How To Lengthen Your Life – Free Ebook

The normal way we set about trying to extend
our lives is by striving to add more years

to them – usually by eating more couscous
and broccoli, going to bed early and running

in the rain. But this approach may turn out
to be quixotic, not only because Death can’t

reliably be warded off with kale, but at a
deeper level, because the best way to lengthen

a life is not by attempting to stick more
years on to its tail. One of the most basic

facts about time is that, even though we insist
on measuring it as if it were an objective

unit, it doesn’t, in all conditions, feel
as if it were moving at the same pace. Five

minutes can feel like an hour; ten hours can
feel like five minutes. A decade may pass

like two years; two years may acquire the
weight of half a century. And so on. In other

words, our subjective experience of time bears
precious little relation to the way we like

to measure it on a clock. Time moves more
or less slowly according to the vagaries of

the human mind: it may fly or it may drag.
It may evaporate into airy nothing or achieve

enduring density. If the goal is to have a
longer life, whatever the dieticians may urge,

it seems like the priority should not be to
add raw increments of time but to ensure that

whatever years remain feel appropriately substantial.
The aim should be to densify time rather than

to try to extract one or two more years from
the fickle grip of Death. Why then does time

have such different speeds, moving at certain
points bewilderingly fast, at others with

intricate moderation? The clue is to be found
childhood. The first ten years almost invariably

feel longer than any other decade we have
on earth. The teens are a little faster but

still crawl. Yet by our 40s, time will have
started to trot; and by our 60s, it will be

unfolding at a bewildering gallop. The difference in pace

is not mysterious: it has to do with novelty.
The more our days are filled with new, unpredictable

and challenging experiences, the longer they
will feel. And, conversely, the more one day

is exactly like another, the faster it will
pass by in an evanescent blur. Childhood ends

up feeling so long because it is the cauldron
of novelty; because its most ordinary days

are packed with extraordinary discoveries
and sensations: these can be as apparently

minor yet as significant as the first time
we explore the zip on a cardigan or hold our

nose under water, the first time we look at
the sun through the cotton of a beach towel

or dig our fingers into the putty holding
a window in its frame. Dense as it is with

stimuli, the first decade might as well be
a thousand years long. By middle age, things

can be counted upon to have grown a lot more
familiar. We may have flown around the world

a few times. We no longer get excited by the
idea of eating a pineapple, owning a car or

flipping a lightswitch. We know about relationships,
earning money and telling others what do.

And as a result, time runs away from us without
mercy. One solution often suggested at this

point is that we should put all our efforts
into discovering fresh sources of novelty.

We can’t just continue to live our small
predictable and therefore ‘swift’ lives

in a single narrow domain; we need to become
explorers and adventurers. We must go to Machu

Picchu or Angkor Wat, Astana or Montevideo,
we need to find a way to swim with dolphins

or order a thirteen course meal at a world-famous
restaurant in downtown Lima. That will finally

slow down the cruel gallop of time. But this
is to labour under an unfair, expensive and

ultimately impractical notion of novelty.
We may by middle age certainly have seen a

great many things in our neighborhoods, but
we are – fortunately for us – unlikely

to have properly noticed most of them. We
have probably taken a few cursory glances

at the miracles of existence that lie to hand
and assumed, quite unjustly, that we know

all there is to know about them. We’ve imagined
we understand the city we live in, the people

we interact with and, more or less, the point
of it all. But of course we have barely scratched

the surface. We have grown bored of a world
we haven’t begun to study properly. And

that, among other things, is why time is racing
by. The pioneers at making life feel longer

in the way that counts are not dieticians,
but artists. At its best, art is a tool that

reminds us of how little we have fathomed
and noticed. It re-introduces us to ordinary

things and reopens our eyes to a latent beauty
and interest in precisely those areas we had

ceased to bother with. It helps us to recover
some of the manic sensitivity we had as newborns.

Here is Cezanne, looking closely at apples,
as if he had never seen one before and nudging

us to do likewise: Here is Van Gogh, mesmerised
by some oranges: Here is Albrecht Durer, looking

– as only children usually do – very closely
at a clod of earth:

We don’t need to make art
in order to learn the most valuable lesson

of artists, which is about noticing properly,
living with our eyes open – and thereby,

along the way, savouring time. Without any
intention to create something that could be

put in a gallery, we could – as part of
a goal of living more deliberately – take

a walk in an unfamiliar part of town, ask
an old friend about a side of their life we’d

never dared to probe at, lie on our back in
the garden and look up at the stars or hold

our partner in a way we never tried before.
It takes a rabid lack of imagination to think

we have to go to Machu Picchu to find something
new. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot,

a prisoner has suddenly been condemned to
death and been told he has only a few minutes

left to live. ‘What if I were not to die!,’
he exclaims. ‘What if life were given back

to me – what infinity!… I’d turn a whole
minute into an age…’ Faced with losing

his life, the poor wretch recognises that
every minute could be turned into aeons of

time, with sufficient imagination and appreciation.
It is sensible enough to try to live longer

lives. But we are working with a false notion
of what long really means. We might live to

be a thousand years old and still complain
that it had all rushed by too fast. We should

be aiming to lead lives that feel long because
we have managed to imbue them with the right

sort of open-hearted appreciation and unsnobbish
receptivity, the kind that five-year-olds

know naturally how to bring to bear. We need
to pause and look at one another’s faces,

study the evening sky, wonder at the eddies
and colours of the river and dare to ask the

kind of questions that open our souls. We
don’t need to add years; we need to densify

the time we have left by ensuring that every
day is lived consciously – and we can do

this via a manoeuvre as simple as it is momentous:
by starting to notice all that we have as

yet only seen.

Our Wisdom Display Cards explore what it really means to be wise and how we can strive to become more enlightened in our every day lives.

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