A version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on September 17, 2021.
I am returning in this week’s column to Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It, which I discussed in my previous column.
Haruki Murakami wrote: “Time expands, then contracts, and in tune with the stirrings of the heart”. Lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic have played tricks with people’s perceptions of time. Many people reported feeling that time was disintegrating completely. Time is notoriously tricky and elastic. I used to be able to remember what happened to me and the rest of the world in a particular year, sometimes a particular day. On November 22, 1963, John F Kennedy was assassinated and I went to see Tony Hancock at the ABC Regal in the film The Punch and Judy Man. In June 1958, I saw Tony Hancock perform live on the stage of the same venue.
1983 was Peru; 1987 was Turkey (bears coming to the beach and an armed soldier eating an ice-cream cone) and back in England, the great hurricane. 1976 was punk and a long London drought. 1953 was the coronation and Everest. 1966 was Pet Sounds and England winning the World Cup. The years are now blurred. As I get older it is difficult to distinguish one year from another. In Solomon Gursky Was Here, Mordecai Richler wrote something like: “the minutes go so slowly, the years go by so fast.” Most of my days are consumed with routine tasks done on automatic pilot so it is hard to remember what one did on a specific day. I am trying to keep a diary to see if that helps. William James wrote: “As each passing year converts … experience into automatic routine, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse”.
German philosopher Martin Heidegger gets a bad press these days. As well as being beastly to his lover, Hannah Arendt, he was an enthusiastic member of the Nazi Party. Burkeman finds something in Heidegger’s philosophy to stimulate thoughts about time. Burkeman writes,” Heidegger wants to slide his fingernails under the most basic elements of existence – the things we barely notice because they’re so familiar…”
Heidegger published his magnum opus, Being and Time, in 1927. He introduced the concept of Dasein, which has been translated as “being there” or “being in the world”.
Being a human is being totally bound up with our finite time, knowing that our end will come but not knowing when. Burkeman writes, “every moment of a human existence is completely shot through with the fact of what Heidegger calls our ‘finitude’. We tend to speak about our having a limited amount of time. But it might make more sense, from Heidegger’s strange perspective, to say that we are a limited amount of time. That’s how completely our limited time defines us.”
Accepting One’s Finitude
From an early age I was aware of death. When I was ten years old, Sister Theresa intoned doomily to her hapless pupils nearly every day, “the only thing certain in this life is that you are going to die”. It has only just struck me that when I had my photograph taken while in her class, the backdrop was a graveyard.
The general culture tries to hide this unavoidable truth. Death happens to other people. There is something rather pornographic about death in modern western culture. Burkeman quotes sociologist Hartmut Rosa who says modernity changes the way people think about life. People who believe in progress feel more acutely the pain of their own limited lifespan. They try to quell their anxieties by cramming their lives with experience, whether it be work or pleasure.
This brings Dukkha, suffering, pain, anxiety. It is a vital element of Buddhism that one understand and accept that suffering exists. We are caught in samsara, the indefinitely repeated cycles of birth, misery, and death caused by karma. Buddhists must also strive to end suffering by understanding why people suffer. Suffering comes from craving things and also from events in a person’s life, such as birth, old age and death. Burkeman writes: “Indeed, like William James, Buddha was a profound psychologist and philosopher whose insights grew out of a dark personal epiphany: no matter who you are, you and everyone you love must endure pain, sickness, aging, and death.”
Dukkha has afflicted humankind forever but the current economic system is designed to exacerbate it. ‘Pleonexia’ means pathological greed that can cause stress, addictions and compulsions, ‘affluenza’ and loss of moral grounding. Artificial needs are created. Zygmunt Bauman wrote that capitalism has made consumers immune to satisfaction. Desire no longer desires satisfaction. ‘Desire desires desire’, which is the basis for our new ‘constant greed’.
Capitalism has always operated like this but in its contemporary iteration it is designed to sap your will and steal your attention.
What To Do
We sense that there are important and fulfilling ways we could be spending our time, yet we systematically spend our days doing other things instead that actually make us feel bad. What practical steps can we take to exist in time in such a way as to be less anxious, to suffer less and to manage our suffering? How do we work constructively with “the outrageous brevity and shimmering possibilities of our four thousand weeks?”
Here are some things I have picked up from my own experience and some things that Burkeman suggests in his book. The book has a useful Appendix entitled “Ten Tools for Embracing Your Finitude”.
Proust wrote: “Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have of them.” It is more likely that people have totally forgotten your image after a very brief period of time. An overarching principle for a less anxious life should be an awareness that no one really cares what we’re doing with our life. In this age of social media, we are striving to present an image of ourselves to strangers who really don’t care. Stop living for other people except in the sense of living your life in an empathetic, altruistic, ethical and compassionate way.
There seems to be a consensus that multitasking is “a bad thing”. Remember the strategy of Alcoholics Anonymous. One step at a time. You may have to write a to do list or your day might lack structure. However, be careful what you put on it or you might end up feeling guilty for avoiding doing something that did not need doing anyway. “We plan compulsively because the alternative is to confront how little control we have over the future”.
Doing nothing is not easy. Bill Watterson, creator of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, said, “There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.” Don’t be afraid of doing nothing. Carl Jung’s advice was: “Quietly do the next and most necessary thing”. The next and most necessary might actually be nothing. Sit down in a chair; and then stop trying to do anything. “Every time you notice you’re doing something – including thinking, or focusing on your breathing, or anything else – stop doing it. (If you notice you’re criticising yourself inwardly for doing things, well, that’s a thought, too, so stop doing that.)”
“Nothing is harder to do than nothing,” remarks the author and artist Jenny Odell. But to get better at it is to begin to regain your autonomy – to stop being motivated by the attempt to evade how reality feels here and now, to calm down, and to make better choices with your brief allotment of life.
Do you have to check in to social media every day? Try to abstain for a while or set times when you can engage. I don’t do social media on my phone. If you can’t avoid checking in every day, work on your most important project for the first hour of each day. Fix a strict upper limit on the projects you allow yourself to work on at any given time. Don’t feel guilty about failures and acknowledge what you have accomplished and reward yourself.
Anxiety is the repetitious experience of a mind attempting to generate a feeling of security about the future, failing, then trying again and again and again – as if the very effort of worrying might somehow help forestall disaster. Beckett: “try again, fail again, fail better.”
Burkeman writes: “because in reality your time is finite, doing anything requires sacrifice – the sacrifice of all the other things you could have been doing with that stretch of time. If you never stop to ask yourself if the sacrifice is worth it.”
Stay calm. Live in the present. Live with empathy but live for yourself rather than worrying what others think of you. Do not be overwhelmed by how much there is to do in such a short time Do one thing at a time, mindfully. Congratulate yourself for what you have completed rather than punishing for what is left undone.
I will end with this advice from Burkeman: “Cultivate instantaneous generosity.” Everyone is suffering.