According to some experts, it’s not very likely you’ll finish reading this article. It’s not because you don’t have the time to read, but rather because reading is an activity that operates according to its schedule. And since you can’t hurry this process, reading quickly begins to lose its meaning. “Reading something properly just takes the time it takes,” and we’ve grown accustomed to not being able to handle it, according to author Oliver Burkeman in his latest book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.
“Four thousand weeks” is a reference to the average number of weeks the average well-bodied, first-world human being lives. Compared to eternity, the four thousand weeks we’re given in this life (God willing) is a drop in the bucket of time. It’s a glib reality, but only if we live by our modern era’s sociological and philosophical notions about time.
Choosing what to do with our time is one of the most painstaking tasks because our culture provides us with infinite possibilities of what we can do in a limited amount of time. From a Christian understanding of work ethic and time management (Proverbs 6:6–11), what we do with our time and how we “use” it is very important. However, Christians aren’t the only ones concerned with how their time is spent. Everyone is trying to make the time count. But what if we’re just approaching our concept of time unrealistically? What if we can’t “use” time in the same way we use tools or consumables? That’s the question I’ve been exploring ever since I picked up Burkeman’s book, and since my wife and I went to Andy Mineo’s Never Land tour concert.
As many of us are returning to “normalcy” (whatever that entails), we’re reexamining our understanding of time and how we engage it. Andy Mineo’s album, Never Land II, and Oliver Burkeman’s book, Four Thousand Weeks, are unforeseen complements that can help settle the anxieties that plague our viewpoints on time. Together, their bodies of work can help us to stop assuming that time is a tool for our “usage” and to see it rather as a place where we exist.
After I listened to Never Land II on repeat for a week, I figured Mineo’s Never Land concert would make for a fun date night for me and my wife. It was our first concert since the coronavirus lockdowns, so I didn’t want to go to just any concert. I wanted to attend something unique and experience something special. Now if you know anything about Andy Mineo, then you know he’s amassed a large collection of energetic bangers you can dance, work out, and jump to, along with songs that tend to make you think and feel differently, changing the way you see and engage the world. So the Never Land tour seemed a perfect choice for our first concert since the lockdowns.
During his set, Mineo revealed his favorite song on the album was “Priorities,” a song in which he contends with himself about what he gives most of his time and attention to. “Why do I give the least to people I say that I love the most?” he asks himself, and it’s probably a question worth examining ourselves. We give ourselves over to planning and trying to appease people who don’t do much to edify our physical, spiritual, or emotional well-being, all for the sake of trying to manipulate the future.
But isn’t planning and preparation an honorable, responsible thing to do (Matthew 25:1–13)? Yes it is. But when we treat our plans as if they are absolutes, we burden ourselves with the myth that we have control of the future (James 4:13–15). With all the time we had during the coronavirus lockdowns, plans seemed almost silly. Now that things are “normal,” we’re racing to catch up where we left off and wrangle plans as if they are subject to our command.
Mineo’s album fleshes out what the pandemic exposes about our perceptions of time, too. One of these is that we are mortal. It’s a fact we know, but we don’t really know—or at least we live as if we don’t know it. Without sports, conferences, or even church gatherings distracting us, we were forced to face our mortality: we will all die one day. And with that discovery, we wrestle with engaging the present (the perceived mundanities of life, like reading this article) with childlike faith and wonder. We fail to realize in our restlessness that every time we engage in something “routine” or boring, we are experiencing it for the first and last time ever. We’re conditioned to pursue “grown-up” things, always planning for the future, instead of childishly “wasting” our time on any one thing.
But even this language of “wasting” time is a subtle sign we’ve outgrown our capacity to marvel in the ways we used to as children. I think this is why throughout the Never Land II album, Mineo’s younger self/inner-child subtly whispers between tracks, “Andy, don’t forget me.” Like Mineo, we convince ourselves that we’re doing the adult thing by preoccupying ourselves with distractions and burdening ourselves with plans, rather than engaging the reality in front of us. “[A]ll a plan is—all it could ever possibly be—is a present-moment statement of intent,” writes Burkeman. “It’s an expression of your current thoughts about how you’d ideally like to deploy your modest influence over the future. The future, of course, is under no obligation to comply.” So for an artist who’s confessed that he’s struggled with creativity, there appears to be a link between Mineo’s “adulting” tendencies and the abandonment of the trait that makes his art unique: the ability to be present and amazed with everything in front of him instead of trying to exist in the future.
As followers of Jesus, we look to our future eternity with God as comfort, especially when social and political turmoil is too much to bear. But in our doing so we often take a toxic positivity approach, ignoring pressing issues rather than being peacemakers. We believe there is a time for everything (Ecclesiastes 3), and that we are expected to spend our time on God-glorifying activities (Ephesians 5:15–16). But what exactly are God-glorifying activities? And how are we to truly know if we are stewarding our time wisely with an infinite amount of decisions to act upon, and with a limited amount of time to do them in? We await an eternal savior to come and change our current state of affairs, while the solution for today might only be a mirror’s distance away from us. Or to put it as Mineo sings in “Nobody’s Coming”:
If nothing changes before I’m gone
I got no one else I can blame it on
And we’ve been waiting way too long
What if we’re the ones that we’re waiting on?
