Wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff: On the progression of time during lockdown

“If you knew Time as well as I do, you wouldn’t talk about wasting it.” -Mad Hatter, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately, or more specifically, how it passes. While some recent parallels between the 1918 influenza pandemic and the rise of fascism in the early 20th century have me questioning whether time is cyclical, there is a rational part of my brain that understands time is linear. After all, I can see the sun rise and set every day, the seasons change, and my clocks all move forward at a predictable rate. However, my relationship to time, and how it frames my life, has changed a lot recently.

People have started referring to 2020 as a “lost year,” because so many things, from graduations, to marriages, funerals, concerts, conventions, and birthdays, have had to either be put on hold or changed so dramatically that they barely resemble past gatherings. 2020 was the most unlike any year I’ve lived before, but it’s strangeness has also given me the space to reflect on aspects of my life I once thought of as unchangeable, chief among them: time.

Time has never moved quite like I expect it to. Before lockdown went into place, I was regularly an hour early to events or, more often, 30 minutes late — but never actually on time. I always managed to vastly under- or overestimate how long it would take me to do something, or completely forget to add a key variable into my estimate (like accounting for traffic).

After nearly a year of distancing, though, the pressure to be on time has evaporated along with many of my in-person obligations. I still have work deadlines and bills to pay, but these responsibilities are confined to certain days of the week rather than specific hours and minutes. I’m aware this might not be the case for people still working in-person jobs, but considering the number of people working from home, as well as those currently unemployed, I think it’s safe to say that a lot of our lives have similarly changed with the times.

With fewer events outside of our homes to break up the monotony of daily life, days seem to pass at a snail’s pace, while entire months are over in the blink of an eye. Whether it’s true or not, time seems to have fundamentally changed during lockdown. And while our pets likely appreciate the extra companionship, staying in all the time can be difficult. After so much time spent in lockdown, I feel cooped up, and guilty about what I have or haven’t been able to achieve in the last 10 months. 

With fewer places to be, why haven’t we all been able to learn new languages, write books, make meals from scratch, or any of the other things we’ve been wanting to do if “only we had the time?” Besides the very real mental impact trying to survive during a recession and a global pandemic can have on us, I think our very understanding of time fails to take into account the intricacies of a post-Covid world, and how different it is from previous years. We can’t treat our dreams and goals the same as we have before.

When we think of time, I think a lot of us forget just how modern of a concept it is. While sundials and clock towers have been around forever (I’m exaggerating a bit here), the first watches didn’t come about until the middle of the 16th century. Inventions like the hairspring in 1675 to control the speed of a watch or the standardization of American time zones in the 1880s would ultimately help us keep time more accurately, it would take until nearly the 20th century before time keeping was anywhere close to modern standards.

Flash forward to 2021, where all, if not most, of our devices are hooked up to the internet and we are more aware of time than ever before, and by extension: its passing. What is it about knowing exactly what time that makes us feel like we have no time? After all, life expectancy has more than doubled in the last century, emails are faster than letters, and electric stoves and heaters are more efficient than fires. We are living in the most technologically advanced era to exist thus far, yet so many of us feel like there is not enough time to do everything we want to. The closures of many of the institutes of our public life definitely isn’t helping either.

“We are too aware of numerical time and not aware enough of natural time,” Matt Haig said in his 2018 book Notes on a Nervous Planet. “People for thousands of years may have woken up at seven in the morning. The difference with these last few centuries is that now we are waking up because it is seven in the morning. We go to school or college or work at a certain time of the day, not because that feels the most natural time to do so, but because that is the time that has been given to us” (Haig 67). 

Life seems to be passing us by in lockdown, and other than following CDC guidelines to reduce the spread of Covid-19, there isn’t much we can do to change that. It can be hard to ignore the impulses that we should be doing more because time is passing, when that is the way we understood so much of our lives before. Children should be going to school, but they aren’t, or school has changed so much that we can’t use the same timelines to track their progress. We aren’t making the same strides at work, or we aren’t working at all, or celebrating our relationships and accomplishments like we used to.

It can feel overwhelming to watch the weeks and months pass you by while you’re stuck inside, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t living. We can still enjoy food, still talk to our friends and loved ones (even if it’s mostly online these days), we can still make art, and hold our pets and children and spouses. There is too much going on right now, to be worrying about how best to spend our time in lockdown.

I wish I had better advice, but I don’t think there is any real solution to this. None of us are capable of slowing down the passage of time. But then again, embracing the strangeness of it and realizing that being healthy and alive is way more important than arbitrary milestones we’ve set for ourselves will probably make things a little easier.

As Emily Dickinson said, “Forever is composed of Nows.” Just focus on today and enjoy it the best you can. Worrying about it won’t change anything.

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