“Life is so short,” you hear people say. “It passes like a dream. It seems that only yesterday I was a kid.”
I disagree. Life is not short, not unless we let our mind make it so.
I am only 26 years old, but I have lived a great deal already. I would like to say that I have done everything – that I have climbed mountains and backpacked my way through South America; that I have loved many women; that I have read all the great books and written some great books myself.
That is not the case, at least not yet. There are many experiences that I have not had and that I would like to have. And yet, whenever I am reminded of my age and of the past that is behind me, I find myself reassured by the depth of my experiences.
I know that I can turn inwardly to a thousand rich memories nestled in me and find in them good proof of the long years I have lived already.
Such as the many days I spent in the park, walking mindfully in a refreshing world of green and blue, or cycling through it in the hush of cool summer nights.
Or how once I knelt before a girl to tie her shoelaces. (She was rather mean to me after, but somehow that does not sour my happy memory).
Or the first shave I gave my grandfather after his stroke.
Or when, as a kid, I understood that my father was sick and that he would soon die.
Many of my memories are tinged with sadness, and some are dreary. But I find that sad memories have the power to take me to a depth of feeling otherwise inaccessible to me, that sets the measure of what it means to be human.
“Among all living creatures, it is man that lives longest. The brief dayfly dies before evening; summer cicada’s knows neither spring nor autumn. What a glorious luxury it is to taste life to the full for even a single year. If you constantly regret life’s passing, even a thousand long years will seem but the dream of a night.” – Yoshida Kenko
Taking the time to remember, whether aloud with others, or quietly alone, makes life seem longer and deeper. One memory encourages another, and more than images and scenes, it is feelings and moods that we remember, that is, that we recreate.
For memories themselves are not mere reproductions of something that has been, but signposts for the present. Good or bad, inspiring or depressing, memories guide our steps, influence our direction.
But more than our memories, it is what we do and how we do it that determines the length and depth of our lives. Boredom is often a warning sign.
“What people call boredom is actually an abnormal compression of time caused by monotony – uninterrupted uniformity can shrink large spaces of time until the heart falters, terrified to death. When one day is like every other, then all days are like one, and perfect homogeneity would make the longest life seem very short, as if it had flown by in a twinkling.” – Thomas Mann
There was a time when I used to do the same things at the same hours, eat the same food, play games with myself, all under the burden of a great sadness. Now, looking back on those times, I find them compressed to but a few memories, and even those scant and shallow.
We have to be careful about such habits, not to slid into them even if they are a protection from depression and sorrow. All too often, comfortable habits easily become monotonous ones.
But then it doesn’t take all that much to refresh habits. Only presence, together with some hope and a bit of confidence.
“Habit arises when our sense of time falls asleep, or at least, grows dull; and if the years of youth are experienced slowly, while the later years of life hurtle past at an ever-increasing speed, it must be habit that causes it. We know full well that the insertion of new habits or the changing of old ones is the only way to preserve life, to renew our sense of time, to rejuvenate, intensify, and retard our experience of time – and thereby renew our sense of life itself.” – Thomas Mann
Our sense of time is a habit itself, I would say. If we do not remember, if we not to turn inwardly, if we do not refresh our habits, life will seem short, unpleasantly so.
But if we do all that, then on those days when age or sorrow folds our life like an old, overused fan, making it seem light and insubstantial, then we will have our habits and our turning inward to make us say,
“No, life is not short, it is not a waking dream. Life is long. I may not have done all that I wanted to do, but I sure lived a lot already.”