Time is funny. To quote Lenin: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”
As we find ourselves in the intra-pandemic state of COVID-19, the perception of time seems to ebb and flow. No longer is the clock the timekeeper. Instead, events of non-uniform length and subjective importance seem to be measuring time. Our strange, new normal may be exacerbating these divergences (ever present, though often unobserved). I’ve seen many comments on Twitter about time and conflicting reactions to its pace.
Depending on our familiarity with what is happening in our lives, time perception shifts. “We gauge time by memorable events and fewer new things occur as we age to remember, making it seem like childhood lasted longer,” Dr. Santosh Kesari, neurologist and neuro-oncologist says. The pandemic of COVID-19 is a new type of event for children and adults alike (save the rare super-centenarians who were alive during the Spanish Influenza), requiring that our brains update our mental models. Bombarded with unfamiliar terms — like COVID-19, coronavirus, flatten the curve, and social distancing — our brains play catch-up, processing these novelties and integrating previously unknown behaviors into daily life. As a result, it seems like life has come to a screeching halt. At the same time, non-stop news reports, ever-changing predictions of the spread of infection, concerns about survival, and sudden loss of family and friends make life feel like it is flying by faster than we can process its events. It’s almost like time is moving at multiple speeds simultaneously.
I find it curious how time passes at an uneven pace now, depending on where my hours are spent. My outdoor hours consist of running miles through NYC or photographing its rather empty streets, while indoors I am occupied with machine-learning and time-series data analysis. Whether indoors or out, I am engaged in some activity. And yet, the speed of time fluctuates.
In the vein of social distancing, how does the pace of time feel now that relationships with anyone outside our immediate living space is noticeably more distanced and disconnected? As we physically distance from other humans, does time slow down or speed up? Perhaps it does both. It might feel like time has slowed to a near-stop while we wait to hug family and friends, wondering when we will next see them in person. And when we do meet again, it might feel like time has flown by so quickly (nieces and nephews growing taller, parents looking a bit more aged than when we were last together).
If events govern the measurement of time, COVID-19 has demonstrated the various ways that time can move and bend, revealing its non-linear and non-sequential attributes. Will we be able to keep account of all that has happened and when and how, or will it all just blur together into an event collectively known as COVID, stripped of its details? While forgetting may be the path of least resistance (and can even be beneficial for our mental health), it will be important to recall our COVID experiences in order to proactively address similar situations. History does not necessarily repeat, but it does rhyme. And yes, there will be a next time.