Charlie Ambler

Undoing the concept of living on “borrowed” time

It’s a fact, we all have a limited amount of time on this planet. Everything we do is powered by this fear. But, living life by the tick of the clock is not really living at all.



When I was writing a recent short article about self-ownership, I started thinking about the idea of “borrowed time”. It’s a figure of speech simply meaning “limited time”, but the concept pops into my head once in a while when I think about work and action.

We tend to see time as a resource. The popular phrases “borrowed time”, “time is money” and “wasted time” all signify this idea of time as a finite commodity. Everything concerning who we are contributes to how we view and use our time. A more effective use of time reaps a higher reward. Meanwhile, a minimally-efficient use of time is “wasteful”, like throwing a home-cooked dinner in the trash.

Instead of picking all of this apart, I’d like to focus on the idea of “leased time” instead of borrowed time. Most of us allocate a certain portion of our day to forces outside ourselves; that’s the essence of existing in the world. We lease ourselves to various institutions – jobs, marriages, religions, political ideologies, etc. We do this in exchange for some sort of reward, be it physical or emotional. We expect a return on our investment of time.

If we don’t obtain some sort of added value for giving our time away, it’s akin to buying a rental property and letting people live in it for free. It’s a nice gesture, but will soon devolve into chaos and loss.

There’s nothing inherently wrong in giving part of yourself up for something larger than yourself, but how you do so often ends up defining your entire life, so it’s deeply important to lease your time wisely.

In the realm of work, I think it’s especially important to consider how effectively we manage our time. Many people obsess over public health, cancer rates, exercise and organic foods but then spend 30% of their time engaged in stressful and life-denying activities with minimal reward. Leasing ourselves to a parasitic third party either means we’re selling ourselves short, or that we haven’t taken enough time to cultivate external value in ourselves. Either way, this leaves people feeling under-confident and exhausted.

In relationships, many people think that the more of themselves they give away to another person, the better. And yet many people do not want to feel wholly responsible for the emotions of another. This is commonly referred to as co-dependency, a phenomenon which, much like overwork, often begins with good intentions and ends in exhaustion and confusion.

In spiritual matters, the cultural myth of martyrdom convinces people that the way towards spiritual fulfilment is “giving oneself up” to a higher power. People think that just “giving away” a certain amount of time and meditating, praying, doing service or going to a place of worship is enough to fulfill them. If this was true, we’d have a lot more enlightened folks walking around. Mere submission isn’t enough.

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Politics functions similarly. People devote themselves to a specific side or ideology, negating all else in favour of finding those who agree with them and working towards “the cause”. They spend countless hours arguing on Twitter and at meals, convinced that someday their temporal investment in a limited dogma will translate into some greater good for mankind. For most people, this translates less into positive action and more into alienating their friends and more clearly defining their enemies.

I illustrate these diverse examples to show how we lease ourselves to the world. There’s nothing inherently wrong in giving part of yourself up for something larger than yourself, but how you do so often ends up defining your entire life, so it’s deeply important to lease your time wisely.

Combining this idea of leasing your time with the value of self-ownership is important. In work, we should cultivate enough internal and external respect and value that we can be efficient and passionate about what we do. In relationships, we should have a strong enough sense of self so that we don’t burden our loved ones with unrealistic dependency. In spirituality, we should cultivate inner-strength instead of weakening ourselves for the sake of submission. In politics, we should learn that every ideological force is linked to its opposition, that participating in the rabble is a wasteful use of our limited time on earth.

The way to approach any usage of time is with nuance and mindfulness. How you do this is up to you, but being more conscious of how we use our time is just as important as focusing on health, wellness or spiritual fulfilment.


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