“The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short.” That’s how Oliver Burkeman begins his new book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. In it, he confronts readers with the disquieting truth that we have a paltry 4,000 weeks on this earth, and a lot of what we do with them is meaningless, at least by some human standards.
As bleak as it sounds, that is exactly the message we need to hear right now.
Life expectancy in the United States has dropped for the first time since World War II. Thanks in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans can now expect their 4,000 weeks to be reduced by roughly 78 weeks (or 18 months). The fact that life is hard and death is coming would be unremarkable news in any other time or place. But for those of us in the modern West (and perhaps America, in particular), mortality is a question we’ve found ingenious ways to avoid.
Consider how often we opt for efficiency. For many of us, “making the best use of our time” doesn’t mean living a purposeful life. It means getting as much done as possible. We multitask and hustle and pursue what Burkeman dubs “the fully optimized life.” And truthfully, it works. We accomplish a lot. We get stuff done.
It works, that is, until a global pandemic hits and our ability to plan comes to a screeching halt. It works until we find ourselves in much the same place we were six months ago, feeling mocked by progress. It works until death and grief flood our newsfeeds daily.
Suddenly, absent our ability to plan and predict, we discover that we lack the skills needed to navigate troubling, seemingly meaningless times. We find ourselves emotionally and mentally numbed. As hospitals across the country are once again nearing capacity and students enter a third year of disrupted learning, we’re experiencing disorientation and a lost sense of purpose. But just when we need each other the most, we find ourselves increasingly alone, at odds with friends, neighbors, and family.
“For the last forty years,” writes scholar Alan Jacobs, “I have been interested in our common life in this country, in the ways we live together, and whenever we have experienced pronounced social tension I have had ideas for resolving or at least lessening those tensions. … In our current situation I have no idea what to do. I have no tactical suggestions. None. I am totally and absolutely at a loss.”
Jacobs’ sense of helplessness is shared by many. Whether it’s the pastor struggling to hold a fragmenting church together or parents having to weigh their child’s education against health concerns, a whole lot of us are on the verge of giving up hope. So many of our expectations, plans, and dreams have been dashed over the last 18 months, never to be recovered.
But what if this moment also holds a particular kind of promise? What if the forces disrupting our productivity and sense of control have also opened up an opportunity to engage our lives differently?
“This strange moment in history,” Burkeman writes, “when time feels so unmoored, might in fact provide the ideal opportunity to reconsider our relationship with it.”
Doing so begins with a frank assessment of time. Because long before Burkeman took up the question (and long before we knew COVID-19 existed), the Teacher of Ecclesiastes wrote these words: “Meaningless! … Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (Ecc. 1:2). And then, with brutal honesty, he wrestled with the existential contradictions that mark the human experience and that many of us are being forced to face this year.
Christians have not been immune to the gospel of productivity and progress. Some of us have been discipled to believe that if we just work hard enough, plan hard enough, and deny hard enough, we can escape suffering and futility. But Scripture (especially Ecclesiastes) reminds us that the gospel of progress and productivity is unequal to the realities of life. We live only 4,000 weeks, the majority of them spent on mundane tasks. We are weak, dependent creatures, desperate for the grace and mercy of God.
In this moment, we feel our dependence acutely, and that feeling is a gift. Because in this moment—this depressing, disturbing, terrible moment—we have a chance to learn the truth about ourselves and the lives we thought we wanted.
“Covid-19 has dealt a collective trauma to the American consciousness,” writes Esau McCaulley. “The full fruit of that trauma remains uncertain. One thing is clear: Our previous normal was not as good as we thought it was.”
In the end, a life of meaning and purpose cannot be found in fulfilling our own dreams and purposes. It’s found in coming under the larger purposes of God. The rest and peace we long for—the rest we think will come after all our work is done in an efficient manner—actually comes by surrendering to him.