What Are You Waiting For?
This week’s offering is a second and final visit to Oliver Burkeman’s ‘Four Thousand Weeks (Time and How to Use It)’, which did not entirely float my boat and solve all my problems, but which nevertheless provided some interesting food for thought and reminded me of a piece of writing to which I often return, one that I think becomes increasingly relevant the older I get.
One of Burkeman’s key strengths, I found, was his ability to put things properly into perspective, for example when he talks about our growing inability to be patient. He says that although it is a hard thing to establish scientifically, we are almost certainly much more impatient than we used to be. Our decreasing tolerance for delay is reflected in statistics on everything from road rage and the length of politicians’ sound bites to the number of seconds the average web user is prepared to wait for a slow-loading page. For example, it has apparently been calculated that if Amazon's front page loaded one second more slowly, the company would lose $1.6 billion in annual sales.
At first glance, he continues, this seems to be exceedingly strange because virtually every new technology, from the steam engine to mobile broadband, has permitted us to get things done more quickly than before. Should this not therefore have reduced our impatience by allowing us to live at something closer to the speed we prefer? Yet since the beginning of the modern era of acceleration, people have been responding not with satisfaction at all the time saved, but with increasing agitation that they cannot make things move faster still.
Burkeman wisely suggests that we need to develop a taste for having problems rather than wishing for a world where there are none. Unfortunately, most of us treat the problems we face as doubly problematic: first because of whatever specific problem we are facing; and second because we seem to believe, if only subconsciously, that we should not have problems at all. Yet the state of having no problems is obviously never going to arrive, and nor would you want it to, because a life devoid of all problems would contain nothing worth doing and would therefore be meaningless.
He suggests that once you give up on the unattainable goal of eradicating all your problems, it becomes possible to develop an appreciation for the fact that life is just a process of engaging with challenge after challenge, giving each one the time it requires. In other words, the presence of problems in your life is not an impediment to a meaningful existence but the very substance of one. This strikes me as eminently sensible advice, albeit something that it is rather easier to talk about than to achieve.
We will leave Burkeman for now with one of his final thoughts from the book, where he puts our notion of time into context. In every generation, he says, even back when life expectancy was much shorter than it is today, there were always at least a few people who lived to the age of one hundred, which is 5,200 weeks. When each of those people was born, there must have been a few other people alive at the time who had already reached the age of one hundred themselves. It is therefore possible to visualise a chain of centenarian lifespans, stretching all the way back through history, with no spaces in between them: specific people who really lived, and each of whom we could name, if only the historical record were good enough.
Now for the arresting part: by this measure, the golden age of the Egyptian pharaohs – an era that strikes most of us as impossibly remote from our own – took place a scant thirty-five lifetimes ago. Jesus was born twenty lifetimes ago and the Renaissance happened seven lifetimes back. A paltry five centenarian lifetimes ago, Henry VIII sat on the English throne, and to cover the whole history of humanity on the Earth, you would only need sixty lifetimes, the number of people you might invite to a party – quite a thought, for sure.
Exactly what we are supposed to do with this new knowledge remains unclear, but perhaps just the fact that we have given it our attention, albeit briefly and in between everything else in our busy lives, means that we have at least paused to contemplate. I was reminded of the opening lines of the poem ‘Leisure’ by W.H. Davies: ‘What life is this if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?’
Above all while reading Burkeman’s book, I kept thinking about ‘The Station’ by Robert J Hastings, which I now realise I should have had framed many years ago as a reminder that life is for living. As the expression goes (whoever may or may not have said it first), ‘No one on their deathbed says they wished they had spent more time at the office.’
Tucked away in our subconscious minds is an idyllic vision. We see ourselves on a long, long trip that almost spans the continent. We’re travelling by passenger train, and out the windows we drink in the passing scene of cars on nearby highways, of children waving at a crossing, of cattle grazing on a distant hillside, of smoke pouring from a power plant, of row upon row of corn and wheat, of flatlands and valleys, of mountains and rolling hillsides, of city skylines and village halls, of biting winter and blazing summer and cavorting spring and docile fall.
But uppermost in our minds is the final destination. On a certain day at a certain hour, we will pull into the station. There will be bands playing and flags waving. And once we get there so many wonderful dreams will come true. So many wishes will be fulfilled and so many pieces of our lives finally will be neatly fitted together like a completed jigsaw puzzle.
How restlessly we pace the aisles, damning the minutes for loitering … waiting, waiting, waiting, for the station. However, sooner or later we must realise there is no one station, no one place to arrive at once and for all. The true joy of life is the trip. The station is only a dream. It constantly outdistances us.
‘When we reach the station, that will be it!’ we cry. Translated it means, ‘When I’m 18, that will be it! When I buy a new 450 SL Mercedes Benz, that will be it! When I put the last kid through college, that will be it! When I have paid off the mortgage, that will be it! When I win a promotion, that will be it! When I reach the age of retirement, that will be it! I shall live happily ever after!’
Unfortunately, once we get ‘it’, then ‘it’ disappears. The station somehow hides itself at the end of an endless track. ‘Relish the moment’ is a good motto, especially when coupled with Psalm 118:24: ‘This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.’ It isn’t the burdens of today that drive men mad. Rather, it is regret over yesterday or fear of tomorrow. Regret and fear are twin thieves who would rob us of today.
So, stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. Instead, climb more mountains, eat more ice cream, go barefoot more often, swim more rivers, watch more sunsets, laugh more and cry less. Life must be lived as we go along. The station will come soon enough.