heart of the woman he falls in love with, but when he grows older he realizes that knowing he’d won the heart of a woman was enough for him to love her. He believed that as we grow older, we love those who love us. As an admirer of beauty, I know that as I grow older I see beauty in almost every woman.

I suggest that those who haven’t yet been convinced that old age is advantageous consider the alternative.

Although, as I’ve noted, I’m too young to opine about old age, I must share two insights I’ve had on the matter – one small and one tiny.

First, I believe it’s most unfair that old age is so badly timed. We shouldn’t have to deal with its hardships when we’re old and weary. I truly believe we would all do better if we wrestled with those hardships when we’re young and strong.

My second insight is associated with an idea I share with Oscar Wilde. There’s one thing about ageing that’s worse than all the other problems: the fact that we do not really grow old. Wilde and I know that the body – that physical entity that hosts and houses my mind and soul – does age and decay, but the dweller therein, the mental me, does not grow old at the same pace, or rather, it stays forever young.

If the mind aged with the body, old age might be a mellow, recreational time for us, but this is often not the case. Living inside this fragile body, our minds and souls cling to their desires and hopes. I know that my desires and dreams today are not much different – neither in the objects of their focus nor in their power – than the dreams and desires I had when I was half my current age.

Writing this, I realize that the above is yet another profound truth, which is why its very opposite is also true. That truth is that I really don’t want my soul to grow old along with my body, but I want my body to stay as young as my soul, not age and decay. As sad as it is to see a young soul in an old body, there’s nothing sadder than an old soul in a young body.

The Final Curtain

It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. That is true. It is called Life.

Terry Pratchett

There’s an ancient and popular oriental tale (Tolstoy wrote a wonderful version in his Confessions) about a wanderer who encountered a horrible beast in the heart of the desert. Trying to escape it, he ran to hide in a dry well he suddenly saw before him. But as soon as he started climbing down, he realized that a dreadful dragon was crouching at the bottom, waiting for his morning snack. Trapped inside the well between the beast and the dragon, and losing his grip on the slippery wall, the wanderer suddenly saw a small branch growing out of the wall. He grasped it with all his might, clenching hard, but his arms grew weaker and weaker. Soon, he realized, he would have to let go and fall to his doom. Suddenly he noticed that two mice, one black and one white, were gnawing at the shrub. Now, all hope was really lost. His fate was sealed by two little mice. Hanging like that, suspended in despair in mid-air, he saw a few drops of dew on that withering branch. He pulled the branch closer to his mouth, stuck out his tongue, and licked the honey droplets. ‘Ah,’ was his last thought, ‘how wonderful is the taste.’

I imagine that my intelligent readers have figured out by now that the white mouse symbolizes day, the black one stands for night, and the dragon is a symbol of our horrific death (or so we imagine death to be). Day follows night, night follows day, and with each cycle we move closer to the dragon. So why not enjoy the wonderful taste of life while we’re on our way?

The fact that someone died is not proof that he ever lived.

Stanisław Lec

Spinoza felt that free minds should not dwell on death, only on life. Tolstoy strongly resented that recommendation, and wrote that people who learn to think deeply almost always consider death, consciously or not.

Many people I know are very upset whenever death comes up in conversation; but even if we ignore death, death will not ignore us. Death will come. All the people who walk down the street with you now, everyone who lives in your town, anyone you ever knew, will one day travel to the Kingdom of Eternal Silence.

The countdown started when you were born.

I believe that knowing death is out there can help us live better and wiser, and embrace the things that matter. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger was once asked to give a good tip for a better life. He said that spending plenty of time in cemeteries would be a good idea, because it can help us understand the proximity of death more deeply and live a better life.

Is It Terrible, Ivan?

Tolstoy wrote his wonderful novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich when he was almost 60, after surviving strong personal and intellectual turmoil. Vladimir Nabokov believed it was the best story ever written. Speaking to American students, he described this as Tolstoy’s most glorious, complete and complex work. Humbly, I agree.

The story has a deep and profound religious layer, though not in the ordinary sense of the word. Of course, it’s the story of Ivan Ilyich’s life, not death, but his life – just like mine, yours, and everyone else’s – takes place in the face of death.

Here’s a brief summary of the plot: Ivan Ilyich, a wealthy and respectable man, becomes ill and dies at the age of 45.

