Wastes of Time
I was sad to read Oliver Sack’s piece in the New York Times about his terminal cancer diagnosis. I’ve enjoyed his books, and it’s always moving to read someone write about the end of their life.
There were a few sentences near the middle of the piece that gave me pause:
I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.
He goes on to explain that these worries — politics or global warming — belong to younger generations. There will be people in the future to grapple with these problems and new ones, but he cannot be the person who holds them in the current moment. That part I understood; it’s hard to worry about things deep in the future, especially if you know that you won’t be there to find out the outcome.
It’s before that: “There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends.”
He’s not allocating 60 minutes to NewsHour because those minutes could be better spent doing something else.
I guess I paused because while Sacks knows that he is staring death in the face, all of us are potentially breathing our final breaths. He knows and therefore adjusts. But some of us have no clue, and then it begs the question: should we all cut out the inessential (being honest with ourselves about what is inessential) on the off-chance that we’re nearing the end of our life?
If I died tomorrow, would I be happy with how I spent today? Not really. I mean, there were things I had to do: take the ChickieNob for a haircut, do work, make dinner. I’m fine with all the obligatory minutes of living life. But there were so many minutes and hours wasted. I read a bunch of fluffy lifestyle sites even though half the articles made me cranky. I spent over an hour searching for a sketch pad (that I never found) even though I should have given up after ten minutes and waited until I could ask the ChickieNob if she remembered where it was (she did). I checked email way too many times, making me less productive.
I spend so many of my minutes on inessential activities. Do you know how many times a day I need to check Facebook? Once. Do you know how many times I do? I’m embarrassed to admit it. It’s a distraction. It’s something easy to click. Work is hard. Facebook is easy. Facebook wins out. And then I kick myself for wasting time because really, I’m scrolling through the very same status updates I saw a half hour earlier.
There are the things I do that I know are a waste of time. There are the things I do that seem important in the moment, things I believe I should do because they’ll bring me something in future, even though I also sense (when I’m honest with myself) that they’re a waste of time. I could easily cut out both of those categories of activities and people without missing them too much.
It would be like the anxiety that comes after a drastic haircut when you stand in the shower and feel your hand slip off the ends of your hair and think, what have I done? And then, days or weeks later, you look in the mirror and think, the haircut was a good move. It is so much easier to take care of now.
I guess his words gave me pause because there is a sea of activities and people in a third category. How do you even know what is a waste except in retrospect?
Will I be happy with the books I managed to read? The movies I managed to see? The tea I managed to drink? If it were all to end tomorrow, would I be able to look at my life and say, “yes, I brought it down to the essentials; to the the activities and people that made me happy. I made the best choices with the information I had at the time.” And if I can’t say that right now, then what am I waiting for?