Our lives are stories, and we are the narrators. The stories we tell have an arc across our lives as the plot, characters, and climax unfold. These narrative arcs are expected, for the most part, to follow a linear path defined by time. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how time flows through life and how we measure our life in relation to time. We have no grasp of the infinite expanse of time except for what our imaginations provide a framework for. Our only relationship with time is based on the segments and milestones that we have broken it into.
As philosophical as time can be, the discussion is overshadowed by our pragmatic and seemingly human need we have placed on time to act as a scaffolding for our lives. The artificial waypoints we have placed in time throughout our life function to measure our triumphs, failures, and vague concepts of who we are supposed to be. It is a rare practice to question the significance of these waypoints and ultimately to pose the question—do they serve us in how we tell our truest story?
A 365 day year is the most accepted measurement of time when telling our life story. It seems everything is either measured against a year or defined in years: to finish education by a certain year, to enter the workforce, have a family, retire and grow fat on a beach all by a particular year. Most of us tend to accept these goalposts, and many of us will often have a level of anxiety if we have not checked a particular box by a particular age. If we met someone new and our life events do not match with the timeline of societal normality, the telling of our story feels a little less harmonious.
As a physician, I’ve struggled with the concept of these milestones and how a year is an all-accepting unit that everything else is measured against. As physicians, we go through four years of college, four years of medical school, and often three to five years of post-graduate training. After this, many of us will practice well into old age or switch the flavor of our career at some point, and we often start families after our peers. The standard paradigm of entering into a paying career field in the second decade of life and retiring somewhere in the early sixth decade of life just doesn’t seem to fit. If I am then a forty-year-old physician who is, say, five years out of training, am I then behind compared to my peers? If I love what I do and work until I’m seventy-five or change careers when I’m fifty-five, am I violating the norms of retirement? Or am I using a system of measurement that is unfit to weigh the value and coherence of my life story?
To solve this problem, I’ve developed a new system for measuring the story of my life. Instead of measuring life in years, I’ve broken it into four-year cycles. The first of these cycles start when we are seventeen. For many, this is the year we are recognized as adults and have access to opportunities not previously accessible. There will, of course, be prodigies that change the world by the time they are fifteen, but for most of us, the time before seventeen is a period of development before jumping out of the nest.
At the other extreme, I’ve decided to end the measurement at eighty-five years old. The current average life expectancy in the U.S. is seventy-eight years old. The decision to extend this is based on the idea that we are living longer and that I am currently in my late thirties. I, of course, would like to be strong and healthy at 100, but I needed a pragmatic milestone. People are often highly productive and evolving creatures well into old age; I just don’t think that our current framework of working a career for twenty to thirty years and then retiring gives the same weighted value to our later years as it does to our earlier years.
The way this practically works is that we have a total of seventeen cycles of four years each. So if I am thirty-nine years old, that means that I have lived five and a half cycles. Of those cycles, nearly three were completely devoted to education. If I chose to say now do a two-year fellowship, I would be committing to using one half of a cycle. This system, to me, makes life more digestible. The other benefit of this system is it offers a way to see the time remaining in clearer chunks. I am currently on cycle five of seventeen. That has a much different feel than simply stating I’m thirty-nine.
I also feel that our phases of life transcend more than just a year. A new job, college degree, or military relocation hardly ever lasts just one year. It’s difficult to find perspective when the only mark on the ruler of time is a year. We often also make goals for a year, but a year is a fleeting measure of time. What if we had cycle goals instead? I feel strongly that I am a different person at the start of my fifth cycle than I was in my fourth cycle. Although we all develop and change year to year, the contrast of this is much stronger over a longer measurement and perhaps easier to see measurable change.
Time is a relative thing. Many people might feel like they have wasted time if their career or aspiration isn’t going as planned. If you try something new for a year and it fails, then it might feel like you’ve wasted a year of your life. Without context, it’s hard to understand the significance of that increment. Doesn’t it feel better instead when looking back on a wasted year to say that it was only one-quarter of one cycle in the seventeen that you have to live? Perhaps in reflecting back over the last year of the pandemic, a frameshift like this could offer some needed perspective on the relativity of the time we have.
Justin Sterett is a correctional physician and a flight surgeon and can be reached at The Wandering Doc.
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