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Neglected Time

29 March 2017

Julius Caesar was stabbed twenty-three times before he met his death. A later autopsy showed only one of the wounds had been fatal.

Many of you may be able to relate to old Brutus and his pals. It’s this kind of irrational overcompensation that leads to a feeling of wasted study time after sitting a short exam. Wasted time that lolls in the swamp of our memories, soon to glue together with all the mud and the gunk. But how wasted is this wasted time really?

John Lennon claimed time is only wasted if it was not enjoyed. It is said Lennon also claimed “if it’s not okay, it’s not the end”, which I’m sure would have brought him great comfort as he was dying all alone by a gutter in a pool of his own blood. Unlike the daggers of Caesar’s assassins, all four of Chapman’s bullets caused fatal wounds. Still, both Caesar and John had time to reflect on any wasted time as the life slowly slipped from the grasp of their bodies.

What is truly wasted time and what are the moments we will regret upon death? Would the answer be the same now as it was two thousand years ago on the Ides of March?

It is easy to fall into the trap of believing we are exactly as the Romans were. We are not. Yet like the fruitless gesticulations of Caesar’s assassins, there are hazy similarities. For example, archaeologists have discovered a school in Ancient Rome where a penis had been engraved into one of the desks.

It is difficult to ascertain whether this phallic craft grew from the hand of an actual student, and in response to academic ennui. While it is tempting to believe Roman students reacted to dry lectures this way, there’s not enough evidence to support this assumption. But it does suggest that at least one person from Ancient Rome spent their time in this way for whatever reason. So, did a Roman ‘waste’ their time drawing genitalia?

I’m not sure. A clichéd iota of wisdom tells us to live in the moment. Goethe, referencing the Stoic and Epicurean philosophies of Ancient Greece, instructs that “Not backwards, (nor) forwards is the spirit’s sight, this moment now, alone, – is our delight.” He argues that many people cannot be content with the present in the modern world, unlike the representatives of Ancient Greece who learnt to ‘lol’ in the moment. The Epicureans believed a finite moment of happiness caused infinite pleasure and advised we could find it if we lived as though death would greet us within a day’s length.

But how can we be so sure the Ancient Greeks were really happier than we are now? For all the pottery, literature and art the Greeks gave us, ideas of despair and grief appear frequently. Perhaps we don’t have to live in the moment all the time to avoid wasting it. If we were to truly ‘live in the moment’, spending our entire lives prepared to meet death, perhaps we would lose something along the way. Because if we only lived in the moment we wouldn’t invest in anything. Studying, helping a friend, learning a skill, involves building towards a sense of greater satisfaction and wisdom. An awareness of our mortality could encourage many to seek only instant pleasure and refuse activities that detract from ‘the moment’. It is for this reason that Epicureanism is often misunderstood as a hedonistic philosophy. It’s not. But sometimes attaining true satisfaction and happiness comes through endurance and after long stints of discomfort in regards to relationships, assignments and skills.

Many from antiquity certainly knew this. Their ability to build sturdy monuments and powerful literature, sometimes over the course of decades, shows their appreciation of delayed gratification. Their attention to detail in this architecture and literature also suggests they may have appreciated the small details of life too. Small, subtle bursts of joy that sometimes go unnoticed, but which can get us through the day without necessarily contributing to any overall happiness.

Perhaps Lennon was wrong. While observing his last glimpse of light, the reflection of the moon in his spreading pool of blood, would Lennon have regretted the hours spent stressing over a particular lyric from a Beatles song? And would Caesar, after Brutus’ betrayal, have regretted the stress he inflicted upon his own mind during the invasion to Britain? That’s not to suggest we should focus narrowly on achieving goals. Perhaps satisfaction comes from the process of achievement too.

After such a betrayal, Caesar may have regretted the hours he invested into his friendship with Brutus. Ending a friendship is never easy, but an ending does not reverse what preceded the end. The process of developing a relationship may allow seemingly futile acts to dwell in a well spent memory. Betrayal can cause pain in the moment, but sometimes it’s important to reflect on the past and not to forget the moments upon which friendships were built. Even if this memory is just drinking or aimless walking.

Different people in different times have placed value on different parts of their life. It is ultimately up to the individual what consists their wasted time. But living entirely in the moment can restrict the satisfaction we attain from life. Sometimes we can render ourselves so caught up trying to live in the moment that we become unaware of the world around us. We can miss something greater. As Oscar Wilde said, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all”. This may be our blazing regret while lying in the boggy mire of memories as we see our death approaching.