July 21, 2013, by Stephen Mumford


Another book idea came to me yesterday morning and I was quite excited about it. It could be important and significant. But it would take a lot of work to do it properly: maybe ten years’ worth of research time. And then I remembered that I have about six other books I want to write that could be equally important and require just as much attention. Some of them I’ve already been planning for many years but I just cannot get the time to write them.

It is all about time. We have to make plans and prioritise. There is so much that we could do in our lives but we know we cannot do everything. Our lives are finite. 80-or-so years is about the best we can expect and we all know there are many for whom life is much shorter. And our finitude shapes the way we conduct our lives, always mindful of the need to prioritise and plan. Always with a sense of urgency.

I am only a few years away from entering my sixth decade. It’s a point where I am starting to realise I probably will not be able to write all the books I have planned. Of course, I could work night and day: but that might actually shorten my life so would be counter-productive. I often collaborate on writing nowadays but that doesn’t make it quicker. It makes it slower. The point of co-authoring, I’ve found, is not to do half the work but to produce something twice as good. I can’t see any way around it, therefore. I have to accept my finite existence and plan accordingly.

Everyone faces this. I am not alone. The sense of unrealised possibilities is frustrating to us all. How many more great paintings might Van Gogh have created had he lived longer, and what could the great philosopher Spinoza have produced, had he not died at 44? All early death is tragic, and where it is an artist we feel that their potential output is also lost to us. But people add to the world in all sorts of ways, not just those who are writers, painters or musicians.

As an undergraduate, I studied History of Ideas and came across the work of Martin Heidegger (pictured, right). Possibly more than anyone else, he developed the idea of our existence being shaped by time. One can certainly see that if life was not finite we would live it in a very different way, with no rush or urgency. Instead, we are shaped by our past, present and future and we have to accept that we will only have so much time in which to do the things we want. I’m determined to get as much out of it as I can.

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