Much of our mortal lives is a struggle against the clock. We’re obsessed with managing time, with breaking it down into concrete, controllable blocks. We streamline our lives and regiment our schedules with military precision. We treat our days like assembly lines, something to be made more efficient. We pencil and plot and plan. We book doctor’s appointments, write agendas on the boards of our classrooms, schedule coffee dates with our friends three weeks in advance. A date scribbled in our calendars gives us the illusion of certainty: if it’s written in ink— we believe— our plans will unfold accordingly.
However, as most of us know, life almost never goes according to plan. Though you “plan” to go on a coffee date with your friend, Olivier Burkeman writes in his philosophically-minded masterpiece 0f self-help Four Thousand Weeks, any “number of factors [can] confound your expectations, robbing you of the…hours you thought you had.” You might get a flat tire on the way to the coffee shop. Your friend might cancel because she’s sick.
Despite our hubristic belief that man can move mountains and has dominion over all beasts, time is one thing man cannot control. No matter how neurotically we try to squeeze the events of our lives into predictable schedules, we can never force Father Time to submit to our will. The vet’s appointment that was supposed to take a quick 50 minutes will become an interminable 3 hours. The languid summer afternoon we “had” to spend working on our novel will get rudely interrupted by the unwelcome sound of the doorbell.
In the cleverly titled chapter “We Never Really Have Time,” Burkeman calls into question the very idea that we “have” time in the first place. Though we worry and obsess, project and plan, our “plans” are intentions for the future— nothing more.
Our calendars offer consolation in a chaotic world: when we pen an appointment in poised cursive in our planners (doctor’s appointment @ 2pm), we feel in command. We don’t have to confront the disturbing, rather distressing fact that much of life lies outside our control: how and when we’ll die, whether democracy collapses across the globe, the rise of the alt-right, the rate at which polar ice melts, the rise and fall of the Dow Jones.
In many ways, we’re not the directors of our lives: we can’t force our marriage-wary on-again, off-again boyfriend to propose, nor can we cast our ceaselessly critical older sister into a less nitpicking role. Life is a movie, but we can only partially write the script. If we want to lose weight, we can eat bananas and granola, we can exercise 3-4 times a week, we can drink water instead of soda and other sugary drinks, but ultimately we can’t change our body’s fundamental shape. If we’re naturally more curvaceous, we’re never going to be Kate Moss-skinny— even if we do 100 crunches a day.
Our obsessive planning deludes us into thinking we can control the future. When we assert that our doctor’s visit will— in fact— occur at 2 pm, we feel we can assert other things with confidence: that we’ll drive to work without getting into an accident, that our troubled son will graduate high school and not fall victim to drug addiction, that that the lump in our breast is benign, not malignant, that we’ve been silly to lose sleep over a possibly terminal cancer diagnosis. Like William Ernest Henley in his rousing poem “Invictus,” we insist we’re “captains of our souls.” But we’re not captains of our fate— we’re more like helpless life rafts bobbing in a storm-tossed sea of forces beyond our control.