The global COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone’s life in some way, whether big or small, and with these circumstances comes a bit of reflection. It seems that everyone has had at least a few moments of rumination to reflect on how COVID-19 has changed their world and circumstances. Because of these circumstances I have devoted much thought to the concept of time in both how I have come to understand time in the last few months and how my perception has changed dramatically. Before the pandemic changed my perception of time, I often felt like there was never enough time for something or that I needed more time, or if I just had a little more time I could do this, finish that, etc. All feelings that are more than a little familiar for most. Now I feel as if there is almost too much time to get anything done. I can honestly say I kind of miss the restraints of time that I had before.
We are living in strange times, or are we? With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe and the political and social unrest that is ever present in many places including the United States, it is not uncommon to hear the words “in these unprecedented times”. But are these times unprecedented? While we may all feel like some part of what we are experiencing is unprecedented, for me this puts time into perspective.
The European-influenced world has come to understand time as linear, meaning that there was a beginning and there will be an end. Some things may happen in cycles like weeks, months and seasons, but ultimately there is a beginning and end. Not every culture views time this way. Time is perceived differently depending on cultural context. Some cultures view time as a line with a beginning and an end, however long this may be but others view time as a cycle where events are repeated and
There are cultures that view time through more abstract ideas of place and feeling. In the United States through social media we have seen phases. For example, there was the part of the pandemic where much of the United States was obsessed with Tiger King and making memes about toilet paper. Then there was the part of the pandemic where we heard about the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many more that has invigorated a social movement and calls for racial justice. Time can also be relative to oneself. Each of us has had our own phases of quarantine time where we were more invested in one thing over another, there have been times where we may have felt motivated, isolated, or maybe we have had trouble adapting to video calls, or that our work and home are merged into one.
Because time feels like such an abstract concept right now to many of us, it is worth exploring the different conceptions of time and remember that there is more than one way to interpret — and experience — time. The eighteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche expanded a concept of time that states something different. The concept is known as eternal return, which states that everything in the universe happens over and over again and everything is always the same.
Similarly, the Aztecs had a concept of time that was circular in nature. Everything is in a cycle, what has happened will happen again. This does leave room for ambiguity though, meaning that the things that happened before are not necessarily meant to happen in exactly the same way as they did in the past, but nonetheless will happen again. This was not only common with the Aztecs but many cultures outside of Europe had a cyclical concept of time. This is posited to be because of the cycles of the earth’s seasons, animal migrations, and celestial patterns. Europe even had a cyclical concept of time once,.But this changed with the invention and implementation of mechanical clocks in the 1400’s which dramatically changed the cultural view of time in European societies and later in the Americas. This cultural shift can be credited, at least in part with becoming the foundation for our capitalist and productivity driven lifestyle.This was changed in March for many of us. We were violently ripped away from our comfortable time driven lifestyle. This was warmly received by some as a well-deserved break from the treadmill of time but was soon realized to be a monster in disguise as we descended deeper and deeper into our pit of “COVID time.” This has for many, stripped away the ways we have come to understand time. These circumstances have made me come to realize that my relationship with time before the pandemic looks very different from the flexibility and nuance that I see now.
If we go back to this question of whether or not these times are unprecedented and look at the world through a cyclical lens, or even a historical lens for that matter, we see that pandemics such as the 1918 Influenza or even the Bubonic plague have happened before. While they may have been a bit different, ultimately this has happened before, and it will surely happen again — but there will be time in between. There will be a time when we can get back to our busy schedules, there will be a time when we can go out to eat with our friends in a restaurant, and there will be a time when we can go to an indoor event with hundreds of people — at least probably. The things that will change because of the pandemic are up to us to decide. It is up for us to decide how we allocate our time, perhaps some will decide that they want to spend more time with their families that we had to be separated from during the pandemic, while others will decide to devote more time to a cause or passions that they did not before. Whatever these changes may be, time is no longer something that just flows. COVID has shown us that we can change our perception, and in this change, hopefully, we can make changes that align with our newfound perceptions of time and the meaning that accompany it.