In the beginning of the second chapter, Tolstoy tells us that Ivan’s life was ‘very simple, very ordinary, and thus very terrible’. Ilyich is an ordinary middle-class bourgeois man, spiritually empty, and detached from nature, the Earth and high moral values. A sudden incurable illness arranges a rendezvous for him with the meaning of life and death. His imminent death makes him realize that his entire life has been a lie, that his greatest achievements, legal career and even the big house and the home life he built for his family were all fraudulent. As days go by, his disease torments him greatly. He suffers pain and cries out loud without even being able to relax his vocal chords.

Gerasim, a kind-hearted Cossack, is the only one who understands that Ivan does not need mercy and pity, he needs help. Gerasim’s empathy and caring stand in stark contrast to the attitudes of Ivan’s other relatives. They may love him in their own way, but they can’t help him through this really hard time: they just watch as he withers away. With his kindness and simple, down-to-earth wisdom, Gerasim helps Ivan Ilyich understand what are the right and important things we should do during our brief existence on this Earth. Ivan embraces this wisdom and with its help he even manages to defeat the terrible pain and the fear of death he feels. Though death is right around the corner, Ivan spends his final days on Earth reconciling with everyone and everything, thus bringing closure to his life’s story.

‘Death is finished,’ he said to himself. ‘It is no more!’ 
He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.

End of story

Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of our lives is that – as the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard put it – life can be understood only in hindsight, but must be lived forward. More often than not, when a person finally understands how to live his life, the Angel of Death appears and tells him: ‘Your time is up! That was your life.’ How awful!

If there’s a lesson to be learned from The Death of Ivan Ilyich, it’s that we probably should live our lives so that when the time comes to leave this world we don’t feel infinite regret and sorrow for a life wasted, spent in vain.

Men may live fools, but fools they cannot die.

Edward Young, Night Thoughts, ‘Night’ IV

Ivan understands how he should have lived just a few days before he dies. How unfair is that? They give introductory classes for almost anything, except for life. You start your life unprepared and go right to the final exam. How nice it would be if we were given a trial run first, and only when we felt ready would we have to take the life given to us and live it, prepared and knowing the things that matter.

I still remember how little I understood when I first read that story of Tolstoy’s. I was very young then, living through a period of life in which death rarely ventures into our thoughts, and even when it does, it’s just an empty word. In fact, reading about Ilyich at that age is almost a wasted effort. Still, there was one passage in it that I enjoyed even then, though I didn’t understand it fully.

When Ilyich realizes he will die, despair takes hold of his heart. Not only is he unable to accept that his death is near and drawing nearer by the minute, he can’t understand it either. Then he remembers a classic syllogism that anyone who has ever studied logic knows: ‘Socrates is a man, men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal’ (in the story Tolstoy speaks of Caius, not Socrates).

Ivan Ilyich remembers that syllogism, which always seemed correct to him when applied to Caius, or Socrates, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius – Man in the abstract – was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others.

‘Caius really was mortal, and so was Socrates, and so are all other mortal humans, and it is right for them to die, but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilyich, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.’

Ivan Ilyich can grasp that all men are mortal but he’s unable to wrap his mind around his own death, wondering where he would be when he is no more …

What will you do, God, when I die? […] 
Without me what reason have you? […] 
It troubles me.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Death: Friend or Foe?

Edward Young, an 18th-century English poet whom Søren Kierkegaard admired, wrote in Night Thoughts: ‘All men think that all men are mortals but themselves.’

The thing is that it doesn’t really matter what we think. The moment of truth will come, sooner or later. In everyone’s life there comes a moment in which we grasp and understand that the Grim Reaper will one day pay us a visit. It may be in a few days or in many years, but death will come. That is a singular moment in our lives. From that moment on, we see things differently.

Death is such a huge and overwhelming fact of reality that it consumes everything else. Next to death, life pales. Life is here today, but will be gone tomorrow. Death is near today, will be right here tomorrow, and will stay forever.

Plato believed that people who fear death credit themselves with wisdom they don’t have. I mean, everyone fears death and believes it’s the worst that can happen to us, but the fact is that no one really knows death. For all we know, death could be the best of blessings. A Yiddish saying argues that the afterlife is wonderful: after all, no one ever came back.

