Any advice I’ve ever been given that’s actually resonated has boiled down to a variation on the same basic theme: Life is short. Stop wasting it.

It comes packaged in varying poetic guises, each profound or corny, depending on how receptive or cynical one is feeling. “Don’t borrow trouble” is my favorite, a solid distillation of “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” from the Gospels. The poet Andrew Marvell addressed himself to his mistress with the persuasive “The grave’s a fine and private place, / But none, I think, do there embrace.” A million memes have bloomed from the Mary Oliver line “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?” The message is consistent and irrefutable: Memento mori. Remember you’re going to die. Or, if you prefer, YOLO.

I find all of these exhortations urgent and moving and also difficult to absorb. So I’m always grateful to hear the message again, to be reminded to be intentional about how I’m spending or wasting time. I had just such a reminder recently listening to a conversation between The Times’s David Marchese and the actress Anne Hathaway. David asks her about turning 40 and entering middle age. She said she was hesitant to mark this time in her life as the middle because she could get hit by a car later today. “We don’t know if this is middle age,” she says. “We don’t know anything.”

I myself am approaching a milestone birthday, one I’m trying not to think of as some kind of deadline or reckoning, and I welcomed Hathaway’s perspective on how we consider time. It’s easy to default into picturing one’s life as a timeline, to chart our progress along that line, certain we know where the beginning, middle and end are. Hathaway recalled a moment of awakening when, lost in stress, she realized: “You are taking your life for granted. You have no idea. Something could fall through the sky and that would be lights out for you.” Here you are, burning daylight and borrowing trouble and going gentle into that good night. Memento mori. Something could, at any moment, fall through the sky. If we really and truly understood that, how would today be different?

There are good books that dig into this: Ernest Becker’s “Denial of Death,” Oliver Burkeman’s “Four Thousand Weeks,” Stephen Levine’s “A Year to Live.” I’ve read them each more than once, periodic efforts to keep the fire under myself ablaze. Sometimes it burns so brightly I find myself hurrying through my life, another way of wasting time. On a recent revisiting of Levine’s book I found myself resentful of the time it was taking to read it: What if I was spending too much time considering how I’m spending my time? At that point, I probably was.

As David says in the interview, we know we can’t take for granted how much time we have left, but “internalizing that so that we can treat each day and moment of our lives like it could be the last, which would be the most powerful change we could make in our lives, is also maybe the hardest thing to actually do.” It’s one thing to intellectually understand the finitude of our lives and another to actually live it out. Whatever it takes to truly get it is worthwhile, whether it’s reading and rereading the same books, or talking it out with friends; whether it’s a meditation practice or a sticky note on your monitor or just paying close and compassionate attention to how you’re spending your time.


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