There will come a time when you do something for the last time, and you will rarely know it. Sam Harris.
With the cultural emphasis (overemphasis) on staying productive and making every second count, we forget to indulge in life's little and, often, greatest pleasures. We fail to realize that many of life's most valuable and enjoyable moments are finite, and we may never have the opportunity to relive them. This is why it's essential to be present and fully engaged in whatever we're doing because it may well be the last time. Later may just be too late.
Twelve years ago
It popped up on my screen. A photo "memory" from twelve years ago. A picture of my then-young toddler on my hips. Both of us appear quite content as we smile at the camera. The picture jogged memories of a happy summer day spent with friends and their kids at the park.
The memory got me thinking…that must have been one of the last times my child was little enough for me to carry her comfortably. In a few months, as she grew, the laws of physics made it impossible for me to pick her up and hoist her on my hips. And just like that, without fanfare, one day, a chapter of our lives was sealed forever.
The part I'm wistful about? If I'd known back then that it would be the last time my toddler would fit on my hips, I probably would have held on to her longer or at least appreciated the moment a little more.
The last time
Life is full of these special yet not-so-significant last moments. The last time you pick up your child, the last school lunch you'll pack, the last rollercoaster ride you'll be on, the last exam you will ever take. Some of these are beautiful moments to cherish, and others (like the exam) are ones we may be glad to see in the rearview mirror. But they have a sense of finality about them. And for the most part, we won't realize their finitude until much later. In fact, later may be too late.
If we knew it'd be the last time we'd see a grandparent or visit our childhood home, we'd be tempted to hug granny some more or savor the memories of the childhood bedroom a bit longer. But it's often hard to predict when something will end. In many cases, we may only find out in hindsight, after the fact.
So, how can we make these last moments special, especially when it may not be apparent that they won't recur? The answer is obvious: treating every moment with the same attention and reverence as we would if it were the last time.
Sounds simple, doesn't it? So, why don't we do just that?
It's because we have developed a warped understanding of how to use our time.
Who has time to smell the roses?
There are two obvious culprits stopping us from giving each moment its due.
- Our culture's overemphasis on hustle, coupled with misplaced notions of what it means to be productive
- Our inability to stay in the present
It is hard to stop to smell the roses when we always have somewhere else to be or something else to do. And when we eventually do find time, the roses may not exist anymore. This is why later may be too late.
In 1992, author Julie Schor published a book titled "The overworked American: The unexpected decline of leisure." The book tried to explain why Americans, in contrast to all other industrialized nations at that time, repeatedly chose to value money over time. Suffice it to say, we haven't gotten any better, even two decades later.
Schor blames the loss of leisure on the "insidious cycle of work-and-spend."
Work to spend
The cycle goes something like this: companies create and market must-have products to consumers with the promise of increased happiness and more leisure. Consumers fall into the trap and line up to acquire said products (that they don't need,) often taking on additional financial debt.
Subsequently, the consumer works longer to repay their debt while also realizing that the happiness (if any) from their purchase was fleeting. Soon, they are off looking for bigger, better products to get them out of their funk. And just like that, an entire population finds itself on the hedonic treadmill, trading their time and leisure for more stuff.
But we don't sacrifice time at the altar of material consumption alone. In the name of productivity, we have developed a cultural obsession to make every second of our life count. The trouble is, most of that busyness is without real purpose, so much so that we often miss the very point of living.
In his wonderful book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, author Oliver Burkeman writes about how we're always working towards our next goal and barely have time to acknowledge and enjoy the one we spent so much time and effort getting to. He uses the example of an architect,
There's something odder about the ambitious and well-paid architect, employed in the profession she always longed to join, who nonetheless finds herself treating every moment of her experience as worthwhile only in terms of bringing her closer to the completion of a project, so that she can move on to the next one, or move up the ranks, or move toward retirement.
Immersed in the hustle culture, we rarely take the time to notice where we are, let alone deeply appreciate everyday experiences and the little things in life.
Of course, this is not a recommendation to indulge in instant gratification and fly by the seat of our pants all the time.
There are definitely times in our life when it's best not to let the comforts of the moment tempt us but to remain steadfast about tackling challenges that come our way.
But wisdom is in knowing when to stay and when to move.
To linger or get moving?
So, when is it okay to linger for a couple of hours with a good book and a cup of coffee, and when should we get a move on?
Knowing when to slow down and revel in the moment and when to delay gratification seems like a difficult question to answer, but some obvious clues can help guide us.
It starts by asking ourselves if we're indulging in instant gratification because the alternative seems too challenging and fearful. Sitting on the porch, appreciating a beautiful sunset, is lovely, but not if you do it for hours every day while letting the dishes pile in the sink and cobwebs collect around the house.
Similarly, having the self-awareness to ask ourselves if the desire to act on impulse is something we may regret later can help guide us on whether to continue our course of action or pivot. Enjoying a few of the soft, chewy cookies you just baked for the PTA bake sale may feel good at the moment but may fill you with regret later. Is the minute on the lips worth a lifetime on the hips?
Through self-awareness and staying present, we can turn into excellent time managers, knowing whether a situation is worth slowing down for or not.
Ultimately, we can look to British playwright Tom Stoppard's words for inspiration in Coast of Utopia, his 2002 trilogy of plays.
In the second play of the series, Shipwreck, the character Alexander Herzen stands on a steamer, having just lost his wife, mother, and son, Kolya. When he hears words of consolation about his son's untimely death, Herzen responds
His life (Kolya's) was what it was. Because children grow up, we think a child's purpose is to grow up. But a child's purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn't disdain what lives only for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment. We don't value the lily less for not being made of flint and built to last. Life's bounty is in its flow, later is too late.
Where is the song when it's been sung? The dance when it's been danced? It's only we humans who want to own the future, too. We persuade ourselves that the universe is modestly employed in unfolding our destination.
The writing is on the wall.
Stay present. Stay in the moment. Because you never know when you'll do something for the last time.