Dancing with the Gloriously Possible
“The average human 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 work on what’s gloriously possible instead.” — Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
Every now and then you read a book that becomes an instant frame of reference for how you see the world and your place in it for the rest of your days. Walden, Awareness, Meditations, and Atomic Habits are some of the books that changed me profoundly. I can comfortably place Four Thousand Weeks on that short list. This is a mesmerizingly insightful look at the fragile dance we’re all in the middle of, and how we think and react to our realization that life is impossibly short. It reinforces many of the things I’ve written about in this blog, and turned a few working theories upside down and dumped them on the scrapheap. It’s a book I’ll be processing for awhile.
“Your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention. At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been. So when you pay attention to something you don’t especially value, it’s not an exaggeration to say that you’re paying with your life... what we think of as “distractions” aren’t the ultimate cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation.“
Confronting our limitation, and how we process that by either living in the moment or distracting ourselves with ritual, busyness, by deferring to the future (all the way to “afterlife”) or skimming along in the shallow pond of the unimportant are all very human reactions to figuring out what the hell to do with this short time before we rejoin infinity. Heady stuff, stuff that demands contemplation. But it can be overwhelming to think about such things. Who wants to be the Debbie Downer in their own life party?
Burkeman points to the possibility of accepting life for the brief dance it is so you can focus on what you can and cannot achieve. Decide what you’ll focus on, and importantly, what you’ll let fall away. We can’t excel in everything, so why burden ourselves with those things on our to-do list? We know what’s most important already. Be honest with yourself about what is going to fall off and celebrate the unburdening of releasing it for our essential contribution.
All those books listed above, in one way or another all come down to the idea of making the most of our short time. Since we all know the ship is sinking from the moment we reach awareness, shouldn’t we be conscious about how we react to it? Isn’t it liberating, in a way, to release the burden of the shortness of time and seize this moment? Think about the Titanic in her last moments —would you rather be in the band playing tunes to the end or the fool who jumps into the icy water screaming in denial to the last? Even the people who made it to the life boats gained but a short time more. I’d like to think they used it well.
And so should we! Since we all meet our fate in the end, shouldn’t we make the most of our brief lives? What will you do with this focused time?