You have to read this book. I think the last time I said that was when I read Daniel Nayeri’s memoir Everything Sad is Untrue in May 2021. I remember really liking Emily St. John Mandel’s earlier apocalyptic novel Station Eleven when we read it for book club in 2017 – before the COVID-19 pandemic, when we wondered if something like that might come our way at some point – but in Sea of Tranquility, she takes the craft to a whole new level, while following the familiar and satisfying hero’s journey.
Beyond that, Mandel gives us just enough of each character to appreciate their humanness before we jump around in time to the next section. From the beginning, it is clear that we could be following any of these characters but that the one who stands out the most is the one with the mystery surrounding his presence and his name.
Gaspery-Jacques Roberts at first intrigues the reader, then commands our attention as someone worth investing in, and by the end, satisfies our own hero complex that our individual lives can matter immensely even while living peacefully, calmly and quietly. It is one thing to braid character stories across space, but to do so across centuries of time is quite a feat. I would love to go back and read this book again to see if I can grasp all of the connections that become clear by the end.
The symmetry and self-awareness of this text is truly enthralling. To go forward and then backwards in time while asking and answering existential questions is absolutely amazing.
Regarding those answers, it is clear that this book is meant to raise the question of religious involvement or spiritual meaning and then dismiss them in the name of advancing science and technology (which bothers me; I mean, isn’t there a way to include an appreciation of religion?). Still, by the end, I embraced the main character’s conclusion that no matter where he is in time, no matter what he chooses to do with his life, no matter the types of lives he encounters through the other characters along the way, he believes he is real and that he matters, and that the challenges he faces matter too, even if people in general tend to exaggerate their fear of the end of the world.
I have been vague in my review here because I really don’t want to spoil this read for you. You really have to take the ride (on an airship) yourself. I read it in two days, but I will be thinking about it for quite a few more.
I’ve noticed that books published in a similar timeframe can touch on similar themes or ideas. Last summer, for example, I read about kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold, in Michelle Harper’s memoir The Beauty in Breaking and Julia Alvarez’s novel Afterlife. A beautiful metaphor, for sure.
This month, everything I read seemed to touch on the coming end of the world and what we should do with our limited time on it. A more daunting quest than repairing pottery, authors sure were creative in their solutions, often looking for a scapegoat to the problem of finality.
Mr. Burkeman spends most of his book assessing the reasons why we might obsess over time management and all of the small and large decisions we make in our lives that determine productivity and effectiveness. On a personal scale, these decisions seem to matter a great deal, but I’ve also noticed, based on the commentary of circles of friends, the news, and other loud voices, that many of us feel the need to react to what feels like the coming of the end times, to do what we can to push it back, to make life better for future generations. In Burkeman’s words,
"It's the understandable tendency to judge everything from the perspective you occupy, so that the few thousand weeks for which you happen to be around inevitably come to feel like the linchpin of history, to which all prior time was always leading up." (210-211)
His words remind me of a character from Sea of Tranquility who muses,
"When have we ever believed that the world wasn't ending?...there's always something. I think, as a species, we have a desire to believe that we're living at the climax of the story. It's a kind of narcissism. We want to believe that we're uniquely important, that we're living at the end of history, that now, after all these millennia of false alarms, now is finally the worst that it's ever been, that finally we have reached the end of the world." (189)
And yes, Burkeman points out, while "[i]t is true, as more upbeat commentators like to remind us, that people have always believed they were living in the end times…much of the news these days is really rather good: infant mortality, absolute poverty, and global inequality are all falling rapidly, while literacy is rising, and you’re less likely than ever to get killed in a war." (229-230)
Still, the world has huge problems. What to do about them, Mr. Burkeman?
