The pace of the elder

Sendai Aoba festival, 仙台青葉まつり, (Photo by David Rodríguez)

Sendai, Japan. (10 min. read)

Be prepared. Grab some tea. Take a deep breath, and go for it. I should have thought that before sinking myself on the couch. You are about to read one of the most challenging posts – if not the most – I’ve ever attempted to write.

I work surrounded by numbers. Equations, hypotheses, and predictions comprise the basis of my day-to-day life. There is some math in this post as well. Don’t be scared; it is not complex math – it’s just painful math.

The following lines contain the toughest, most distressing numbers I have ever had to run. This post is, without any doubt, the one that has taken me the longest to write. Not because of its complexity or the amount of research required, but because of the reflection and affliction that went into each and every new estimation. In the lines below I find out how much time I have left in this world. But what is even more important, I estimate how much time I have left to spend with some of the most important people in my life. It is striking; it is revealing, and at this present moment in my life it was awfully necessary. So grab some tea, take a deep breath, and dive with me into what is left of the rest of our days.

Oh and mom, you can stop reading here.

The vanishing asset

If there is a statement that almost everyone would agree on is that time is the most valuable currency. Time doesn’t cost us anything and its value tends to increase exponentially over time. I would partly agree by adding that in reality time is also the most volatile currency. When talking about money almost everyone has a well-defined list of spending priorities. Shelter, food, health, clothes, books, tech, the list goes on and on. Our wealth grows, ideally, as a result of our efforts and we know, or should know, exactly how much money we should be spending on each one of these categories. But unlike money, time is given to us at no cost. There are only two conditions: time is limited and you’ll never know how much you’ve been given. Hence, we take it for granted. Even though most agree that time is invaluable, sometimes – more often than most of us would like to admit – we spend it in ways that make it seem otherwise.

While reflecting on the topic of time I found myself re-reading The Tail End by Tim Urban. A highly recommended read to anyone who wants to get a more visual interpretation of a lifetime. In his post, Tim states

“When you look at that reality, you realize that despite not being at the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time with some of the most important people in your life.”

Thanks Tim for a few nights of insomnia. Following this statement, he moves on to estimate the amount of time he may have left to spend with some of the most important people in his life. As shocking as these numbers are, I couldn’t help but make a similar estimate based on my own life, laying out how I’m speeding and, more important, how I’m wasting my time on things that lie at the very end of my list of priorities.

The painful math

I am 27. Just as a reference, today’s life expectancy in Spain – luckily one of the countries with the highest life expectancy in the world – is of 79 years for men and 85 years for women. Life expectancy increases between 3.5 and 4 months every year, which means that I will live almost 9 years longer than my dad.

My own life expectancy is 88 years – around 32,142 days (based on Julian years).

Remember that this is not about how much time I’ll be around but about how I am using this time.

Let’s assume, similarly to what Tim does in his post, that between my birth and the age of 24 I spent at least 90% of my days with my parents. After graduating from college and moving abroad I’m spending on average around 20 days back home, among which 75% of the time is spent with my parents. That’s 15 days per year. A total of 60 days as of today, which summed up to the total days spent with my parents yields 7,950 days.

If we assume this will be my modus operandi for the rest of my life and that I am lucky enough that both of my parents live their lives to their fullness,

I have 450 days left to spend with my Mom,
and 345 days left with my Dad

Here is where you can use the deep breath. As of today, I would have already spent 95% of the total time I have left with my parents. These numbers drop even lower in the case of relatives and close friends I don’t get to see that often. While staring at these numbers, it is almost impossible not to wonder how my life would change and how I would make things differently if told that a year – a year! – is all that is left for me to be with some of the people I love the most. What kind of new behaviors and habits would I adopt? How my relationship would change with the people I care about? What aspects of my life would I completely sideline to make room for new, more wealthy time? Would I still be living 10,500 km away from my parents? A realization that is damn hard to swallow. My pragmatic brain forces me to find out how I am spending my time and what are the things that I’m unconsciously prioritizing over the really important ones.

