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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?

13 comments

1 Valery Valentina { 02.24.15 at 9:53 am }

just this month our Healthclub published in their newsletter about this app: WriteMonkey.
It is supposed to help hide the distraction that is FB. Who knows if it might help you!
As long as your loved ones know they are loved I think you’re doing just fine in the essential department.
Speaking as your internet/robot friend we sure do!

2 a { 02.24.15 at 10:57 am }

I am not a fan of the deathbed realization that some things are more important than others. Sure, you had to take the Chickienob for a haircut, but on the way, I’m sure you had an interesting discussion or you enjoyed a song together or pointed out something unusual along the way. Reading a bunch of fluff pieces that make you angry gives you a place to focus general dissatisfaction with your day….rather than on your kids or spouse who have done something irritating. Wasting time, to me, is as valuable as sleep – it soothes your mind (or engages it differently), allowing you to be better able to deal with or enjoy the rest of life.

Sure, spending time with family is important…but so is creating independence in your children. Watching PBS Newshour might spur an important discussion with your spouse. In short, I don’t believe that any activity has absolutely no value. But I guess that’s because I have been an occasional recipient of serendipity.

3 Lori Lavender Luz { 02.24.15 at 3:50 pm }

Aw MAN! I do this ALL THE TIME ” I’m scrolling through the very same status updates I saw a half hour earlier”. I can’t say that this post will make me stop, but it will make me at least notice more.

It’s really tricky to balance the now with the future. Neither extreme works well.

4 Kate { 02.24.15 at 5:38 pm }

I’m with A a bit, you never know what might be important. Keep smiling and keep busy and put out what you want to get back….

5 Northern Star { 02.24.15 at 5:54 pm }

Whoa. Very profound and thoughtful post Mel… I’ll be back to read this one again!

6 Pam { 02.24.15 at 8:41 pm }

When my mom was diagnosed with cancer, she asked me to ask my co-workers ( I worked in Publishing) for amazing books to read before she died, because “I don’t have time to read crap anymore.” She had a few caveats, but my coworkers came through in grand style.

7 GeekChic { 02.24.15 at 9:07 pm }

I’ve mentioned before that I have a terminal cancer diagnosis. Like Dr. Sacks I have found that my diagnosis brings a certain… clarity to my life and how I wish to live out the rest of it. Unlike Dr. Sacks, I’m not nearly so eloquent when discussing this fact. 😉

I have certainly let go of things I view as “frivolous” (for me that includes politics and caring what the vast majority of people think) but I am definitely still doing things that might seem like a waste of time.

I play with Lego, I read ridiculous humour sites on the web and other assorted crap.

But I live for today and I find meaning in my own ways. Even when it’s in a pile of Lego.

8 Mali { 02.24.15 at 10:20 pm }

It is timely for me to think about time wasting – not to an extreme, but so I feel I am making the best of this world and my relatively free time at the moment. It’s the balance I need to get right. I have things I want to achieve, projects I want to finish, and I need to do them instead of wasting time. But what is a time waster to others might not be to us. If playing with Lego or Candy Crush or reading and responding to blog posts relax us or give us pleasure, or just take us away from our worries for a moment, then they contribute to our overall well-being, and so are important to us. It’s not easy getting that balance right though.

9 roohi bhatnagar { 02.25.15 at 2:42 am }

Life never comes with an expiry date tag, Mel.. It can happen any time sudden.. I realize this everytime a loved one goes but then I forget.. This is how lost we are.. Your post is another reminder.. thanks 🙂

Soulful- I pray for your well-being

10 Kate { 02.25.15 at 11:45 am }

love this (reading through the original NYT article now)
I’ve complained to myself that I only get to see/hang out with my son for 2 hours/day after work and daycare, and then found myself spending even 10 of those minutes on my phone, checking – yup – Facebook.

I’ve tried to at least apply the practice of appreciating and enjoying the things around me that are important in that minute. Doesn’t mean then that I don’t cruise facebook and pinterest for hours after the little man’s gone to bed… *sigh*

11 deathstar { 02.26.15 at 11:23 am }

I’ve been taught that life is crucial, that you should live life as if every moment were my last. Do I actually do that? No. Or I wouldn’t be typing this. I’m a grand dawdler, a procrastinator, a late bloomer, whatever you want to call me. Frankly, getting married and having a kid probably sealed my fate. Realistically, I would have done more if I had not gone down that road. So in the sublime moment of fusing my life with my Gohonzon (when I chant) I get this incredible feeling that in every moment of my life, when I’m horribly miserable or fantastically productive, that I feel hope that I can become the Buddha and change someone’s life. By encouraging someone or sharing a laugh or chanting for someone or reading my son a story. Every moment you reach out and touch a living being is important and anyone can do this. This is not reserved for “important” people. You can try to save the world in all sorts of ways or you can shovel your neighbour’s driveway. It’s all the same. Just make the cause.

12 Eryn at A Glimpse into Eryn's World { 02.26.15 at 3:43 pm }

I’m a firm believer in living in the moment and never taking anything for granted. I never want to look back on any aspect of my life with regrets or that I wasted time. We only have one life, so why not live it to the fullest.

13 Bronwyn Joy { 03.05.15 at 10:06 pm }

Thoughts to take through the weekend, Mel. Thanks for these – I could use them today.

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