Opinion

How the coronavirus stole time

'When time is out of joint, we scramble for a story that restores our sense of order. Let’s choose that story carefully.'

Naomi K. Lewis is a writer and editor based in Calgary. Her most recent book is the memoir Tiny Lights for Travellers.

I woke up late. But late by what standard? The sun was high above our roof, and my partner and I ate breakfast. Or was it lunch? I drank my coffee; he read the news. Finally, I sat down at my computer to get to work. According to the calendar, it was May 14. According to the clock, it was 1 p.m. According to my friends on social media, it was Day 61 of lockdown in my city, Calgary. They felt disconnected from time too, and they weren’t sure how much longer they could bear it. 

My friend Nomi lives in Singapore, and I quickly calculated whether I could text her yet. No: it was 3 a.m. there; I’d have to wait a few more hours. 

I met Nomi Claire Lazar, a politics professor and associate dean of faculty at Yale-NUS College, in high school and we have communicated regularly for more than 20 years, though we’ve often lived in different cities or countries. Today, I wanted to talk with her about the problem of time; specifically, the problem of time dissolving in lockdown. Nomi is pretty brainy in general, and in this case, she happens to be an expert. She wrote the 2019 book Out of Joint: Power, Crisis, and the Rhetoric of Time, about crises and how they shape our experience of time. 

She’s an early bird, so at 4 p.m. my time, I texted again. Nomi and I planned to meet online at 11:15 p.m. in Calgary, and 1:15 the next afternoon in Singapore.

Naomi K. Lewis: We’re in the midst of a crisis right now, feeling increasingly disconnected from clock and calendar time, and increasingly disoriented and anxious as a result. I see so many memes and jokes going around about this. One image shows a 2020 calendar with January, February, and the first half of March intact, with the bottom half of March sort of melting away, and then by April the calendar’s shape has completely disintegrated, and the days don’t even have the right dates on them anymore. 

Nomi Claire Lazar: For life to feel meaningful, we need three things that are now missing from our daily lives: sequence, simultaneity, and synchronicity. 

Think about a stereotypical day: get up, make breakfast, shower and dress, maybe get the kids ready for school. Then there’s a moment when you change place: you leave for work, and complete a sequence of activities there. Then you come home, and change place again: make dinner, maybe put the kids to bed, maybe go out for date night. This sequence, over days, looks repetitive and meaningless. But it’s not, because it leads somewhere: you’re raising your kids, or working toward a financial or job goal, maybe perfecting a friend’s spaghetti sauce recipe. A goal-directed sequence turns meaningless actions into a story, and the stories we tell ourselves are what make actions feel meaningful. We get up and get dressed so that we can go to work so that we can achieve goals. We get the kids moving so that they can go to school so that they can learn enough math and social skills to be well-adjusted and productive members of society. 

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We’re used to sequences and goals fitting together. Losing that sequence makes us feel disconnected from our goals. Worse, when those sequences don’t overlap with other people’s, we may lose a sense of purposeful connection. When you listen to the radio on your way to work, you have an imagined community with all the other people listening at the same time. In a workplace, acting alongside colleagues, our overlapping schedules connect us not only to our goals but also to each other. That is, sequence matters, but so does simultaneity. We feel alone not only because we’ve lost sight of each other in space, but because we’ve lost this sense of connection in time.  We are in separate spaceships now. Think about how subversive—and how much more fun—it is to do things at the wrong time: you know, why pizza tastes better for breakfast, why a we enjoy a Tuesday matinee more than a Friday night film, and why naps are definitely more fun than going to sleep at night. It’s not just what we do, but when (at the right time, alongside others) that gives us a sense of right order.

NKL: It seems relevant, too, that our time is limited, that even if there’s a pause in our ability to live in time as usual, there’s no pause in our aging. There’s no pause in our progression towards death. 

NCL: That’s so important. Our lives are short, so we tend to map our goals onto bigger stories: of our family, of our community or cultural group, of our nation, or even of humanity as a whole. Think about the feeling you get when you attend a graduation or a funeral, or when you observe a religious holiday, or attend the Calgary Stampede. Those events create familiar cycles and patterns that help us feel connected to larger cycles of life, grander narratives of community and country. But lockdown and social distancing disrupt all those events, contributing to our sense of isolation and disconnection. 

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What’s more, we plan our individual actions and goals against a backdrop of expectations about how the world works, that is to say, our stories are made possible by the larger trajectories of family, community, and nation: college plans, career plans, travel plans, and retirement plans are all set against expectations of what the world will be like. The very idea of making plans requires that our lifetime be in synchronicity with the grander courses of events. But the world is now changing very fast, while we are huddling together on pause, barely moving, unable to act or plan. I remember you saying that you’re not sure it’s worth finishing your novel right now: will the protagonist’s story even make sense in the post-COVID world order?