Too often we let the future get in the way of living.
Burkeman argues that modernity greatly influenced how we interact with time and life. “Once ‘time’ and ‘life’ had been separated in most people’s minds, time became a thing that you used—and it’s this shift that serves as the precondition for all the uniquely modern ways in which we struggle with time today,” Burkeman writes. In his view, once time becomes a resource to be used, we bind our self-worth to how well we use it: “It stops being merely the water in which you swim and turns into something you feel you need to dominate or control if you’re to avoid feeling guilty, panicked, or overwhelmed.”
But imagine a fish in an ocean trying to conquer or control the water! The fish is perfectly adapted to survive in the water and is suited to move about in it, to eat, thrive, and reproduce in it. But if it spent a significant amount of time trying to manipulate every water molecule of the sea, the fish would never get to enjoy all that it means to be a fish.
So the time management tips Burkeman offers in his title aren’t the most popular ones we’ve grown accustomed to. His advice is quite simple: You can’t do everything possible for you to do, so do what you can and don’t worry about what you can’t. But what about the harder choices? Like taking time to assist the homeless downtown or feeding the hungry abroad or volunteering time to mentor high school students? To such questions, Burkeman insists,
Once you stop believing that it might somehow be possible to avoid hard choices about time, it gets easier to make better ones. You begin to grasp that when there’s too much to do, and there always will be, the only route to psychological freedom is to let go of the limit-denying fantasy of getting it all done and instead to focus on doing a few things that count.
In essence, all of those choices count, so just do one of them knowing that you can’t engage them all.
And here’s where Mineo’s lyrics start to come to life—in light of Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks—in songs like “Priorities” and “Cross My Heart”:
I got a little bit of time, I got a lot of dreams
I can’t be out here giving everybody everything
I really want to do it for ’em ’cause my heart big.”1
We always take for granted
What we think is set in granite . . .
What if we didn’t panic, but instead we took advantage
Of the time that we got right now
I knew how short it was when my mom timed out
I held her inside my arms, pain don’t last too long
This ain’t forever, it’s just ’bout right now.2
As Christians, we ought to have the biggest hearts, giving our time, attention, and resources when and where possible. Burkeman and Mineo are communicating the same message: “You have to choose a few things, sacrifice everything else, and deal with the inevitable sense of loss that results.” There are no solutions, only trade-offs.3 As my editor noted, “Every yes corresponds to an infinite amount of no’s, and that is unavoidably painful.”4 This points to the reality that however Godlike we are, we’re not God. We’re not infinite beings that can exist in the past, present, and future, or outside of time. As far as this life is concerned, all that is guaranteed is our present.
Yet, we spend much of our time trying to exist in the future with endless planning, trying to achieve email “inbox zero” and checking off to-do lists, only to add more items to our checklists and more emails to reply to since we’ve proven we’re great at responding and completing tasks quickly. It’s a subconscious way of trying to defy our finitude. But in doing so we drive ourselves nuts because we’re not wired infinitely. “I can’t entirely depend upon a single moment of the future,” Burkeman writes, because we can never “have” time. “When we claim that we have time,” Burkeman continues, “what we really mean is that we expect it . . . You only ever get to feel certain about the future once it’s already turned into the past.”
So what we really have is our present experiences, and the only hope of the future we obtain (at least as followers of Jesus) is the faith we place in our eternity with God (Hebrews 11:1). Everything else that we “have,” in regards to time, is relegated to now.
When I bought the tickets for my wife and me to attend the Never Land Tour, I wasn’t thinking about any of this, honestly. I was living in the moment given to me. In the end, I look back and see the fruit of our decision. My wife was happy, Jesus’ name was hallowed, and we kept citizens employed with our money. We will never be able to replicate that night, and we look back on it with gratitude. But overall, it’s just another night in another one of our (God willing) four thousand weeks on this earth (Psalm 90:10–12).
Burkeman concludes that in the short span of human history, all of our striving to be remarkable and to make an impact with our time is futile. It’s a sort of striving to obtain the wind. And in that sense, everything matters because nothing matters. From his perspective, valuing our self-worth or assigning a significant amount of weight to any one moment or decision in our lives is foolish. Our decisions affect people around us and cause cosmic ripples in time far beyond what we can ever imagine, but the time is not our own to manipulate as we please—even if we attempt to manipulate it for the good of others and the glory of God.
As people who follow Jesus, I think we come to a similar—but slightly different—conclusion from Burkeman: everything matters, because everything we do has meaning (like finishing this article). We just don’t get to assign the meaning or purpose. It solely belongs to, and we gladly submit it to, God. And this is freeing.
- “Priorities” by Andy Mineo
- “Cross My Heart” by Andy Mineo
- Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles
- Associate Editor Alisa Ruddell