Have you ever wondered: “what shall I do today?”
Or even: “what shall I do now?”
It’s one of life’s great mysteries that:
– we all have a limited number of years, months, weeks and days to live;
– we all want to make the most of that time;
– many of us feel short of time to do the things we want;
– and yet… when we do have some free time, we’re not sure what to do with it.
It depends how you look at it. Photo: Robert Pimm
Part of the problem is excess choice. Twenty years ago, I had a job where I had to fly regularly between London and the Far East in business class. I had an intensely busy job, and I used to relish the thought of a 15-hour flight with no disturbances and a host of pleasures on-tap. But when I settled down into my comfy seat on the plane, I sometimes found myself overwhelmed by a kind of existential panic. Should I read that book I’d been saving for when I had a spare moment? Watch a movie? Listen to some music? Read that fresh new airline copy of the Financial Times or The Economist? Gaze at the cloudscapes rolling by in the moonlight? Talk to the interesting fellow-passenger in the next seat? Ask for a drink, or some food? Or what?
OK. I don’t expect sympathy. These days I dream of business travel. But the sense of mild panic I felt as I reviewed the options available for my 15 hours was like a microcosm of the sensation we all face trying to figure out how best to use our available life-span – assuming we have time to think about it at all.
What if we watch a movie and it’s crap? Result: we miss the chance to use that 90 minutes to talk to the interesting-looking neighbour, changing our lives forever. What if we start talking to our neighbour, he or she won’t stop talking, and we miss the chance to do read our book? Above all, I always hated (and still hate) to miss the views from the aircraft window – a wonder we should never take for granted.
People have been puzzling over these questions for millennia.
Early Christians argued about whether salvation came about through faith, or by works.
We know there’s no single answer. As Izaak Walton notes in his famous The Compleat Angler, first published in 1653: “I shall tell you, that in ancient times a debate hath risen, and it remains yet unresolved, whether the happiness of man in this world doth consist more in contemplation or action?”
Even if we can’t answer a question, we can entertain and educate ourselves by thinking about it. That’s why my novel Biotime explores these issues. I’ve blogged about this before – see eg 7 ways my sci-fi novel Biotime explains the meaning of life or Klimt, Beethoven and Biotime.
Amongst other things, Biotime explores how people would behave differently if (i) they could choose to have shorter lives, by selling some of their life expectancy for cash (“would you rather live long and dull, or short and intense?”); and (ii) they could live forever, by becoming wealthy and buying other people’s lives.
The ancient Greeks explored the issue in the character Tithonus. When Eos, Titan of the dawn, kidnapped Tithonus from the royal house of Troy to be her lover, she asked Zeus to make him immortal; but forgot to ask for eternal youth. Tithonus lived for ever but became older and older and lived in misery.
You can discover how Biotime explores the meaning of life and immortality by clicking on the links above, or best of all by reading the complete first part of the novel on this site.
Biotime also uses red London Buses to discuss the meaning of life. I’ll be writing more about that shortly.