NKL: As a writer, and as a creative writing teacher, I think a lot about why we love stories so much. I think we love how, in novels and movies, you get to the end and you feel like everything happened exactly as it was supposed to, that each moment was part of an orderly chain of events leading to a satisfying ending. We like it when a plot is scary and even chaotic-feeling, because we trust that the author is in control, and that by the end, we’ll see why everything had to happen the way it did. Right now, we’re all dealing with uncertainty. Someday, we’ll write stories about why this pandemic had to happen when it did. But right now, we can only see a situation with no order. We all know that order may be a long time coming. We may fear, depending on our belief systems, that no author is in control to give this story meaning.

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NCL: Yes, it’s hard to live with that kind of uncertainty. We are desperate to find patterns and to create order. One thing I found striking in my research is that throughout history and across cultures, humans have created clocks out of just about anything that seems to move in a regular pattern. Planets? Sure! Water (draining through a marked funnel)? Why not? Sand (through an hourglass)? Sunlight (falling on a sundial)? Candles? Our own pulse? Oscillating atoms? Absolutely. Researchers have even spent months in caves to see what happened to their sense of time, and started using their own sleep-wake-eat cycles to keep track. We’re desperate to bring order to the passage of time. Think of that classic cartoon of the prisoner, keeping track of days by scratching lines on the wall. 

NKL: Prime Minister Trudeau has compared our situation to going to war, and memes are circulating about how staying home is heroic. But I remember how my grandmother talked about the Second World War. She was in the British army, and she remembered those years as the most potently meaningful time in her life. She said she was afraid, but also had a sense of purpose, and everything felt . . .

NCL:  . . . vibrant, vital . . .

NKL: Yes. She was using time, and her actions had purpose. But being in lockdown means passing time, trying to keep track of the days.

NCL: Yeah. And that can make time feel crushing, rather than poignant. Of course, we have to be careful not to glamourize war, but some soldiers and civilians actively involved in war efforts do report feeling particularly alive. There is sequence toward a goal, there is simultaneity, and there is synchronicity: everyone is acting together, and each person’s actions affect the future and move with the times. But in lockdown, meaningful action has been brought to a halt. We’re asked to endure time—to get through it—not seize it. 

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NKL: Maybe that’s why I can’t feel heroic about staying home. And this raises the question—what can we do, those of us who are not on the front lines that is, to create meaning in our lives right now?

NCL: We need to keep those three big elements in mind: sequence, simultaneity, and synchronicity. Sequence is pretty individual, but I’d recommend setting short- and medium-term goals, and then drawing up schedules to work toward them. This starts with day-to-day stuff; my daughter, for instance, diligently changes from nighttime pyjamas into daytime pyjamas before going to virtual school. But the day-to-day stuff has to lead somewhere, and that can be as simple as getting your family safely through this crisis. Or set goals directed toward service to others—lots of organizations need help right now. We may not know what will happen, but we know lending a hand will matter regardless. 

NKL: The other day, I was walking here in Calgary, with no one else in sight, and with absolutely no idea what time it was. Then I noticed this sound, and it was getting louder and louder, and I realized that people living in all the high-rises downtown, right across the river from where I was standing, were banging their pots and pans and clapping and yelling. I stood there and listened, and it was very moving—moving because everyone was celebrating the frontline workers, and also moving because everyone was doing something together at the same time. 

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NCL: Yes! The noise of 7 p.m. means “we’re still here.” And, it also means “we’re here now.” We create simultaneity. The “we” can’t exist without the “now.” 

NKL: Will we find the bigger story in this crisisand the bigger meaning only when it’s over?

NCL: All crises are turning points. But we don’t find the story, we make it. This is what my book is about: the way political leaders try to “make” the future by telling us what our present moment means when time is out of joint. This can be good: we can create a sense of common purpose, build new things together, make things better. Here in Singapore, migrant workers live in crowded conditions, and have been hit hard by COVID-19. Now the government here is saying, ‘These living conditions must improve.” But such moments are really dangerous too, exactly because crises are open to interpretation. Viktor Orbán, for example, has really seized the day. With his two-thirds majority in Hungary’s parliament, he’s been given the power to rule by decree, and indefinitely too. He’s claimed the crisis is unprecedented, so his power must be too. 

NKL: What about here in Canada? 

NCL: Well, in Canada our strong federal system insulates us somewhat. And I do think Canadians have a fine balance of public trust and common sense that would keep us from falling prey to a charismatic radical. But care is still in order. When time is out of joint, we scramble for a story that restores our sense of order. Let’s choose that story carefully, with an eye to a better future.