There is a recent book by Oliver Burkeman entitled: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. Burkeman makes his calculation on the assumption that we will live until about 80, using weeks because he thinks we will find it more specific and alarming than the years we read off an actuarial table. By Burkeman’s reckoning, I have about 10 years or 520 weeks left. If I am lucky (or unlucky) enough to reach 90, you could double that. Of course, you have to subtract years spent in dementia or visiting your in-laws (just kidding).
In general, I hate self-help books of the newer ilk (ask me about Arnold Bennett or Lin Yutang though) – especially those that talk about reversing aging or ways to achieve “all that you can be.” I’ve been duped one too many times, and thinking you can do the impossible is not a formula for a peaceful and contented life. However, I heard an interview that Burkeman recorded with Krista Tippett, and decided this book might be interesting.
In any case, his point is to impress on us that we are mortal and our time is limited. All men are mortal says the Greek syllogism – and indeed we are. It is hard to get that fact firmly imprinted in our consciousness. There is an old Buddhist saying that the mountain is heavy only if you try to lift it up. This is meant to remind us that we don’t have to carry all our troubles around all the time. Very good advice. But I wonder a little if the advice about death should not be the opposite. We are all too eager not to carry our mortality around. Sartre said that our own death was unrealizable. Freud said that it was “impossible to imagine our own death.”
Freud admits that sometimes our guard slips and we are reminded of our mortality. War, for instance, does this. And Freud thought it was a good thing to remember our transience. So did the Buddha. Buddhism has five remembrances that I recite to myself at the end of my meditation time. They are reminders that we are subject to illness, old age, impermanence, death and karma. And still, the thought of just those 520 weeks left brings me up short. Life has very real limits.
We all know the euphoria of close escapes with mortality – when we awake in the hospital after a dreaded operation, when the plane with the misfiring engine (safely) hits the tarmac, when we narrowly escape a head-on car crash on a country road. In those foxhole moments we swear to appreciate every moment of our lives going forward, and yet the next morning we are complaining about lukewarm coffee.
Burkeman offers us some good but seemingly contradictory advice. First, we have to do triage – establish the things that are the most important to us; he advises making a long list, prioritizing it, and crossing out everything after the first four. This is hard. Everyone these days is subject to FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), a term most often related to news and gossip cycles. But it also applies to our lives. We do not want to give up hope of ever living long enough to learn to speak French or visit the Galapagos. The fact is, we squander much time fretting about such things and distracting ourselves from the more important items on our list. One of my favorite Shakespearean lines is his advice from Sonnet 146: “Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross.” That could be a life motto.
On the other hand, Burkeman bemoans “pathological productivity” – the number of weeks we have left hardly matter if we spend them racing toward our goals rather than enjoying them. He especially bemoans the decline of hobbies – which he defines as “something that does not lead to something else, but is interesting and enjoyable on its own.” It can’t be something we are professionally good at or which we hope will turn a profit. I put both my writing and piano playing in the “hobby” category. He tells a particularly heartwarming story about Rod Stewart and his hobby of building mediocre model railroads.
So, we need both to do triage and to appreciate every moment. Otherwise, we will have been pedaling so hard to get – where? – that it will hardly matter how many weeks we have. And because, in case you have not noticed, you will never get there. Even if you achieve the four main items on your bucket list, there will also be an unsatisfied desire.
So, we want to do the things that are meaningful to us, but we don’t want to “instrumentalize” time – as if it were just another resource to apply as efficiently and effectively as possible. And you have to remember that you are mortal; your time is limited. But, somehow, Burkeman ends on a hopeful note:
The average lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. But that isn’t a reason for unremitting despair or for living in an anxiety-fueled panic about making the most of your limited time. It’s a cause for relief. You get to give up on something that was always impossible – the quest to become the optimized, infinitely capable, emotionally invincible, fully independent person you’re officially supposed to be. Then you get to roll up your sleeves and start to work on what’s gloriously possible instead.
I only take exception to the word work in the last sentence. If indeed the task is glorious, engagement with it will not be work.
If you are interested in a story about hobbies and mortality, you might try an old one of mine, “A Spoonful of Sugar.”