COVID-19 Killed Our Sense of Personal Progress

Scripture says that might be a good thing.

“The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short.” That’s how Oliver Burkeman begins his new book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. In it, he confronts readers with the disquieting truth that we have a paltry 4,000 weeks on this earth, and a lot of what we do with them is meaningless, at least by some human standards.

As bleak as it sounds, that is exactly the message we need to hear right now.

Life expectancy in the United States has dropped for the first time since World War II. Thanks in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans can now expect their 4,000 weeks to be reduced by roughly 78 weeks (or 18 months). The fact that life is hard and death is coming would be unremarkable news in any other time or place. But for those of us in the modern West (and perhaps America, in particular), mortality is a question we’ve found ingenious ways to avoid.

Consider how often we opt for efficiency. For many of us, “making the best use of our time” doesn’t mean living a purposeful life. It means getting as much done as possible. We multitask and hustle and pursue what Burkeman dubs “the fully optimized life.” And truthfully, it works. We accomplish a lot. We get stuff done.

It works, that is, until a global pandemic hits and our ability to plan comes to a screeching halt. It works until we find ourselves in much the same place we were six months ago, feeling mocked by progress. It works until death and grief flood our newsfeeds daily.
Suddenly, absent our ability to plan and predict, we discover that we lack the skills needed to navigate troubling, seemingly meaningless times. We find ourselves emotionally and mentally numbed. As hospitals …

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