Clearing the Fog of Assumptions. A conversation with Oliver Burkeman

Oliver Burkeman and Jonathan Rowson talk at the Realisation Festival 2022.

Assumptions and thoughts challenged, but also a sense of feeling enlarged. Oliver Burkeman revealed his state of mind as he spoke with Jonathan Rowson on the last day of the Realisation Festival. The report was immediately followed by a typically Burkemanian touch of modesty. He confessed to an awareness that bigger brains than his were present, though that was OK, too.

The writer and journalist has thought a lot about this experience, often called imposter syndrome, and come to the conclusion that everyone is winging it in the game called life. A better response than timidity has, therefore, come to his mind. How about asking, what contribution can I make?

His latest book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, is concerned with the ways in which people use the limited amount of time allotted to them across the course of their lives. As Rowson highlighted, the culture that tends to dominate nowadays is shaped by the demands of productivity – being passionate about “to do” lists, Burkeman quipped, before adding that if you become efficient at processing email, the upshot is the generation of more email.

Reacting and being swept along in such ways has subtler effects as well. For example, it can indefinitely delay the opportunity present in each moment to act differently. Being productive makes it easy to hide within the assumption that life, right now, is a rehearsal for the real life that is to come. Facing the discomfort of participating, with all the feelings of inadequacy and not knowing, is to face the truth that there won’t be a time to start that is not now.

A Zen teacher, Jiyu Kennett, had informed Burkeman’s awareness in this respect. She had written that her task was not to make people’s burdens lighter, but rather to make them so heavy that they wanted to put them down. Similarly, sharing the collective neuroses of our times can be the best way to see through and beyond them, rather than pretending that they don’t affect you, or at least that you wished they didn’t.

Earlier in the festival, Rowson had been struck by the remarks of two other speakers, Madeleine Bunting and Damian Hallam, who had suggested alternative greetings to the conventional, “How are you?” Try, “Who do you care for?” and “What is your world?”, they had recommended, respectively.

Rowson put these questions to Burkeman, which led to a reflection on life lived in the head and a preference for the seeming power of rationality and the intellectual. However, Burkeman continued, studies on the functionality of the brain hemispheres in said heads, not least in the work of Iain McGilchrist, reveals that rationality works best when in the service of intuition, and the intellect does well when accompanied by imagination and feeling.

Further polarities and tensions emerged as the conversation continued. Take the difficulty of balancing personal responses to the crises of our times and the clear need for social changes at a collective level. Transformation occurs not just at the individual level but the systemic, though it also clearly occurs not just at the systemic level but the individual as well. We need to know about both/and not either/or.

Even holding onto hope can be disempowering. It can take away the ability to act now, out of confusion about what to hope for, and can raise the question of whether there remain good grounds for hope. But an alternative virtue is also available, that of love. Don’t we really act in response to what we love, Burkeman asked? Maybe we don’t need to worry so much about what our actions might add up to. Any loving act will be a good work in such a messed up world.

His daily habit of writing “morning pages” could be a case in point. This is a half hour or 45 minutes spent writing down whatever comes to mind, without worrying about sense, significance or coherence. The practice has proven itself helpful in terms of Burkeman disidentify with his mental thoughts and habits, and nurturing a space to notice more. Moreover, morning pages brings joy and helps the day go better.

Rowson next nudged the exchange in a metaphysical direction. “What is your cosmos?” he asked. Burkeman reflected that the things that truly matter in life tend to feel infinite – caring for others, loves and longings – which is one reason why awareness of the finite time we have on Earth can be unsettling. A personal stance of being “Christian curious” has led him to reflect that any particular act or moment might be one of grace and offer a sense of openness, too. That also brings the benefit of feeling less inclined to try to justify his existence and, instead, to be freer to use the simple fact of existing creatively.

Such creativity includes an exploration of ritual, Burkeman continued, when asked about his sense of whether there is a personal God. His family is, in part, Jewish and keeping festivals has been a welcome way of exercising an otherwise forgotten spiritual muscle. This is not quite faking it until you make it, Rowson added, but more about fostering a pattern of experiencing and way of life.

A further thought followed: maybe what we need, when it comes to tackling crises, is not more politics, but less. Getting to know people without knowing where they stand on Trump or Brexit can be a relief, to say nothing of making space to know people as human individuals, not positions. Civic interactions with those you might disagree with can undo tribalism and recall the sense that people can collaborate beyond partisanship.

Rowson invited comments and questions from the audience. Plato’s remark about time being the moving image of eternity began the second part of the exchange, a beautiful thought which Burkeman said makes sense. After all, the infinite is implicit in the anxieties people have about the limited nature of time as the anxiety implies they want more than the finite can offer. He also recognises that eternity is a vertical concept, as opposed to immortality, which simply goes on and on. The present moment can be known as reaching into depths, as is stressed by the Stoic practice of regarding what seems most pressing as inconsequential.

Paradoxically, that can make space for a wider, higher or more intimate perspective.
People aren’t seeking a meaningful life but the sense of being alive, Burkeman continued, in response to another audience member interested in legacy. Lightening people’s psychological loads would be a nice thing to be remembered for, though.

Widening the sense of now was a suggested answer to a further question about the difficulty of holding the tension between the weight of history and the calling of the future. Aim to leave the world in a better state than it is now, but also don’t try to live in the future, lest you end up hardly living at all.

And yet, vision matters. If Burkeman has done much to dismantle the productivity culture of today, does he have a sense of the culture that might emerge to replace it, another interlocutor asked? If today can be likened to living in a burning building, does he know where the exit is?

Clearing the fog of cultural assumptions and the delusion of false imperatives is a worthwhile activity, Burkeman replied. That first step can leave you freer to see what you might do and might need to do.

Patience is an active virtue. A rich conversation was drawing to a close. The truth that nobody knows can bring peace in a time that seems exhausted by activity, though not knowing is not an excuse for doing nothing, but rather for seeing if we can do differently. Trust that there is more than we perceive and that the moment can open onto novelty. That might inform our acts and renew the sense of what we care for, even of how the world is.

Report by Mark Vernon