The Gift of Death
The first step toward living a life well-lived is to accept that it will end.
In April of 2022, I wrote to the author Oliver Burkemann about his book 4000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.
Thank you for writing such a powerful and timely book. I found myself reading your work at the same time I was reading Tim Wu’s “The Attention Merchants,” and what a wonderful pairing this was.
I’ve long suspected and felt the destructive nature of our modern “attention economy,” which Tim lays out with precision. Your voice is the antidote to the times we find ourselves in, but perhaps even more accurately, your is the voice needed in every generation. It is a reminder to center ourselves on a life of meaning and purpose that will move far more quickly than we’re often raised to recognize. Your words are a lighthouse in the dark and stormy waters of contemporary culture and the human experience more broadly.
With deep gratitude,
Being the gracious man he was, Oliver replied that day.
What a lovely note, Erin – thank you for it. And Tim Wu is very fine company to be in on your reading list. It means a great deal to know that my writing resonated with you in the way you describe here.
With warm wishes,
Burkemann’s antitode to the rush of the modern attention economy is to remind us in a gentle and profound way, that our time is limited. 4000 (80 years) weeks is the average length of a human life (this is actually slightly above average, but let’s go with it).
I sometimes joke that one of my superpowers is knowing I’ll be dead soon and being okay with that.
Burkemann suggests that this is the first step to living a life well-lived. A way of moving through our 4000 weeks with the knowledge of death always in the periphery. He draws on the philosopher Martin Heidegger to articulate this point. (Note: As Burkemann acknowledges in the book, Heidegger, in an addition to being the philosopher who has thought the most about what it means to be a human being with a limited time on this planet, was also a member of the Nazi party. Burkemann writes, “The question of what this means for his philosophy is a fraught and fascinating one, but it would get us off track here. So you’re going to have to decide for yourself whether this exceptionally poor life choice invalidates his thoughts about how we make choices in general.”)
In Being and Time, Heidegger turns the tables on the passivity through which we move through time, asserting that it is remarkable that there is even time at all. That it is remarkable anything exists at all — a reminder to find awe in the world that is here, the world we are alive to experience.
Heidegger goes so far as to suggest that “we are time.” That for a human being to be is to exist in time and that an end will eventually come. Importantly, this is what gives life meaning.
Our limited time isn’t just one among various things we have to cope with; rather, it’s the thing that defines us, as humans, before we start coping with anything at all.
The only real question about all this finitude is whether we’re willing to confront it or not. And this, for Heidegger, is the central challenge of human existence: since finitude defines our lives, he argues that living a truly authentic life—becoming fully human—means facing up to that fact. We must live out our lives, to whatever extent we can, in clear-eyed acknowledgment of our limitations, in the undeluded mode of existence that Heidegger calls ‘Being toward death,’ aware that this is it, that life is not a dress rehearsal, that every choice requires a myriad sacrifices, and that time is always already running out.
If this all sounds remarkably depressing, do not fear—because it is actually a liberation.
It’s precisely the fact that I could have chosen a different and perhaps equally valuable way to spend my time that bestows meaning to my choice.
Part of my “superpower” — in thinking about life in this way, is derived from my spouse, who, as an Emergency Room physician, watches people die every day, or has to tell them they are going to die, or has to tell their loved ones that their loved one is going to die.
Most of us don’t live with the finitude of life omnipresent in such a way. And strangely enough, it still slips from my consciousness. But the constant reminder helps orient my thinking about what matters.
This is why I cannot abide melting into the timewarp of TikTok, or any other social media apparatus, whose goal is to suck away my time and attention and sell it to the highest bidder. Nor can I abide scrolling through Instagram, which monetizes the “fear of missing out” by showing you all the curated versions of other people’s lives and the things you could be doing — if only. (Considering we are biologically and psychologically designed to live and interact with groups of around 50 to 150 people, the scale of this onslaught is maddening.)
In my wife, this lived experience has created a disposition our friends refer to as “suffering no fools” because to suffer fools would be a waste of our most precious resource—our time.
This liberation is a mindset. It is a way of thinking about and approaching the world and all the things possible to do in it. Burkemann refers to it as “the joy of missing out.” And I think this is right. Life is not about doing everything. It is about prioritizing the things that matter most. It is impossible to get everything done, so we must neglect the right things.
One of the things to take heart in is that we are living a whole lot longer. In 1901, the average life expectancy was 49.3 years in the United States; in 2021, that number was 77.2. We have gained approximately 1450 weeks of life in 100 years.
The following passage in 4000 Weeks has stuck with me more profoundly than any other. In a chapter called Cosmic Insignificance Therapy (This is another one of the keys to living the good life—recognizing how small we are. We sometimes feel this calm when we look up at a starry sky or in the presence of a vast mountain range). Here Burkemann lays out a way to think about the duration of civilization that stopped me in my tracks (it was literally in my tracks as I was listening to the audible version of his book while out on a hike).
Here it is:
In every generation, 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 (or 5,200 weeks). And 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. So it’s possible to visualize 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 area that strikes most of us as impossibly remote from our own—took place a scant 35 lifetimes ago. Jesus was born about 20 lifetimes ago, and the Renaissance happened seven lifetimes back. A paltry five centenarian lifetimes ago, Henry VIII sat on the English throne. Five! … From this perspective, human history hasn’t unfolded glacially but in the blink of an eye. And it follows, of course, that your own life will have been a minuscule little flicker of near-nothingness in the scheme of things: the merest pinpoint, with two incomprehensibly vast tracts of time, the past and future of the cosmos as a whole, stretching off into the distance of either side.
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