His arguments are long-winded and meandering, but his point in the end is to let go of the need to control your life and, by extension, what happens to the whole world. Once you let go of “your need to know that everything will turn out fine,” “you’re free to focus on doing what you can to help. And once you no longer need to convince yourself that you’ll do everything that needs doing, you’re free to focus on doing a few things that count.” (233)
The trick being, that you should do this work without it going to your head. "You might imagine...that living with such an unrealistic sense of your own historical importance would make life feel more meaningful...but what actually happens is that this overvaluing of your existence gives rise to an unrealistic definition of what it would mean to use your finite time well" (211)
Bottom line (and this is rather harsh and devoid of religious belief): "what you do with your life doesn't matter all that much -- and when it comes to how you're using your finite time, the universe absolutely could not care less." (208)
"To remember how little you matter, on a cosmic timescale, can feel like putting down a heavy burden that most of us didn't realize we were carrying in the first place." (210)
Ms. Mandel’s character Gaspery-Jacques Roberts demonstrates how heroic a life can look when embracing this mindset. His small, sacrificial decisions had huge ripple effects in her novel. Perhaps it helped that he seemed to be selfless by nature, and yet, he seemed to almost laugh in the face of decision, a word that Burkeman points out stems from “the Latin word decidere, which means "to cut off," as in slicing away alternatives, [similar to] words like "homicide" and "suicide." Any finite life -- even the best one you could possibly imagine -- is therefore a matter of ceaselessly waving goodbye to possibility." (60)
Burkeman posits that "once you're no longer burdened by such an unrealistic definition of a "life well spent," you're freed to consider the possibility that a far wider variety of things might qualify as meaningful ways to use your finite time." (212)
The philosophy here is really interesting, but my main observation is that this guy is really long winded for someone completely obsessed with time management. The format is a huge contrast to the "live simply and unhurriedly" book I wrote about in 2021, though the ideas of embracing limits and slowing down are perhaps similar. Still, Burkeman seems intensely motivated to include all of his research, which reminds me stylistically of books like Flyboys and Hidden Figures. It shows clearly that he really believes that we need an entirely new approach to the phrase “using your time well.”
One of Mr. Burkeman’s main points is that we should embrace the fact that we will never reach that peak efficiency we desire, nor will we ever cross some pre-ordained finish line of productivity. He seems to have always cared about these things, but it is clear that there was a sudden impetus for his need to find a different answer. All to say: he became a father. Having a toddler forced him to recognize his limits, and above everything else, his limited control over his time (and his child).
In the end, Mr. Burkeman admits that accepting his limits will likely remain an ongoing aspirational quest, and in admission of how difficult such a mindset truly is, he offers a few hints and hacks for how to get around this conundrum.
First, march with the army. Maybe not literally, but Burkeman points out the subliminal thrill of coordinated group activity, the sensation of feeling part of something magnitudes larger than yourself. His example pertained to infantrymen who never deployed but developed camaraderie simply by performing drills, marching together. I certainly recognized this from my own experience on dance teams and in choirs.
Second, increase the number of novel experiences in your life within the limits of necessary routines. I have always wondered why life seems to accelerate as we age and also why certain periods of time seem to occupy disproportional space in my memory, namely why experiences like “high school” and “college” and, in particular “study abroad” dominate above so many other life changing and significant events. Burkeman’s book is the first place I read a satisfying explanation, and the reason, he claims, is within the number of novel experiences during that time frame.
Still, Burkeman warns against cramming in too many novel experiences, explaining that while it might work, “it's liable to worsen another problem, "existential overwhelm." Moreover, it's impractical: if you have a job or children, much of life will necessarily be somewhat routine, and opportunities for exotic travel may be limited. An alternative, Shinzen Young explains, is to pay more attention to every moment, however mundane: to find novelty not by doing radically different things but by plunging more deeply into the life you already have....[like] going on unplanned walks to see where they lead you, using a different route to get to work, taking up photography or birdwatching or nature drawing or journaling, playing "I Spy" with a child: anything that draws your attention more fully into what you're doing in the present." (241-2)
As I continue to settle into my new home and wonder how best to use my time, my days, and these years we have ahead of us, I’ll be thinking of Mr. Burkeman and picturing him playing “I Spy” with his toddler. Especially because, in the end, Mr. Burkeman, I think this is what matters most: your connections to others. However you use your time, may you remind people how much they matter, regardless of how they spend their time, and may they serve to reflect the same reminder for you.
Sometime in the months leading up to our recent move, we reconnected with our church in Arlington, MA, and one Saturday afternoon, I attended a prayer meeting.
