This weekend, British Summer Time will end once again and the clocks will go back one hour. But in 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic, has time ceased to mean anything at all?
At the beginning of Easy Rider, sitting astride his distinctive chopper motorbike, Peter Fonda pulls off his wristwatch, looks at it disdainfully, and then tosses it into the desert. The watch symbolises ‘the man’, the restrictions that society imposes, division and regulation of daily life and experience — everything that the Woodstock generation opposed. As Fonda and Hopper rev their bikes and roar onto the highway, Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild begins to play as the new anthem to that freedom.
I remembered this scene the other day as it occurred to me, as the clocks will go back this weekend, that I haven’t worn my watch for seven months.
Like millions of others across the country I have been working from home. This doesn’t mean that I have been freed from the daily schedule, in fact I have been careful to maintain a home/life balance. I get up at the same time every work day, I log on during office hours, take scheduled breaks. But when all my work is done on and through a computer, I don’t have to check the time to go to meetings, I don’t have to watch the clock to ensure that a meeting will end on time. Outlook gives me my calendar, tells me when to open a meeting and close it.
When not ‘at work’, as now, I tend to lose track of time. I don’t have a visible clock on my screen or in my eye-line. There’s no wall clock. Time isn’t important, I have no schedule, I have no dependents or pets. As a result, it’s as if I’ve started to lose track of time completely — even to not being able to remember events or the passage of time. Every day is precisely the same, whether I go for a walk around my neighbourhood on some days or not on others. There is nothing to hang memories on.
Usually we have experiences that create memories that are memorable because they are easy to recall. We then can work backwards or forwards through a timeline from that landmark. But the way that many of us are living now, even if you are working at home surrounded by family or pets, you aren’t making those landmarks anymore. Can you think back to this day three weeks ago and remember what you did? What you had for lunch? What you did at work that day? Are you sure?
Now if this is happening to you too, don’t get concerned. You aren’t losing your marbles or turning into an amnesiac. But it’s that time structure, those landmark events that are so important to us in recall, that we are losing as this new way of life is so homogenous.
There is another aspect to this. Our brains are conditioned not to remember or recall times that we are under stress or anxiety. You can remember an experience that was unpleasant but your initial memory will not have that packet of suffering or emotion with it, just as we can remember experiencing physical pain but not the actual pain itself. We have all been under an extraordinary stress for several months, something that our bodies and minds are having difficulty with. Across the world, people have been reporting change to sleep patterns, and disturbing or strangely memorable dreams — almost in contrast to the lack of waking memory.
The other aspect of navigating along the timeline of our lives is the creation of future landmarks — those future experiences that we look forward to or prepare ourselves for. In the UK and US we approach the winter festivals that were designed generations ago exactly for this purpose — to provide a bright festival to break the long dark winter hardships. Family reunions and traditions, national celebrations of identity (Thanksgiving, Guy Fawkes), and of course the one that existed even thousands of years before it was supplanted by the celebration of the birth of Christ, the Winter Solstice. But now, as millions are in various kinds of quarantine, facing unemployment, deprivation and not forgetting the ever-present danger of the disease itself, it feels like we have very little to look forward to — indeed these celebrations themselves could be a further cause of anxiety.
Doomscrolling, an unfortunate neologism, has swiftly moved into ordinary conversation. People scrolling through news apps or social media, checking the latest case numbers or fatalities. This has almost become a new way of marking time — identifying the days when new milestones are reached and previous records are broken. This isn’t watching Rome burn whilst feeding some hidden desire for radical societal change. It’s sitting on your porch in Pompeii, popping pomegranate seeds whilst watching the pyroclastic flow thunder towards you.
I am one of those people who yearn for change. It can be said that human civilisation has moved in the right direction on human rights and equality during my lifetime, but it is equally true to say that it still has an awful long way to go. And it could so easily slide back on the other direction, if Trump in the US and Johnson in the UK get their way. But what we could be witnessing is that teeter on the edge before our civilisation collapses — something that even usually sensible commentators in the US actually are expecting to happen if Trump loses the election and refuses to leave office.
A lot of the self-help articles on this site and in the papers do strike me as odd. They hearken back to the time before the pandemic, or deem to regard it as something that will simply pass and we can go on exactly as before, no harm done. Do your yoga, cycle to nowhere on your peloton, experiment with new ways of making artisan eco-friendly coffee whilst buying that same coffee and all your material needs from Amazon. Meanwhile the teacher who lives in your building is terrified what will happen to the starving children in her class if the cough she came home with today turns out to be the COVID. The pub across the street has had to close again and all the bar staff are unemployed with rent due. The old people in the residential home two streets away haven’t seen their families in six months. And there are rumours that your job might be under threat in the next six months.
We don’t have the time to waste, and just because we are unaware or not as able to track the passage of time as before doesn’t relieve us of that responsibility. We have to take the time and the life we have and live it. This time is different. We are living in a new collective reality and our society has already radically changed. We have to embrace and be a part of that change and adapt if we are going to survive. There are still people out there that need us and whom we also need. If the pandemic and lockdown have cracked open the injustice and contradictions of our civilisation then we need to be the pry-bar to jump into that crack and wedge it all the way open. Let’s not waste our time on self-improvement — we need to act to improve the lot of all of us. Rather than waiting for time to happen for us, for those events to come our way — let’s make them happen. Regain some of that focus that routine gave us in the past.
When we put the clocks back tonight we will not be moving into or yearning for a past that has gone. Let’s live in the present and continue to act, not to watch the progression of time but to actively move it forward.
We can’t ride back to the abandoned shack in the desert and go looking for that discarded watch, and nor should we. We need to think very carefully about what it means to strap a new watch on our wrist to replace it, however.