What Does it Mean to Waste a Life?
I recently went on a solo, 12 mile hike in Muir Woods State Park, just outside San Francisco. As I took in the vibrant forest, ocean views and breathed in wet, clean air, I felt more like myself than I have in months. It was an achingly sweet sensation, and I discovered a new depth of appreciation for my life and for my body.
I've written about the relationship between walking and writing; how the rhythmic movement of our bodies inspires creativity and unlocks any artificial constraints we have unwittingly enforced. As I hiked, I considered the hostel where I was staying, how it sat between a triangle of strip clubs, how there were people still out drinking when I left that morning for my hike. How I considered their all-night escapades a waste of time, and how they may have thought the same of me, waking up with the sun to walk 12 miles for no real reason other than to walk 12 miles.
As I hiked, I considered the unanswerable question of what it means to waste a life; if wasted life is wasted time, if wasted time can be constructive, and who gets define either. The people who were out drinking until 6 a.m. might have needed to cut lose, forget about life, or catch up with friends. I, on the other hand, needed a one-on-one date with a forest where the only human interaction I'd take part in for the bulk of 5 hours was snapping a picture of gay couple, happily in love, their arms intertwined as they stood on a boulder with the pacific ocean stretching languidly in the background.
The thing about drinking, drug use, gambling, sex, and even extreme endurance sports or working, is that they can all be addicting, and addiction is often underscore by underlying, unresolved trauma. It matters less that the addiction exists and more that the root of it has never been fully uncovered. Resolving trauma is deep, painful, time-consuming work. It is infinitely easier to drink or gamble or run away from trauma than to face it. Perhaps then, a life spent spinning the proverbial wheels of unresolved trauma is truly a life wasted.
If you Google, "What does it mean to waste a life?" you will find myriad, conflicting answers. A few answers I found from a brief Google search include: "settling," working too much/not working enough, pursuing material happiness, watching too much TV, living for someone else, living in the past, living in the future, spending too much money, being too frugal, being overly concerned with appearances, not caring about appearances, letting others dictate how you live, not learning from your own (or others') mistakes, spending too much time on your phone, spending money on things that don't matter, staying in your comfort zone, not sleeping enough, not taking care of your body, not taking care of your brain, spending time with people you don't enjoy spending time with, working a job you don't enjoy, complaining too much, not asking for help when you need it, being too guarded, being too trusting, worrying, caring about what other people think, procrastinating, "playing games," holding grudges, eating out of boredom, being indecisive, gossiping, the list goes on and on and on.
Humans are experts at justifying our lives and existence. How we choose to spend our time may not feel wasteful, and even if it does, we can convince ourselves otherwise. Annie Dillard, in her soul-searching meditation on the life of presence, wrote “How we spend our day is how we spend our lives.” She argues that the modern inclination to be busy is a conscious decision, often made to inflate our sense of self-importance. Important, powerful people are often busy, but busy people are not necessarily important or powerful. To be fully present and in the moment is infinitely more rewarding than neurotic, ceaseless productivity. We often mistake the doing for the being.
The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote a spectacular treatise On the Shortness of Life, cutting to the heart of how humans easily forget the deep, intuitive nature of our own happiness. Seneca writes, "So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it."
The ancient adage, "time is money," is thrown around ceaselessly, probably because it's true. Time is our most precious and valuable resource, which is one reason lateness is so terrifyingly disrespectful. Seneca acknowledges this too, "People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy." Case in point, wasting time is wasting life. There is no way around it. He continues, "You must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long."
Seneca touches on something else that humans (including myself) overwhelming value, and that is ambition. Achievement and ambition can be double edged swords, because as soon as we achieve one goal, we sprint on to the next, and the next, until one day we look up and life has passed without us truly appreciating it. He writes, "Hope excites more hope, and ambition more ambition. They do not look for an end to their misery but simply change the reason for it." Dissatisfying work leads to misery. Engaging in years upon years of dissatisfying work, not for survival but to maintain face or gain vapid, unfulfilling status, or just because we believe we should, is wasteful too.
To live simply and in the moment requires profound maturity and clarity. To appreciate our own hearts and minds, just as they are, along with the hearts and minds of those we love, may be the most worthwhile ambition possible. The only takeaway here may be that living your life in an inauthentic manner may be the greatest waste on this great, wide, beautiful earth.