I’m reading a fascinating book about time: Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman. I love the subtitle: Time Management for Mortals.

I heard Burkeman speaking with Krista Tippett earlier this year on an episode of On Being, and I was intrigued by the way he talked about time; that is, the concept of time in relation to the duration of our lives. In that conversation, the notion that ‘managing’ time is not the same as living our lives intrigued me. Burkeman talked of considering an average lifespan in terms of weeks; just over 4,000, on average. He told Tippett:

“…you don’t get very many, but it’s easy to waste a whole one without really [knowing], or to wonder where the whole last six of them went…”

I can relate.

And further invited into thinking in terms of weeks, I considered my life as a pie chart, with four groups of 1,000 weeks.

I’ve got about a quarter of my pie. That means I’ve spent three-quarters of what I get; I have less than 1,000 left, if I fit the average, and that ain’t much.

Did I really ‘spend’ all that time? Am I ‘spending’ what remains?

Words matter; Burkeman invites consideration of the very way we think about time, and how we then behave accordingly. I loved this statement:

This idea of time and how we use it, what it is, how we use it, it also really ends up being a way into what is a deep spiritual truth at the heart of all the great traditions, and also just the psychology behind them: that what we pay attention to — and also just our understanding of the mind, which is increasingly sophisticated — that what we pay attention to defines us and defines reality for us.

Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks

What we pay attention to defines us and defines reality for us.

That rings true, for me. The times when I am feeling least like myself are the moments when I lift my head up from mindless scrolling, when I allow content created to do nothing but capture my attention – to take my time – to fully accomplish its purpose. What I pay attention to defines the reality of how I understand time. When it’s endless Instagram reels about plant propagation, or reading status updates of people I barely know, or getting fired up about the latest political polls…or just looking at funny videos…I understand time to be something less than meaningful or fulfilling. It does something to me, you know?

It’s a lot to process; I’m not sure I’ve wrapped my head around it. I do encourage you to listen to the podcast episode; it’s intriguing, and a good way to invest 50 minutes of your time….

(see what I did there?)

Driving home today, I caught a bit of a conversation with film director Chinonye Chukwu. Her most recent work is Till, but she also talked about her 2019 film Clemency, which tells the story of a death row inmate. In the process of making the film she’d spent five years talking with people on death row, and eventually created a workshop inside a women’s prison teaching individuals to write and direct films. My ears perked up when she mentioned time:

Time means something different when you are in prison. And it means something different for the incarcerated. I think it means something different for the people who work there. It means something different for the families and community of those who are incarcerated. In some ways, it stops and stands still.

Chinonye Chukwu

A few weeks ago, I entered a prison for the first time in my life; Nottoway Correction Facility, where our church hosts a service every Thursday night. I joined the other volunteers to set out papers on seats, welcome the congregation, and join in the pre-recorded service with them as they watch and listen – via a high definition projector and top notch audio gear. I stood beside the man who runs the audio equipment and sang, both of us at the top of our lungs. I met and shook hands with multiple men who “knew” me from seeing previous services; it was a joy to finally have a chance to know them.

One gentleman shook my hand, introduced himself, and said, “I want to thank you. Christmas Eve, 2019 – the service you did then?”

Trying to remember, I ran my thoughts back in time; but I came up blank. What did we do for Chirstmas in 2019? The time blurs together, the specifics of the services become muddled and loose. I couldn’t remember.

“There was a boy, in a field, playing a piano…”

I remembered.

He went on to tell me that he’d struggled, for the decades (decades!) he’d been incarcerated, away from his daughter at Christmas. He hated the holidays. He had no joy.

“The boy played the piano in a field, and then y’all were all around the piano, banging and playing….there was so much joy. So much joy. And it touched me; I’ll never forget it. And it changed me. I don’t hate Christmas anymore. I have joy.”

Time has blurred the edges, for me, of a creative work I was part of; somehow it changed him, whose understanding of time as an incarcerated man must be so unlike my own…at least, if you measure it in blocks of hours and minutes, days and weeks.

If, however, we define time and its value by our attention…well, we are walking the same ground, with the potential to be markedly different as the object of our attention makes an impact.

Lastly, The Patient. I started watch a few months ago with my daughters, when we were together. As the season has gone on, we were left to finish on our own; I watched the final episode last weekend. SPOILER ALERT: I won’t give away all the details, but suffice it to say that the inevitable ending had a shocking and unexpected twist. The antagonist, unable to control his actions in spite of his efforts to find psychological healing, takes a somewhat drastic action. Healing did not come, but control did. When left to his own devices, time – for him – was full of dangerous choices, inhumane impulses. The only answer was to control what he paid attention to; the time available to him to live a life he could not manage.

All of this together might be a reach; I’m of very little brain when it comes to philosophical musing and theoretical constructs. But I will say that I am thinking, a good bit, of all these things, and I am always open to thinking in new ways.

I would commend any and all of the above to you; the book by Oliver Burkeman (I have the copy from the local library, which I’ll return this week); the brilliant and beautiful On Being archives; volunteering at Nottoway Correctional Facility; and Steve Carrell’s outstanding show The Patient on Hulu.

And the boy in the field on the piano? Find that here.


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