One Thousand Weeks
By Jessica Shepherd
The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. Assuming you live to be eighty, you’ll have had about four thousand weeks. ~ Oliver Burkeman
Lately, I have been reflecting on the way life unfolds. We careen through inquisitive childhoods, navigate career paths of study and employment, and grapple with marriage and family. Then, if we’re lucky, we find ourselves at retirement’s door with time to spend as we please. That’s the door that stands before me now.
While I retired from a state job shortly before the Covid virus accordioned the job market, I promptly began working half-time for my husband’s consulting business. We’re committed to this work for the near future, but the day is coming when we conclude that chapter of our lives, and then what?
During free moments, waiting for rush-hour traffic to lurch forward or the computer page to load, most of us dream of retirement. We imagine a future that permits us to wake when we want, eat a leisurely brea\kfast, and spend day after unstructured day engaging in any whim we fancy. But once the retirement party is over and the car sits idle in the driveway, that yawning horizon can feel amorphous and daunting.
For some, retirement brings on a state of melancholy. This might stem from a sense that we’ve lived our best years. Or the inverse – we never achieved, or saved, the half of what we thought we would. Too, we don’t have day-to-day contact with colleagues, leaving us to question our relevance in the world. Then again, it could be that something about the human psyche thrives on structure. To that end, I am exploring how one might navigate the restlessness of retirement by developing helpful mental tools and a renewed sense of purpose.
A book by Oliver Burkeman entitled 4,000 Weeks – Time Management for Mortals prompted my contemplation on retirement. The point Burkeman makes is that, by coming to terms with the finite nature of our lives and the limits of what we can expect to accomplish, we begin to focus on what truly matters and live more fully in the present moment. Burkeman approaches the topic as someone with a toddler in the house and a career ahead of him. How, I wondered, do I apply the insights he shares from the perspective of someone in the later years of life? The quotes embedded in this essay were taken from his book, and helped inform how I attuned my thoughts.
I am currently 64. Based on Burkeman’s math and a corresponding post-Covid CDC projection of a 77.5-year life expectancy, I can anticipate another 13 years. Thanks to medical intervention and good genetics, my parents and grandparents outwitted that projection, living, on average, into their mid-eighties. Assuming I have the same advantage, that leaves me with something like one thousand weeks. The implications of that diminishing timeline are jarring, and that’s Burkeman’s point. If I don’t wake up to the brevity of my future, I will miss the chance to make the most of what remains.
The modern world provides an inexhaustible supply of things that seem worth doing, and so there arises an inevitable and unbridgeable gap between what you’d ideally like to do and what you actually can do.
It’s true that retirement presents unlimited opportunities to travel, engage in volunteer work, or take up that guitar we set aside years ago. Still, I know from personal experience how easy it is to doom-scroll through news articles all morning, spend the afternoon web-shopping for the perfect dress for an upcoming wedding, and look up as the sun slips below the horizon only to realize I’ve wasted one of my precious 7,000 days. Living with intention, when I could just as easily drift from task to task and day to day, apparently takes a bit of self-discipline.
In this phase of life, we can dive into that wellspring of inner self and ask, what or who is genuinely important to me? And how can I structure my days in order to apply my time and talents to these issues and relationships? We have time, maybe for the first time in our lives, to get to know ourselves and the people we cherish most.
Instead of firing up the computer right after breakfast, what if I went outside for a 10-minute communion with the sunrise as color and life flood back into the landscape? What if I condensed my intake of depressing world news to 30 minutes and spent the rest of the morning reading one of the many worthy books overflowing the bookshelves? I could call old friends, go for a walk on the beach with the dogs, or engage in a round of texting with my granddaughter. And, of course, there are the many social and political causes I could take up like a torch.
This particular moment in history, with all its crises and suffering, might demand more from you than the usual getting and spending.
But therein lies the rub. To do any one thing effectively, we have to set aside other things that also demand our attention or pull at our heartstrings. Given our limited time, we will never be able to accomplish everything we feel we should. Making meaningful use of the years ahead means making conscious choices about how we spend our time rather than defaulting to whatever arises in a given day.
It seems to me that this final leg of life should be about giving back. About sowing seeds of hope in a world so desperately in need of everything we have to offer. By investing our remaining hours, our vote, our compassion, and our resources in a future we may not live to see, we foster our vision of a better world. There is no greater gift.
Meaningful productivity often comes not from hurrying things up but from letting them take the time they take.
At the same time, we can choose slow down and live more fully in this present moment. My Buddhist leanings encourage me to bring awareness to the thing or person who has my focus right now. It could be as simple as looking up to cheer the chickadee visiting the birdfeeder or turning away from my iPhone to listen, truly listen, to a concern my husband is expressing. For these moments, I am awake, and my senses are attuned to the fullness of now.
This may be what the Buddha meant by the middle way. We expand our perception and bring peaceful awareness to our surroundings while also setting an intention to contribute to the greater good. In this way, we might structure our lives to invite more tranquility and use the serenity this brings to extend a stabilizing hand to others.
If you can hold your attention, however briefly or occasionally, on the sheer astonishingness of being, and on what a small amount of that being you get—you may experience a palpable shift in how it feels to be here, right now, alive in the flow of time.
Here’s something I’ve noticed. Most of us are not really here half the time. On a train to London or Dallas, or Seattle, we seldom focus on the passing landscape or the person next to us. Instead, we are hypnotized by the tiny screen we hold in our hand, unaware of our surroundings beyond listening for our stop. Imagine all we are missing, from an underpass splashed with wildstyle graffiti to a first kiss on a bridge overlooking the water. Of course, this lack of awareness isn’t limited to cell phone use. I experience it at other times too, like when I’m photographing a moose in the backyard or taking a video of white pelicans flying over a Florida marsh. Something is lost when I reflectively defer the experience to a photo instead of standing eye-to-eye with the world before me. And then there are the ways we distract ourselves with television and the radio. Even music can break the spell of the here and now. It’s not that I want to stop texting, taking photographs, or watching the latest Netflix.
What I want is to look up more often - to stop what I’m doing long enough to breathe in the moment with full awareness. If I do that throughout the day, maybe those experiences will ground me in this precious, present moment. With enough such moments strung together over time, my eyes might be open to a greater sense of wonder.
The world is bursting with wonder, and yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.
Retirement, if we do it right, could allow us to encounter our authentic, creative, vibrant selves as we let illusions of past or future perfection fall away. Correspondingly, we might open our eyes to the full splendor and wreckage of our world. I would rather see this world for what it is, letting the highs and lows ignite me, than busy my mind with glittery distractions in a passive effort to avoid the fierce truths an awakened experience brings.
In this way, we can consciously embrace our silver years. What matters isn’t how many days we have but how we approach those that remain.