MICHAEL SHORT August 25, 2012
Agonising regrets are caused not by what we have done, but by what we have not. Photo: Tamara Voninski
LIFE can get bloody cluttered. There are, of course, many chores and time-consuming, tedious tasks we have to do merely to keep things in some semblance of order; a necessary and self-preserving bid to stave off entropy. These are the things Patrick White's eponymous hero in Voss, Johann Ullrich Voss, evocatively lamented as ''the trivialities of daily existence''.
Perhaps they are not trivial - it is, after all, important, for most people at least, to live with some structure and stability - but they can eat up a lot of hours and do not directly lead to much stimulation or fulfilment.
So, it is hugely important to use any discretionary time thoughtfully, which can be difficult in a society soaked with cultural and commercial pressures to seek meaning through financial wealth and the perpetual accumulation of more and more stuff. We are bombarded by exhortations to, in effect, trade precious time for glittering, expensive items that ultimately add little true and lasting joy.
Think of all the time and money spent on buying things we do not actually need or even truly desire - although retail therapy is clearly providing relief in many a stressed existence.
There is a form of collective cognitive dissonance going on; we know the only certainty is death, and yet multitudes keep putting things off, often indefinitely, while pursuing extra money despite the abundant psychological evidence that beyond a relatively low level, having more money and possessions does not bring happiness. Many people, though, are embracing the implications of this by opting to live more simply.
For decades, I have been regularly doing an experiment on myself and others in an attempt to calibrate life, to gauge whether time, our most valuable, mysterious and utterly limited resource, is being dedicated to the things we think bring us the most contentment or meaning or wellbeing.
It might be the case that many people do this intuitively or unconsciously, but I find that time can disappear so terrifyingly easily unless there is a least a little conscious effort to keep it in line with priorities. This does not mean one ought to be earnest or anxious, for they are surely two of life's most appalling scourges.
The experiment is simple and quick, but not simplistic. It is to ask what are the 10 things you most like doing. Responding does not require much reflection, and the list need not be ranked.
It is best to answer spontaneously, for these are things we know intimately.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, the list is dominated by simple, accessible and inexpensive pastimes: sharing a meal with family or friends, reading, walking on the beach or in another favourite setting, conversation, exercising, playing or watching sport, seeing a film, cooking, learning a skill, gardening, sex, photography, sleeping, exploring places or ideas, volunteering, online games, writing, painting, drawing, meeting up for a drink, collecting, surfing the web, surfing waves, having a bath, listening to music, seeing a band, sitting in front of the fire, riding a bike.
You get the picture - because you know the picture. That is the point; we know this, but so often, it seems, it becomes obscured - by Voss's trivialities or by inertia or by illness or by other circumstances beyond our control.
This is where the second part of the exercise kicks in; ask yourself when was the last time you did the things on your list. Should it transpire that it has been too long, there are three common explanations.
The first is that you have been needlessly neglecting the things you most enjoy, and that is something readily righted - it's the Nike solution: just do it. The second is that you have chosen to make an investment; you are, for example, spending your discretionary time working extra hours to cover school fees or pay for extending the home to accommodate a growing family. There can be many excellent reasons for sacrificing the things you enjoy.
The third explanation is the category of circumstance where you have little choice but to sacrifice your pleasures, for example to care for someone in need. Some duties trump the duty to seek your own immediate happiness or visceral satisfaction.
But if things are out of whack for the first reason, surely we ought to fix the situation. It should not be that hard to repel the insidious social pressures to waste time and effort pursuing things that don't make your list. We owe it to ourselves, and our loved ones, to at least have a go.
It's all about waste, and the unavoidable truth of a notion widely understood but often subordinated or neglected; the most agonising regrets are not caused by what we have done, but what we have not done. Our time is deceptively brief.
Michael Short is editor of The Zone.