Jennie’s Reflections: Wasted Time and Death Anxiety

Jennie Steinberg, LMFT, LPCC

My uncle called me a few weeks ago and asked, “is now a good time to talk?”

I glanced sidelong at the ever-growing “to do” list on my laptop. “Sure,” I replied, “I think I can make a few minutes!”

Ever thoughtful, he responded with a smile in his voice, “wow, that’s great… I wish I knew how to make minutes!”

I was floored. We say that all the time, “I can make a few minutes,” but what does that mean? Dissecting the phrase, it’s really a fantasy – the ability to manufacture time out of thin air. The fact of the matter, truly, is that we all have a limited number of minutes in our lives, and that causes a great deal of anxiety for a lot of people.

Existential awareness of one’s own mortality, or death anxiety, shows up almost every day in my therapy office.

This might be surprising, but if you know what to look for, you’ll notice it in your everyday conversations. It’s almost never someone telling me, “Jennie, I’m afraid of my inevitable death and how little time I have to achieve everything I hope for in this life.”

Instead, it looks like this:

  • “Ugh, LA traffic… My depression and anxiety are worst when I’m in traffic. Sometimes I’m sitting there, gridlocked, and I look at all the cars around me, and I think, I don’t know, it’s all just so futile.”
  • “I spent four years with in that relationship, and I’ll never get that time back! I knew after the first year that it wasn’t going anywhere, but four years – that’s four years I could have been with someone worth my while!”
  • “I felt so impatient, sitting there on hold. It was like – oh my god, hire more people for your call center! I’m a busy person – I don’t have the time to sit here waiting, just to ask a stupid question about my credit card bill! And then, after 45 minutes, just as I was getting ready to hang up, a voice said, ‘Thank you for calling Discover Card, how can I help you?’ and I was so upset from waiting that I just tore into the customer service rep! I feel bad about it now, but honestly, do you have any idea what a waste of time that was?”
  • “Sure, I could try to find another career, something more satisfying, but I’ve put in so many years here. And what if I do chase the dream – go to school to become an architect or something, and then I start working, and I realize I’m no happier? Wouldn’t that just be more time thrown away? So I guess that’s why I just stay where I am.”

What is Wasted Time?
Most of us use this phrase liberally: “That was such a waste of time.”

Sometimes it means you did something unproductive for two hours before looking up at the clock, startled. Or it means that you spent your day working on something that seemed like it would be beneficial to your goals, only to realize it didn’t have the outcome you had hoped for.

Other times, you might be referring to some larger decision you’ve made – a relationship, an educational decision, a job or career – something that feels like wasted months or years or decades, rather than hours. And that can be devastating in a very different way than two hours of getting sucked into Candy Crush.

Wasted time is, in short, the sense that you invested a piece of your life that, in hindsight, feels futile. If you spend a decade with a partner who doesn’t make you happy, but you look back and you can say, “wow, I learned a lot from that relationship,” you’re unlikely to use the phrase “wasted time”. But if you look back and say, “great, that’s ten years I’ll never get back,” that feels very different.

In other words, the antedote to wasted time (and, by extension, existential or death anxiety) is meaning making. If you examine the story you’re telling yourself and you can find lessons learned, or ways you’ve grown, it tempers the discomfort that comes from a feeling that you’ve wasted part of your life.

What Death Anxiety Has to Do With It
Part of the human experience is the awareness that someday, at a completely unknown and unpredictable time, every one of us will die. From a secular humanistic perspective, this means that we truly have only a limited amount of time on this earth. From most religious perspectives, it means that we have no idea what we might next encounter. Either way, our lives, as we know them, have an expiration date.

So what does this – the awareness of inevitable death – mean for the way we live our lives? If you knew you were immortal, would anything you do feel like it has meaning? And if you knew exactly when you might die, one supposes you could plan each day accordingly.

It’s the ambiguity that makes it feel murky. Each of us can live until 30 or 130, so it’s easy to vacillate between feeling pressured to do-as-much-as-possible-in-what-little-time-we-have and feeling like we have all the time in the world. Then, when we look back on a decision to take the latter perspective, it’s easy to get really angry at ourselves.

This is all really theoretical, philosophical stuff. But here’s what death anxiety can look like in practice:

  • staying in a bad relationship or job because you’ve invested so much time (see: sunk cost)
  • drifting rapidly between relationships and jobs, unwilling to commit, because you don’t want to get stuck with something unsatisfying (see: opportunity cost)
  • inability to make decisions
  • heightened feelings of impatience or frustration
  • flakiness
  • stagnation/ feeling “trapped”
  • infidelity

How is FOMO Related to Death Anxiety?

FOMO, an acronym for “fear of missing out,” was coined to acknowledge the stagnation or “flakiness” that can come from worrying about not having the opportunity to experience The Best Thing at any given time, whatever that is.

For example, if you agree to go to dinner with your sister, but then a friend invites you to a concert, you may decide the concert sounds more fun and cancel on your sister. The rationalization is that while your sister’s feelings may be hurt, that’s less important than having the experience of going to the concert. After all, this is your only chance to go to this particular concert, and if you decline, you will someday die without having experienced it.

The premise seems reasonable. If time is a limited commodity, you want to make sure you spend it as judiciously as possible.

But here’s the fallacy in that: Connection is why we’re all here. Experiences are important, but so is nurturing connections – and part of that often involves being reliable.

Most people, on their death beds, don’t express regrets about missing a concert. They express regrets about not spending more time with friends and family members. So next time your FOMO flares up and says, “but YOLO!” (“You Only Live Once!”) remind yourself to check in with the future version of you, and how you would most like to invest your time.

Further Reading
If, like me, you’re fascinated by the ways that death anxiety impacts us, I highly recommend “Staring at the Sun” by Irvin Yalom. He brilliantly addresses the things in this article, and delves into many other facets of existential thought and death anxiety.