According to Plato, Socrates died peacefully when he poisoned himself with hemlock. There are only two options after death, Socrates told his disciples: nothing or life. In the first case, he was headed for a big, dreamless sleep forever. Considering the pleasure we take in a good night’s sleep, nothing could be better than an eternal nap (certain Buddhist traditions even maintain that dreamless sleep is the highest state of consciousness). The second option is even more encouraging because, if there’s life after death, he’ll get to meet Homer and Hesiod, and many other wise and fascinating people that he’d always longed to talk to.

In an old Russian folk tale a very brave soldier (who had helped old ladies cross the street, beat devils at cards, saved the Tsar, and so on) managed to capture Death, and proceeded to tie him up in a large bag. Thus, Death stopped calling, and people stopped dying, and everyone was very happy.

Nevertheless, people kept growing old. Their bodies aged and suffered all kinds of diseases that would not heal. Slowly, they began to realize that Death should be unleashed again to end their misery. They sent delegations, begging the soldier to release his captive. The soldier realized that people were actually suffering because Death was out of commission; and, after thinking about it long and hard, he decided to set Death free to roam.

Death went back to his business and life was back to normal, but only just. Death was so scared of the soldier and his bag that he refused even to pay him a courtesy call. And so, our soldier grew old, tired and ill. He was really fed up with life and, after waiting in vain for a while, he descended to the land of the dead by his own efforts.

The moral of the story is that, frightening as it may be to meet Death, the thought of never meeting him is even scarier.

Death, a Coach for Life

Tolstoy suggested that we adopt death as our mentor – a coach for proper living. Whenever we start wondering what we should do, he said, we simply need to ask ourselves: what would I do (about this or that) if I knew I would die tonight, and no one would ever be the wiser?

If we knew we’d die tonight, would we still be staring at that silly TV game show? Would we be reading yet another article in the economic section of the newspapers? Would we be standing in line to buy something at a discount store? I guess we would do none of those things.

Always expecting death, or the thought that our next few moves will be the last we ever make, could guide us to do the right thing, to live properly, to address ourselves to the things that matter. Death makes life seem more real, sharpening our senses.

I knew a few people whose lives were totally altered once they realized that their death was right around the next corner. After they contracted an incurable disease, they realized how wonderful life is, and how precious is every moment under the sun.

The Tibetan scholar Sogyal Rinpoche suggests:

Looking into death needn’t be frightening or morbid. Why not reflect on death when you are really inspired, relaxed, and comfortable – lying in bed, or on vacation, or listening to music that particularly delights you? Why not reflect on it when you are happy, in good health, confident, and full of well-being? Don’t you notice that there are particular moments when you are naturally inspired to introspection? Work with them gently, for these are the moments when you can go through a powerful experience, and your whole worldview can change quickly. These are the moments when former beliefs crumble on their own, and you can find yourself being transformed.

Sogyal Rinpoche, Glimpse of the Day

Truth is always right there, alongside death. The truth is that we all expect and think about death, whether we admit it or not. The best proof of this is the fact that we all deliberate and think hard before we make a crucial move in our lives. If we knew we would live forever, what would be the point of deliberating? Would I even spend time deciding on my career? Of course not. I’d spend 1,000 years playing the piano in bars and clubs, teach philosophy for the next 1,000 years, spend a few centuries mountaineering, study mathematics for another millennium or so, devote the subsequent millennium to painting, write a few books for another 1,000 years, and I’d still have the whole of eternity ahead of me.

In fact, things are even stranger than that. If we were to think a little about living forever, we’d realize that many philosophers were right when they argued that, given eternal life, most people would actually do nothing at all. After all, why bother solving a mathematical equation today if we can do it tomorrow, or the day after, 100 years from now, or in a billion and a half years?

Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, remarked once that it’s wrong to think that if we lived forever, we’d eventually solve all of life’s riddles. That’s because we’d never even wonder about them. Socrates knew, and many other philosophers agreed, that death is the father of philosophy.

Death gives things value and meaning. It’s only because death exists that we choose one thing over another. It’s only because we expect to die that our lives can assume an importance, a festive taste, be fruitful and even joyful. Knowing that our time is limited is the only motivator against wasting time – the worst kind of wastefulness. We must work diligently, Tolstoy said, because our work could be terminated at any given moment, and because – in the face of death – there’s no point in doing things that are unimportant to us. Knowing that we will die is what motivates us to deal with the things that matter.