Time Is Weird

If you live to be 77-years-old (the average lifespan in the wealthy world), you will have lived about 4,000 weeks.

That’s…intimidating, isn’t it? It’s not a small number, but it also seems impossibly minuscule to encompass everything we’ll ever do—no second time around, no take-backs.

I think about that number sometimes, because although I hope to live beyond this average (it’s a bit higher for women than men, a bit lower during pandemic-times, and varies by several years between wealthy countries, but it’s also been trending upward over time) I’m also aware it could all end at any moment, and maybe I’ll only get half that, or two-thirds.

If I live to 40, each week of my life will have represented about .048% of my total lifespan. And once again, the objective scale of this number doesn’t quite line up with the subjective resonance of knowing how much of my total existence a single week tick-tocks away.

This way of thinking is both useful and fraught, because although it’s potentially valuable to keep our finitude in mind as we make decisions and as we determine how to spend the years and days and seconds we have, it’s also potentially debilitating: each moment might seem so precious that we clutch the whole lot of them to our chests and hesitate to ever spend a single one on anything beyond the predictably “good.”

It’s possible to use this time-oriented framing to justify lifestyles that are focused to a harmful degree, to the point that we perceive anything not overtly meaningful as unworthy of the expenditure of our scanty chronological currency.

This is partly the consequence of miscalibrated value-metrics: if we don’t value psychological flex-time, don’t value calm moments in which we’re not accomplishing anything monetarily or socially celebrated, and don’t value the quiet coiling of our internal springs between more visibly active periods, then of course time devoted to such things will seem wasted rather than invested (a perception I would argue can cause one to miss a lot of what life has to offer).

I’ve been thinking about time even more than usual, of late, because of how it seems to compress and expand without cause or reason as the world shifts around us and our personal lives are disarrayed and upended by the ongoing pandemic and other chaos-variables like climate change, ideological extremism, and economic volatility.

Some of my weeks seem productive and experience-laden, but others dissolve away with little evidence of their passing, and I wonder—myself now two birthdays and many other milestones deep into this bizarro-version of the world—how I’ll feel on the theoretical “other side” of all this about the not-insignificant percentage of my total lifespan I’ve spent in this baffling and worrying period of disorder and disconcertion.

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