We all fear wasting time. Life only gives us a limited number of days so we want to spend our life bucks well. To ensure that we are living a full life, we reason that we should cram as much as possible, be as productive as possible, be as happy as possible, in each moment of time. This is what we are taught, and this is what gets reinforced by family, education, career, and society.
Unfortunately, such fear motivated desires rarely lead to fulfillment. These desires are extreme, outcome based, uncompromising, intolerant, and not in-step with reality. As soon as we succeed, fear compels us to race toward the next goal, the next one after, and on and on it goes. Nothing is ever good enough and only constant perfection will do. Since our world is imperfect and ever changing, we will forever be racing about, always one step in front of fear, trying to achieve the impossible.
What Is Wasting Time?
The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.
What is wasting time? To answer this question we need to set up some kind of value system for our time. In essence, this would be a value system for our life and for ourselves. If we spend our time achieving our meaning of life goals, then we are not wasting time, and we are worthy.
Our current society’s value system is based on money (material possessions), power (influence over others), and fame (admiration from others). Of course history and experience has shown us that the rich, powerful, and famous, do not live more meaningful, happy, or peaceful lives than anybody else. In fact, research shows that those who prioritize such extrinsic goals are least likely to be happy.
Thoreau, Bertrand Russell, and others may perhaps argue that enjoyment is the true currency of life. Enjoying beauty (nature, literature, song) and enjoying the process of creation are often cited as two of the key reasons for living. Therefore, to not waste time we should try to experience as much beauty as we can and create as much as we can. However, when life turns and presents us with pain and suffering, do we lose our reasons for living? When we no longer enjoy or cannot enjoy anything, for example when deep in grief or chronic depression, how do we cope? As Frankl discussed in Man’s Search for Meaning, enjoyment alone is insufficient as a meaning of life.
So then what qualifies as a worthy enough purpose for our time and for our life?
Fear of Wasting Time
Our fear of wasting time comes from our love of life. Because we love life, we naturally fear death and fear not utilizing our limited time to the fullest. Feelings of fear are normal and will arise whenever we love. If we love, we will fear the loss of that which we love.
Many of us see fear as a terrible enemy that must be eradicated from our lives. However, fear only becomes a problem when we do not tend to it and try to suppress or reject it instead. By trying to eradicate fear, we feed it and make it stronger.
When we analyze our fear of wasting time, we will realize that it more accurately comes from a fear of unhappiness or feeling bad. We only have a limited amount of time so we do not want to waste it feeling bad, unhappy, or discontented. We may reason that money, fame, and power will make us happy and so consider the pursuit of these happiness substitutes to be *not* wasting time. Similarly we may reason that enjoyment brings us happiness and pursue that instead.
The problem with these direct pursuits is that they originate from fear. Fear motivated pursuits often become hyper-desires, which are unhealthy, unrealistic, outcome based, and extreme. Fear narrows our perspective so that avoiding a negative outcome takes on an outsized importance. This results in a hyper-desire to achieve a positive outcome no matter what. In this case, we are so afraid of wasting time or feeling bad that we develop a hyper-desire to feel good all of the time. Any time we feel a little bit bad, fear comes and we frantically go searching for something else, something special, that will make us feel good again. When we cannot match the happiness of previous experiences, we become discontented and then fearful. When we see someone else being more happy, we become discontented and then fearful. Anything short of perfect happiness becomes a waste of time.
Ultimately, fear causes us to withdraw from life because nothing in life is good enough. We start to ask ourselves, “is this all there is to life?”
Is This All There Is to Life?
Life is not perfect. Whenever we use perfection as our yardstick for success, we will surely fail. That failure will cause us more pain and suffering, which will lead to more self-doubt and self-pity, resulting in more suffering and so on. In this way, we may fall into chronic anxiety and depression.
The key to happiness is to recognize that engagement in life or a love of life is its own reward. We do not need to search for reasons to love life because engagement with life will bring its own special joy and happiness. In contrast, indulging in fear and withdrawing from life will bring unnecessary pain and suffering.
One of my most problematic core beliefs is that I am in control of my own life. I had a very unstable childhood with divorced and messed-up parents. When I was growing up, I found this belief of control to be extremely empowering and soothing. I told myself that as soon as I am able, I will leave home, make my own decisions, and take control of my own life. This worked for a while.
Unfortunately, this is not how life works. In reality, there are many things in life that I do not control. Most of the time, I am *NOT* in control of my thoughts, emotions, body sensations, external situation, the people around me, and life in general. I will get ill, I will get old, and I will die. This fact of very limited control smacked me in the face when I lost my furry soul-mate Shania.
Life is ever changing and full of dualities. There is love, but from love comes fear of loss. There is happiness and sadness, pleasure and pain, success and failure, fame and disrepute, victory and defeat, gain and loss. In life, we will experience all of these states and often a mix of them. We cannot only choose to experience one side of the duality and not the other. When we face pain, loss, failure, and defeat, our instinct will be to recoil or withdraw from life. It is in these moments of suffering that we must embrace ourselves the most and remind ourselves to stay engaged with life.
With the great power of mindfulness, we can become fully present to the unbearable beauty and the inevitable tragedy that makes up human life. We can honorably and fully experience this one and only life that we have been given, with all its ups and downs. In my own life, I try to remember the words many of us have heard from the Ojibway Indians: “Sometimes I go about pitying myself when all the while I’m being carried by great winds across the sky.”
Engaging with Life
When going through the dark night of my soul, I established a very simple rule – to always face my fear. I believe that a love of life and therefore engagement in life is a natural state of being, and fear (aversion) is the main emotion that causes me to withdraw from life. Therefore, by facing fear I can overcome most unhealthy tendencies toward withdrawal.
Our worries about wasting time is an excuse that fear uses to get us to avoid our difficult feelings. We avoid burdensome internal growth by focusing on external goals such as money, fame, and power. We try to change the external world rather than trying to change ourselves. By avoiding personal change and growth, we may get some short-term comfort, but we will ultimately endure a lot more unnecessary suffering.
Wanting to reform the world without discovering one’s true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes.
To face my fear of wasting time, I use mindfulness techniques to calm my mind, feel the emotions, and analyze them. The more I face the unhappy feelings, the more tolerance I build. The more I understand the source of these emotions, the better I can update any incorrect beliefs that lead to them.
Every time fear arises, it is a reminder to embrace her and to continue to stay engaged with life. Every time I face my fear, I am choosing engagement over withdrawal. When I am engaged in life (loving life), I am not wasting time. In this way, fear is a great ally for getting me not to waste time.
He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.
~~[Ralph Waldo Emerson]