By Tim Urban
Mr. Urban is the author of Wait But Why, a stick-figure-illustrated blog about almost everything. He first wrote about the idea of “Depressing Math” in 2015.
I have good news and bad news for you. Let’s start with the bad: a concept I call Depressing Math.
Check this out:
That’s one box for every week of a 90-year life. It often feels like we have countless weeks ahead of us. But actually, it’s just a few thousand — a small-enough number to fit neatly in a single image.
Once you visualize the human life span, it becomes clear that so many parts of life we think of as “countless” are in fact quite countable.
I love going to the American Museum of Natural History, and I’ve been three times since I moved to New York in 2009. If that rate continues, I’ll step into the museum 12 more times. For an activity I think of as “something I like to do,” that number seems shockingly low. I also love going to the movies, but ever since it became effortless to stream everything at home, I’ve been averaging one or two movie theater trips a year. In my head, I’ll go out for hundreds more movies in my life, but the real amount is probably some weirdly small number like 53.
Depressing Math is especially depressing when you’re living through a pandemic. Covid hasn’t taken away our weeks, but it has robbed us of our favorite activities — experiences that are already in short supply.
But perhaps the hardest math to process — and, in turn, the hardest Covid pill to swallow — has to do with our relationships. I grew up spending some time with my parents almost every day. Since turning 19 and moving away for good, I’ve averaged about 10 to 15 days a year with them. If I’m one of the lucky ones, I’ll have quality time with my parents until I’m 60. That means that the day I headed off to college, I had something like 350 remaining parent days total — the amount of time I had with them every year of my childhood.
What it boils down to is this: My life, in the best-case scenario, will consist of around 20 years of in-person parent time. The first 19 happened over the course of my first 19 years. The final year is spread out over the rest of my life. When I left for college, I had many decades left with living parents, but only about one year of time left to spend with them.
It’s the same story with childhood friends. I spent high school sitting around with the same four friends, notching somewhere around 1,000 hangouts by the time we scattered off to different cities. Since then, our text thread keeps us in touch, but we’ve only managed to get the whole group together for a weekend every few years — about 10 total days each decade. It feels like we’re smack in the middle of our lives together, but like me and my parents, the high school group is currently enjoying its final 5 percent of in-person time together.
Depressing Math reveals a cold truth: While you may not be anywhere near the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time spent with some of the most important people in your life.
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