Lately, I’ve been having panic attacks because of math. Only a single equation, really. Simple subtraction. The math in question is the number of years I’ve been alive subtracted from the number of years I might reasonably be expected to remain alive. Never having been all that good at math, it’s more than a little distressing to find my mind wandering along such a logical and shamefully direct interior path when falling into my morbid ruminations. It would be far more tasteful to mentally meander, flitting like a bird from branch to branch considering eternal fate like so many fruits to be plucked from the leaves. While the sun is in the sky warming my skin, this is possible – thoughts are fleeting and pleasant, doubling back, circling around, and generally making a pleasant mess of things before I shrug my shoulders and move on. At night, though, my frigid mind sweats and I find myself trapped in a logic tunnel. The lights dim offstage until only one, looming, practical concept consumes me. It’s a simple matter of math.
The attacks always come at night. Never during the day when I can marshal enough resources to contemplate my own demise with equanimity. Once the sun flickers out and my head is on the pillow, there is no defense. I stare at the darkened wall. I mutter to myself. I try to drown out the math with a podcast on Roman history and lull myself to sleep the way I used to fall asleep during lectures at college. No matter what I do, though, that ever decreasing number is superimposed against the inside of my eyelids, showing itself to me through closed lid like a ticking bomb.
What is it about life that is so delicate, that instead of happily living it, I insist on fretting it away? Like a butterfly grasped in clumsy fingers, the colors of the wing bleed out and cripple me. It’s greed, right? The desire to hold onto that which cannot be held. The insistence on logically defining that which must only be accepted as a gift. We clutch with all our might, injure ourselves in the process, and limp away helplessly in the breeze on broken wing.
It isn’t so much that life is too short. I can honestly say that the question of duration doesn’t bother me very much. I’m far more bothered by what has been left behind and the unknown of what lies ahead. In any case, externalizing the problem to such a shallow, quantifiable complaint like length of years would be a sign of weakness, an exercise in blame-shifting, to curse the heavens for my 80-odd years and pretend I’m somehow the unique victim of divine stinginess.
In fact, the angst is entirely of my own making. I waste the time that I do have. I throw it away in heaps and piles like some spendthrift dandy with zero sense of personal responsibility. Let me count the ways – staring at screens, replaying melodramatic scenes in my mind and ascribing negative outcomes to those who have wronged me, apathy, alcohol, gossip. I am a wasteful person all day but at night transform into a tight-fisted, miserly knave who clutches his pearls so tightly they turn to powder in my fists.
Now, look. I’m not part of some sort of productivity cult that believes the only real value in the world is in creating tangible outcomes that are measured in wealth or reputation. I am not driven. I have very few ambitions. We all waste time. That’s okay. In my mind, the problem isn’t that I’m not productive enough. Quite the opposite, the problem is that, when I waste time, I’m not wasting it well enough. I’m wasting it all wrong.
I have grand dreams of perfecting the art of wasting time. I would like to improve a bit every day. I want to get it right. Here is how I am disciplining myself to waste time – staring at the sky to see if the clouds move or a bird maybe will fly past, watching my children swim, helping my son start fires with his new flint, reading science fiction novels that have ridiculously fantastical plots, writing mediocre poetry while sitting by the lake, hugging my wife randomly, praying the Mass and the Daily Office every single day, and sitting in darkened churches watching the sanctuary lamp burn. This is my plan for becoming immortal, no matter what the wretched math says.
In his essay On the Shortness of Life, Seneca says, “Learning how to live takes a whole life.” He has no patience for us who complain that the span isn’t enough, saying, “It isn’t that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” Friends, he’s got our number. His idea is that we should immerse ourselves in study and philosophy, spend time with the literary masters of prior generations and learn from them. In so doing, we can expand our lifetimes significantly and make live-giving friendships with all sorts of diverse people who have lived in different cultures and eras.
I’m not sure I’m entirely on board with his self-improvement project as the key to immortality, but the man has a point. Reading deeply in the classics, both in literature and philosophy, is one way to broaden a life. We should do more of this. Seneca is still in the arena fighting, though, still working the math, and eventually the lion is going to tear him to pieces. He seeks knowledge, which is a kind of map that guides us to a more deeply held existential territory. Knowledge, though, is still an abstract idea about living. I read less for knowledge than for the friendship the author is offering. I’m seeking life itself, to fall hopelessly in love with each moment of time as it streams through my fingers.
The only way I can figure to live my life is to waste it – to prodigally, gratuitously, recklessly waste it. After all, isn’t this a description of love? Doesn’t the Sower toss his seed without care into the field? Doesn’t a musician send a finely crafted love note into the world where it instantly dissipates into the atmosphere and disappears forever? Doesn’t a mother release her child from her bosom and into the world as a free creature who may never return to the nest? I love this life, so I damn the math and make it a gift to be given away.
A child once asked Kurt Vonnegut how to be a better writer. His advice was to spend a day writing a poem and then tear it up without showing anyone. The poem is written for sheer love of the creative act. Sure, it would be great to share it with others, for them to appreciate it and form a friendship with you through your art. It would be a wonderful feeling to know that you have somehow helped someone along in their journey, but that may never happen. The art is beautiful nonetheless, and the universe is a better place for it having flickered into existence for a brief moment.
Beauty is the most gratuitous of all virtues. This is why it’s the most necessary of all virtues. If, like William Blake, I stare at an apple tree and see God, no one else saw him and no one will ever believe me when I say I did, that doesn’t mean it never happened. It doesn’t mean that the world didn’t shift on its axis. It doesn’t mean that a fruit didn’t fall to the ground and burrow into the earth like a little seed of eternity.
I still have nightly battles with despair. I’ve come to accept them. This, after all, is the curse of humanity, to have our lives reduced to toil and productivity, to count and tally up our days, and so to waste them in the wrong ways. This doesn’t deter me, though, knowing that, as WS Merwin would say, each year I pass the future anniversary of my death. All I’m concerned with is how to celebrate the special day with more joy.
Life is a strange garment, a constant surprise full of wastefully beautiful moments. A bumblebee wrapped in pollen. A child’s cheek smashed against mine. A novel that makes me pause to look out the window. A poem that rattles in my bones. It’s not my business to assign value to myself or my creations as a writer or a painter. My job is to write. My job is to paint. My job is to tie my bow-tie just right, and help my toddler smell a flower, and sing a Regina Coeli where no one can hear it. My task is to live.
Make art. Make beauty. Toss it away. Trace your name in water. Cast beauty in your wake, a seed that may be forgotten and buried forever or, perhaps, to be retrieved at some future date by hot, warm nervous hands. Either way, it makes no difference. It’s all love.