We don’t know how long this quarantine will last.
There are so many things to be concerned about right now: our families, the state of American healthcare, the economy, the future of education, the list goes on. It’s easy to discount the impact of intangible, existential issues when we’re faced with such overwhelming practical obstacles. We retreat to logic and tell ourselves that we are strong. We are battening the hatches to weather this storm together. We will take as it comes. These things are true. But no logic can instantly transform our relationship with time.
I’ve written before about collective trauma in response to global crises like 9/11 or JFK’s assassination. This is different. COVID-19 might be the first event of this magnitude to occur over such a prolonged period of time. In the midst of our grief, we feel guilty and naive for focusing on the past when there is still so much to fear.
“‘What a curious feeling,’ Alice said. ‘I must be shutting up like a telescope!’” Lewis Carroll’s heroine was talking about her own body, shrinking after she drank from a strange bottle. Time, too, is growing and shrinking in ways we’ve never seen before.
In this age of hyperproductivity, we are less prepared than ever to be left to our own devices. The internet, air travel, and cell phones have conditioned us to expect instant gratification. This cultural shift is quite literally changing our brains. We read faster, multitask more, and rely on the cloud to work as an external memory. As a result, the experience of time during quarantine is a drastic, even traumatic, departure from daily life.
As we shelter in place, we have no schedules. We are either out of work or working at our own pace. We are not going to school or tracking bus arrival times. All events are cancelled, from dinner dates to weddings. Sometimes, we can’t even remember what day of the week it is.
Hannah Arendt wrote that “The self and time prove to be especially present in boredom. They go missing in the hustle and bustle of everyday life…” Without access to work or social engagements, we seem to have an unprecedented opportunity to be present with ourselves, to learn new skills, and to answer the question “If you had all the time in the world, what would you do?” The problem is, we do not have all the time in the world. We are starkly aware of our own mortality, and we are plagued by anxiety as well as disease. Many of us are angry at ourselves for our lack of productivity, as if this all-consuming tragedy somehow obligates us to self-betterment.
Time and Space
My father is a physicist. “We are all time travelers,” he told me once. “We just can’t control the speed or direction.” That sentiment has never felt more immediate to me than it does now. Without the schedules we’re accustomed to, we feel helpless and isolated. As social creatures, this isolation makes us question everything, even our own individual identities.
In so many ways, both poetic and scientific, time and space are synonymous. A light-year is a measurement of distance. A day is the time it takes for the earth to rotate around its axis. Now, we find ourselves adrift in an excess of both. We are separated from each other by miles and weeks. We are simultaneously bored and overwhelmingly anxious and distracted from our goals. We are unable to conceive of a future after this crisis.
So how do you build a life outside time?
In this lockdown, we find ourselves in a liminal space. Liminality is the state of being in between — think of a chrysalis, or the feeling of losing a job and looking for work. In both mythological and scientific conceptions of the universe, our reality existed in a liminal space before the moment of creation. Australian Aboriginal culture calls this the Dreaming. Astrophysicists call it the era before the Big Bang. This time before time, before life, and before entropy, is almost inconceivable. But all disciplines agree: it gave way to the existence of our world.
As we occupy this much smaller, less significant, liminal space, we, too, have the opportunity for creativity. The world exists, but it is in turmoil. Our jobs, homes, and even lives are no longer guaranteed. They never were. Right now, however, we are reminded of that in a much more painful and definite way.
This uncertainty is terrifying. We are prone to impact bias — that is, overestimating the negative emotional effect of current and future events. Try to remember that all your fantasies about the bleakest possible future are just that — fantasies. If you choose to, you can fantasize about about positive outcomes instead.
Liminal time is an opportunity for inspiration. What are your priorities? In isolation, who do you miss the most? What activities, however sedentary, are keeping you grounded in yourself? You may not have the energy to write that novel or build that treehouse you’ve been dreaming of for years. But you always have the power to recreate yourself. Even from the cocoon of your couch, you can redefine your own identity based on your desires for the future.
Creativity is not the same as production. Capitalism encourages us to equate the two. We’ve been taught that if we complete a project, be it sewing a dress or publishing a book, then we have proof that we are creative. We are useful. We have evidence. True creativity is not so concrete. Especially now, in this new kind of dream-time, creativity can be passive or theoretical. Reimagine your relationships. Reimagine the idea of productivity. Above all, participate in our collective reimagining of what the world will look like when we emerge from our homes. We know it will be different, and we have both the right and the responsibility to decide what that will mean.
Occupying Time and Space
Our world is both bigger and smaller than we’re used to. Most of us are glued to the news, concerned about global issues. Simultaneously, we’re confined to our homes, occupying smaller spaces than we’d like. Even if you live in a mansion, your home cannot contain your commute, your favorite restaurant, and the vacation you had planned. Those who live rurally still have access to their land, but the rhythms of urban living are almost unrecognizable.
No matter the size of your home, remember that you take up space. You have the right to take up space. Curl up on your couch, do yoga, take a bath. Even and especially in crisis, your body is inarguably yours.
Reclaiming your relationship with your body is an act of resistance. The mission statement for The Body is Not an Apology, a group advocating for body positivity, tells us that “discrimination, social inequality, and injustice are manifestations of our inability to make peace with the body, our own and others.”
With American capitalism on an unscheduled pause, we have a kind of freedom to reclaim our identities outside its constraints. When your body is not at work, what do you do with it? How do you relate to yourself? What makes your existence important, when no numerical value is assigned to your daily movements through the world? Ask yourself these questions every day, and watch your answers change.
Being present with your physical being is both grounding and inspiring. While we feel helpless in so many ways, we still have power over our own actions. Take a walk, read a book, talk to a friend, and remember that you get to decide what you do. Your body is your own. Even as the world burns, you can move and think and feel, occupying a reality of your own design.
It is all too easy to retreat to the comforts of our old routines, and routine certainly has its place. But we are living in a pocket universe. Sheltering at home, we experience a time outside time and a space outside our usual space. We have the freedom to reclaim our identities and redefine our values. We are no longer experiencing time as it passes on someone else’s terms. Embrace this liminality. Make your own time.