Prior to COVID-19 descending last spring, our lives were so oriented around time that we were hard-pressed to leave home without our posse of electronic devices strapped on, tucked in and gripped by our hands.
We’d learned to live our lives by the clock, allowing those meticulously measured increments of time to drive us to the next activity, project, obligation.
COVID brought our time-obsessed days to an abrupt stop.
You sense it yourself when you ask, ‘How can it already be December?!’ or ‘Where did the time go?’ as you look outside and see it’s already dark to ‘This Zoom call ranks as the most mind-numbing hour of my month.’
As WIRED author, Arielle Parades, noted earlier this year:
“Time does not exist on its own as a container to put things into; rather, it depends on what is shifting, reshaping, and what remains the same.”
Not much remains the same
Except, well, just about everything. Let me explain.
Think about it, everything’s completely different:
- Working from home (WFH), with kids underfoot while they’re eLearning from the dining room table.
- COVID layoffs, escalating job loss that is unprecedented and wreaking havoc on the global economy.
- Despair grows as we bear the deaths of more than 250,000 Americans to date. Heroic medical workers struggle daily with the magnitude of the losses they witness and essential workers sacrifice well-being to keep society moving.
- Our routines, connections, basic way of life – our ‘normal’ – is gone.
- Major life events to mark weddings, graduations, births and deaths are now canceled or modified in ways that are often diminished.
Yet, as Aristotle said, ‘time is a measure of change’ where the nature of change itself stays the same!
Perhaps that’s why we’re obsessed with regulating time these days, almost as if we think that if we don’t keep track of our time, that we’ll lose it somehow.
My Mom told me years ago that time passes more quickly as we get older. I thought then that she was just being silly, now I think she was not only right, but wise.
Mom’s also backed up by Ray Kurzweil, a leading scientist-inventor of sense enhancers for the sensory-impaired. In his book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, he shares his Law of Time and Chaos which states that our subjective sense of time passing is regulated by the interval between what we feel to be ‘milestones’ or notable experiences, and the existing ‘degree of chaos.’
Here’s an example of his law in action:
- When we’re on vacation (milestone event) in a new location it’s all new and novel (increase in chaos), time seems to move more slowly.
- When we’re back home (familiar territory) and return to work and our usual routines (less chaos), time seems to move more quickly.
Enough of these days in succession and voila! Your days are sucked like vapor into the vacuum of years flying by!
This confirms what my Mom stated long ago; as we get older, the intervals between our significant events lengthens (less novel, more routine), resulting in our sense of time moving quite quickly.
Wherever we don’t go, there we are
Pre-COVID, short of actually creating a steady stream of novel, noteworthy experiences (think white water rafting down the Colorado River) we could have simply paid attention to our ordinary moments, making them quite extraordinary.
But today? In COVID crazy time, with nearly the entire globe on lockdown?
- What happens in COVID time, with the rules of engagement switching all the time and no real finish line in sight?
- How are we to make sense of this strange time warp today?
- How can time move both so excruciatingly slowly, and yet have us declare in shock that ‘It’s December already!’
Think about it, there’s still so much unknown and novel about COVID, its spread or its cure. By definition a 100-year pandemic is, well, a milestone.
Yet, because of COVID’s lethality, we are under threat of life and limb and we’re experiencing an increase in chaos, at a time when we’re stuck at home devoting more time and attention to what’s right in front of us.
Not only is this exhausting, it creates a haze between Tuesday to Saturday and now, you guessed it, ‘It’s December already?!’
We’re all in unknown territory, none of us ever having been here before. If we could control “time” we might feel less anxious, more settled. Maybe.
Yet instead of trying to tame time today, what if we simply paid attention to our ordinary moments, making them more extraordinary?
If we start paying attention in this way, even in the chaos of COVID time, we can begin to notice the timeless quality of the present moment.
We may discover our bodies begin to release tension as we allow ourselves to quit fighting for control and instead begin to notice the vividness of our lives: the play of light through the morning window, the quality of our child’s voice, the comforting scents of the season, the cozy feel of our favorite blanket.
In those moments when we still feel pressed for time, the urgency ratcheting up between Zoom appointments, we can choose to be present – starting with a breath.
We can experience a net gain of more time by gifting ourselves the fullness of each moment. Mom would approve.