It is about quality not about quantity

We spend a big part of our lives working. This isn’t new, we all know that. But let’s see how big in reality this part is.  Assuming that I would retire at the age of 67 and excluding weekends, 20-day vacations and about 10 days of public holidays per year, that’s about 9944 working days over the course of a lifetime (just as a side note, 36.7% of the year is made up of non-working days). This means that a little over 30% of my life is devoted to work. It is funny how we let this part of our life set the course for the other two-thirds.

Let’s say, like it’s my case, that you spend around 1.5 hours commuting every day. Well, that’s 14.45 days a year that you spend just traveling to and from work. Almost the same amount of time I spend with my parents every year.  This is just but one example of how we unconsciously use our time without taking into account the things we value the most.


How much time am I taking away from the aspects of life that really matter to me? How much time am I wasting being worried, upset, frustrated, or simply complaining about things I can’t control? What are other things I’m spending a great deal of my days on that if summed up would make the really valuable ones appear to be at the bottom of my list of priorities?

Living abroad one of the hardest things I have to deal with is guilt. I find especially difficult to face missing birthdays, my sister’s successes, friends’ weddings, and overall not being part anymore of the lives of those I care about. Even more so, what I find really painful is knowing that I’ll not be there during the not-so-bright times. And the worst part of it all is to know that this feeling is nothing else but the result of my own decisions. I love my life, don’t get me wrong. This may be the only part of it I haven’t yet completely learned how to deal with – well, to be honest, there are plenty others I haven’t figured out yet. But over time, I have somehow internalized this part of my life as the price to pay to chart my life in the course that I want.

At the same time I know that there is so much more I could do to reduce the amount of pain this generates me. And there is definitely so much more I could be doing with that 66% of free time, most of which I’m certainly wasting on plenty of unimportant, irrelevant, and nonessential things, rituals, and habits. Instead, I could make an effort to be more present around the people I love. I could devote this time to develop habits and behaviors that really help me feel better and improve as a human being. I could pre-arrange short trips with my family every year, which not only means I would get to spend more time with them but also satiate my need for being surrounded by unfamiliar territories. I could once and for all learn how to draw and paint and sculpt, which I’ve always wanted to and for some reason I’ve never done. I could spend less time worrying about how my thesis goes and instead use that same time and effort to solve other people’s problems and to reduce other people’s suffering. Because in the end, time is all about quality not about quantity.

Stoics wrote a lot about how we waste our time until it’s too late. In the wonderful essay On the Shortness of Life, Seneca wrote

“It’s not at all that we have too short a time to live, but that we squander a great deal of it. Life is long enough, and it’s given in sufficient measure to do many great things if we spend it well. But when it’s poured down the drain of luxury and neglect, when it’s employed to no good end, we’re finally driven to see that it has passed by before we even recognized it passing. And so it is – we don’t receive a short life, we make it so.”

The pace of the elder

I came up with this apparently unrelated title after witnessing the actions and routines of an old man. We both commute by bike at around the same time every morning. Most days I overtake him without even noticing but this time I decided to stay behind. I remember seeing him enjoying every bit of the cool morning breeze, of the early sun rays hitting his time-worn face, looking up at the hunting glide of hawks and down trying to pick up the peaceful sound of the river. Most people, as I do almost every day, pass by him rushing to get underway with their daily routines. In our world there is no calm, no breeze, no birds or peaceful water. Time is precious and this old man in his old bike treated it like a treasure; a concept that seems to take a lifetime to fully understand.

The pace of the elder is the realization that all that matters in life is the decisions we make on how to treat the present. Making the most of every minute doesn’t mean making most things at once but making just those that really matter. It means squeezing every last minute of those 15 days I spend back home every year. It means saying “I love you”, “I’m sorry”, and “I’m here” more than we say “I want”,  “I wish”, and “I will”. It means saying no to the things that don’t bring you any value. It means being caring instead of selfish, grateful instead of demanding, and humble instead of pretentious. Time is our most valuable asset, and most often than not we should be reminding ourselves of the importance of stopping the clock to assess how we’re investing our time and who are the people we should be spending better time with. There is no better time than the present to adopt the mindset of that old man who decides to arrive late in a world that races to treat time as we treat money, showing up first, fast, and cheap.

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