Discover more from Mindset Shifts—Essays by Barry Brownstein
The First Week of August
Focus on fully enjoying the tiny slice of experiences you actually do have time for.
The more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty, and frustrating life gets. But the more you confront the facts of finitude instead—and work with them, rather than against them—the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes.
–Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks
In her classic of children’s literature, Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt opens with this evocative line, “The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.” She continues, “The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color.”
Tuck Everlasting tells the story of the Tuck family who, after drinking from a magical spring, stop aging. The Tucks seem to be living the transhumanist dream, but perpetual living taught them otherwise.
Seeing and accepting our limited powers over our time can prompt us to question the very idea that time is something you use in the first place. There is an alternative: the unfashionable but powerful notion of letting time use you, approaching life not as an opportunity to implement your predetermined plans for success but as a matter of responding to the needs of your place and your moment in history.
Winnie Foster is the novel’s protagonist—she has to decide whether to drink the spring’s waters. The patriarch of the Tuck family is not enamored by his eternal life. He explains to Winnie that in nature nothing stays the same:
“Know what that is, all around us, Winnie?” said Tuck, his voice low. “Life. Moving, growing, changing, never the same two minutes together. This water, you look out at it every morning, and it looks the same, but it ain’t. All night long it’s been moving, coming in through the stream back there to the west, slipping out through the stream down east here, always quiet, always new, moving on. You can’t hardly see the current, can you?... But it’s always there, the water’s always moving on, and someday, after a long while, it comes to the ocean.”
Eternal life is not part of nature, Tuck explains: “Everything’s a wheel, turning and turning, never stopping. The frogs is part of it, and the bugs, and the fish, and the wood thrush, too. And people. But never the same ones. Always coming in new, always growing and changing, and always moving on. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the way it is.”
Tuck laments about being stuck off the “wheel”: “That’s what us Tucks are, Winnie. Stuck so’s we can’t move on. We ain’t part of the wheel no more. Dropped off, Winnie. Left behind. And everywhere around us, things is moving and growing and changing.”
Most of us invest a lot of energy, one way or another, in trying to avoid fully experiencing the reality in which we find ourselves. We don’t want to feel the anxiety that might arise if we were to ask ourselves whether we’re on the right path, or what ideas about ourselves it could be time to give up.
Tuck adds, “Dying’s part of the wheel, right there next to being born. You can’t pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing.”
Without dying there is no living, Tuck learned, “So you can’t call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road.”
What you think about the “wheel” and “being part of the whole thing” determines the quality of each day of your life.
Once you truly understand that you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer, the fact that there are so many you still haven’t experienced stops feeling like a problem. Instead, you get to focus on fully enjoying the tiny slice of experiences you actually do have time for—and the freer you are to choose, in each moment, what counts the most.
Followers of the transhumanist movement believe humans will achieve super-longevity and, perhaps one day, live forever.
Ray Kurzweil, the author of books predicting a coming technological “singularity,” is perhaps the most prominent transhumanist.
The singularity refers to the date when machines obtain human intelligence; Kurzweil sees that happening by 2045. Kurzweil foresees people “merging with the [machine] intelligence we have created.”
Followers active in the movement, like Kurzweil, take an unfathomable number of nutritional supplements each day. Those supplements, transhumanists believe, slow the aging process. Forestalling aging allows time for science to kick in, allowing them to achieve immortality. Some transhumanists believe their consciousness will be uploaded into a machine or a new body, perhaps even a younger cloned version of themselves.
The transhumanist movement is based on the premise that the seat of our consciousness is in our brains. Are our thoughts nothing more than a bunch of “electrochemical reactions” as our brain neurons send their signals?
Scientists have never been able to prove the brain is the seat of consciousness. Some scientists hypothesize that consciousness is non-local, residing “in a field surrounding the brain in another dimension.” Such theories posit the “body [is] a conduit and a collaborator with consciousness.”
If consciousness is not located in the brain, those dreaming of endlessly downloading their essence into better bodies will never have their dreams of longevity fulfilled.
But is the dream of perpetual life a good one in the first place? Perhaps transhumanists have a distorted understanding of the meaning of life.
James Hollis recommends asking of every significant decision in life: “Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?” The question circumvents the urge to make decisions in the service of alleviating anxiety and instead helps you make contact with your deeper intentions for your time.
Transhumanists would be aghast at the idea their goal is to be “like rocks beside the road.” Yet, if they want to differ from the “whole thing,” separated from all of life, will their dream of specialness be a blessing or a curse? Tuck Everlasting provokes us to reflect on what living really means. Living is to make meaning by focusing on what truly matters.
If I believed that my life would last forever, I could never take my life to be at stake, and I would never be seized by the need to do anything with my time.
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