I have a favorite watch. It’s a mechanical dive watch milled from a solid block of stainless steel. The considerable weight is a constant reminder of its presence. Being an automatic watch, it self-winds as I wear it; the very movement of my arm keeps it running. As it runs, the thin, bright arrow of the second hand plunges into the heart of every moment and then passes on to the next…and the next. Measured seconds slip into the past, and my pulse keeps time.
I think of those things on some mornings as I strap the watch to my wrist. It’s not just for telling time; it is a meter for life – a little monument to irrecoverable moments.
Life is fleeting.
We have only so many heartbeats, so many breaths, so many of those strung-together seconds left.
As you grow a little older, and (hopefully) wiser, things like that register on a new level.
So ephemeral are our physical lives that James, in the New Testament, writes “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14).
The Psalmist echoes that theme with: “Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow” (Ps. 144:4).
A vapor, a breath, a shadow…here, then gone.
Because of the brevity of life, we would do well to pray as Moses did, asking God, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).
Making the most of this short life necessitates navigating it with care. In fact, in the ancient Jewish mindset, the definition of wisdom was not just a matter of understanding or knowledge, but the ability to live with skill. As Paul reminds us, we must use that kind of wisdom to make the most of every moment: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16).
It’s not only the brevity of life that gives us pause, but the irreversible nature of it as well.
Consider the “Arrow of Time” theory proposed back in the 1920’s. It states that everything is slipping into disorder in one direction. Broken eggs don’t mend, aging doesn’t reverse and kitchen floors never become cleaner without intervention. Now, I realize that is a gross oversimplification of a theory with many nuanced facets, but you get the idea: we won’t pass this way again.
As much as I might like to step into a time machine with hindsight and crib notes in my back pocket, my feet are firmly in today and moving steadily toward tomorrow.
In Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” the narrator weighs his choice between two paths and considers that he could revisit the other trail at another time, but then reflects,
“Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.”
We face those types of decisions daily in our lives; there is no trail back. No route exists to erase or rewrite history for the past is cut deeply in stone. We make choices that can never be undone. We must make them and move forward, accepting whatever consequences arise from our actions. It’s easy to look back and think of those people we would not allow into our lives had we known their true natures. We can think of moments when we said or did things that turned disastrous. There are times we would relive readily and times we would blot from existence, but each was the result of our choices (or someone else’s) and, good or bad, right or wrong, foolish or wise, we live with consequences. Time keeps moving.
So what do we make of it when we think on the brevity and irreversibility of life?
I never think of this topic without going back to two passages of literature introduced to me in high school. The first, a line of a poem by Robert Herrick…
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying…”
Secondly, I think of a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden…
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…”
Now, reflecting upon how little time we truly have here, it is easy to view all the rosebud-gathering and marrow-sucking as a justification for the pursuit of mindless entertainment and sheer pleasure. Most assuredly, that motivation is immature, shortsighted and dangerous, yet indicative of our age. I once knew someone who said that she only wanted to do what made her happy. She could not see that, in her efforts to make herself happy at any cost, she made everyone else miserable. No, seizing the day is more than temporal happiness.
Truly, we have been given things by God to enjoy (1 Tim. 6:17), but to forget the eternal is foolish. We are all too satisfied with too little. Pursuing the passing things to give meaning to our short lives is like an attempt to stop bleeding by making the wound larger. We are created for greater purposes than we imagine. A life lived without sacrifice is a wasted life.
We certainly are “of few days and full of trouble” (Job 14:1), yet God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ps. 16:4). We know there is more than this. We want to make a difference, experience meaning and live for something bigger than ourselves. Sadly, we often recognize how we have fallen short only at the end of life. The span of life amplifies regrets, and our greatest regrets are often missed opportunities. I read an article by Bronnie Ware recently. She provided care for those who were dying for a number of years. She writes that the most common regret of those about to pass on was, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Other regrets include, “I wish I didn’t work so hard,” and “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
We think we will regret not seeing a sunset from Santorini, running with the bulls in Pamplona or climbing Everest.
We worry that no one will read our works, watch our films or hear our speeches.
We stay awake thinking of how we are viewed by others, how we can get ahead in life and the best way to jockey for and hold the position of power at work, in society and in our relationships.
But when it is all said and done, and we stand on that threshold peering into eternity, we don’t regret the lack of world-changing accomplishments; we lament the loss of the everyday moments of meaning.
So, if we are to live with the end in mind, perhaps we should simplify some things…
Listen, speak and relate to others as though it is your last time with them, because one day, it will be.
Be present in every moment because there are only a certain number of moments given.
Life is short; slow down.
“His days are determined, and the number of his months is with You, and You have appointed his limits that he cannot pass…” (Job 14:5).
“‘What is the greatest surprise you have found about life?’” a university student asked me several years ago. ‘The brevity of it,’ I replied without hesitation.’” – Billy Graham
“Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Ps. 139:16).
“Infinitely swift is the flight of time, as those see more clearly who are looking backwards. For when we are intent on the present, we do not notice it, so gentle is the passage of time’s headlong flight.” – Seneca