I’m not great at prayer. I guess most people say that. (If you’re good at prayer, you probably just stay silent on the subject and jump in more readily than others during pop-up prayers.) Also, I felt strange about jumping back into church activities when I had one foot out the door already, calling moving companies and gathering boxes. But, a friend invited me, and I embraced the opportunity to practice prayer among friends and familiar faces, who all understood we are all on our way to somewhere, together here for just a little while.
After opening us in prayer, my friend directed our attention to a worksheet, which she passed out along with pens. Great! I thought. An ice breaker of sorts that also served a purpose. A way to put thoughts to paper first before sharing them outloud.
My friend’s “Worry Worksheet” was divided into three columns. On the far left, I was meant to list the things I was worried about. In the middle, I was supposed to turn the worries into prayers, and on the right, I was supposed to describe ways I already saw God at work in those prayer requests.
Basically: ascending difficulty from left to right. Right? Before even writing a word, I imagined I’d have a much easier time filling in the left-most column (my worries), and increasing difficulty in completing the other two (prayers and gratitude). And yet, when I reviewed the page in order to write this post, I can see that the opposite, in fact, happened.
My left-most column lists six distinct, well-defined worries, but there is white space surrounding those words. In contrast, my handwriting in the other two columns spills outside the lines as I see how I tried to cram in all of my prayers and thanks. I remember that during the prayer meeting itself it was such a relief to see that on paper, to see how much I had to be thankful for.
Also, with all of that scribbled onto paper and then summarized in prayer in small groups, I felt more prepared to turn my mind and prayers to other needs, in order to pray for our local churches, towns, the nation, and the world.
I found this exercise so helpful that I leave it for you here, courtesy of my friend’s mother who devised this scheme based on the verse from Philippians 4:6-7, which says:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
There was a guy in my high school who would chew his fingernails to the nubs. Then he would go for the skin around the nail. He would dig in deep. His fingertips had divots and were rimmed with dried blood.
“Don’t do that,” I told him from across our lab table in AP Physics C.
He paused for a while and then went back to it.
There are things you hope you’ll spare your children. Stress isn’t on the list, per se, but when I think of that guy from high school, or another jittery high school student I tutored when I lived in the Bay Area nearly two decades ago now, I definitely hope my kids will be challenged without feeling judged or boxed into impossible situations. I hoped to avoid the extremes that I saw lead to anxiety and depression.
So when we were shopping around for where to spend this next phase of life, it seemed prudent to choose a location where our kids would find both challenge and support, and to try to avoid the cutthroat communities that seemed to scream “Harvard of bust.”
I also aimed to avoid mass shootings and natural disasters (like fire and drought).
But two days after we moved in, a young man shot into the crowd gathered at a local Fourth of July parade nearby. Then, two weeks after we moved in, my kids spotted a funnel cloud at the park (which fortunately didn’t touch down).
And two months after we moved in, while I was in the process of writing an article to raise awareness for Physician Suicide, I learned of another tragedy in the community.
Waves of grief shock a community when a 13-year-old dies by suicide. I don’t know all of the details, but I know she went to my daughter’s school. And I know my new neighbors had known her for a decade, that their daughters had been close with her, though less so in the past couple of years when she became unhappy.
I found myself in Barnes and Noble, wandering among tables boasting support for “Love is Love” and “Science is Real” and wondering what to give to the survivors of suicide. Being a writer, I finally settled on journals, as well as small bouquets of roses (flower shortages limited choices) for the daughters who were trying to make sense of what had happened, who were scrolling the internet for information, and whose wellbeing was now of utmost importance to their mother like never before.
Even here, I thought. Even here. There is no community secure enough to avoid the suffering.
Even in the community I was writing about – doctors who spend their lives supporting the health of others – are more likely to struggle with suicide.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, but the National Alliance on Mental Illness seriously needs to get a better acronym for their campaign. I mean, SPAM? Then again, the takeaway here could be that some things need to be SPELLED OUT and not glossed over. Don’t shirk from the word suicide, for starters. Don’t couch it in an acronym.
According to their website,
“After years of advocacy and preparation, 988 is now available nationwide as the new number to contact for mental health, substance use and suicide crises — a simple, easy-to-remember way for people to get help. This new number will allow people to quickly connect with support during a crisis, 24/7, no matter where they live.”
In support of their efforts to make resources readily available, I want to post those resources here. May you never need them. May they be here for you if you do:
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.