Notes on the Illusion of a Clockwork World How the pandemic makes us think about time and its meaning differently—and how that is a good thing.

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Editor’s Note: Staff writer Jeannette Cooperman will be away from these online pages until mid-August, when we expect her return.

 

In search of time present

Once, when the world was too much with me, I drove to a Trappist monastery and made myself keep the Liturgy of the Hours, stumbling into the dark chapel in the middle of the night for matins, returning at dawn for lauds, trooping back all proud of myself for terce, sext, none, the peaceful twilight vespers, late evening compline. A peace settled inside me, an otherworldly clarity that was more than sleep deprivation. Maybe a more rigid time schedule was my answer, and all my railing just rebellion?

I thought about it on my drive home, as cares and worries seeped back into my brain. Then I realized that those monks had no devices beeping at them, knew exactly what was expected of them, did no primping or polishing their brand, and worked at their own pace, in silence. Subtract all of my life’s faux urgency, and a bell softly rung at regular intervals would hardly seem intrusive. For now, I was still caught up in a world where the clock could be a petty dictator, and what I needed was to live a little more quietly, a little more freely.

Quarantine was my big chance, and I relaxed into it, happily quoting Kierkegaard: “Of all ridiculous things, the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy.” I no longer felt harried and snappish, unable to be spontaneous no matter how often I protested that I loved spontaneity. With a blank calendar, I welcomed whims.

Then I had a few bad days, days I threw on what I had worn the day before and could not remember the last time I had washed my hair. Sad and scared, I fell into a heavy sleep in midafternoon, woke groggy from a lurid dream, then stayed up late, nerves jangled, watching every episode of a French crime drama. The next morning, I was disoriented—and furious at the friend who had texted me a joke so godawful early in the morning (eight-thirty). The morning after, I set my alarm.

Maybe the transition was too fast? Just a few months ago, most Americans were frantically busy—overstimulated and overscheduled, with a dozen things to do every day, all of them at a set time.

Then the world stopped, and time might as well have stopped, too.

We all downloaded Zoom, its name a nod to our former pace, and swiftly scheduled happy hours and book clubs and work meetings. With the rest of our strange new out-of-time time, we clicked on whatever funny parody, quip, or impromptu musical concert rose to the top of our “timeline,” everybody tap-dancing to amuse everybody else. We read “How to Pass the Time in a Pandemic,” and we all made sourdough bread and learned to cut our hair and watched Tiger King on Netflix. The word of the day was “synchronous,” but much was not, and there was both freedom and loneliness in the change.

Now there were vast emptinesses in each day. Some of those hours, we stuffed with anxiety; others with tenderness. I became a better wife: Soothed out of my chronic sense of urgency, I stopped yanking my slower-natured husband this way and that, nagging him about my long list of honey-do’s and oughts. A Julian of Norwich ease had come over me: There shall be time, all manner of time. And because there was time, everything got done.

What froze during quarantine was personal time, while out the window, COVID-19 ground inexorably forward, its pace seeming to quicken as the case numbers rose. Public time and private time had split definitively. As a result, our whole sense of time began to blur. The past, with all its lively social interactions, seemed eerily remote, a fever dream cooled by distance.

Without the larger society inviting and tugging and just plain showing up unannounced, I owned my days. After the initial free-fall, I settled into a new schedule, looser and gentler. With the barrage of interruptions and distractions lightened, there was time to breathe, to focus, to concentrate. Except for those pesky little worries about mortal contagion and financial ruin, life finally felt manageable. I even lost my terror of deadlines—which were, incidentally, named for the line in a Civil War prison camp that could not be crossed by detainees. Men who were detained, delayed, their time stolen.

Time is an odd phenomenon, now that we have had the time to feel it passing. Novelists and filmmakers toy with it, imagining it running parallel to itself, moving backward, varying its speed, freezing altogether. But I am not sure anyone ever imagined exactly this.

What froze during quarantine was personal time, while out the window, COVID-19 ground inexorably forward, its pace seeming to quicken as the case numbers rose. Public time and private time had split definitively. As a result, our whole sense of time began to blur. The past, with all its lively social interactions, seemed eerily remote, a fever dream cooled by distance. The future was a question mark.

And so we were left with the present, that place I have always tried to live but never managed to stay for more than a few minutes. Now there was time to wonder what, exactly, had happened to time: Why had we let it become such a tyrant, keeping us counting, rushing, thrusting ourselves into the future? And did we even need the old time back?

 

The age of anxiety

What is coldly fascinating about this pandemic is how fast everything, everything, changed. Most of us learned of the danger only as it exploded, and by then the crisis was already global.

That scope and scale are new. But rapid change has always dizzied us. In 1881, when George Beard coined the diagnosis of “neurasthenia,” revolutions in industry, telegraphs, and transportation had all sped up the pace of life at once. “We are under constant strain, mostly unconscious, sometimes in sleeping as well as in waking hours,” Beard wrote in American Nervousness, “to get somewhere or do something at some definite moment.” Even those working quietly in their own studies felt the shift. “I wonder why time is always allowed to harry one,” sighed Virginia Woolf. Yet even she, dreamy and ethereal and fiercely independent, caught the new urgency, admitting, “I don’t like time to flap around me.”

Ben Franklin did a number on this country with his insistence that we “lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful.” Cardiac psychologists Diane Ulmer and Leonard Schwartzburd named his legacy “hurry sickness”: the urgency to achieve as much as possible as soon as possible.

Machines are easiest to blame, and they do tend to speed life up. But the real problem is our desperate need to keep up with the other rats in the race. Experiments have shown that if you place people in a group, they will struggle to keep up with one another—thus ratcheting up the time pressure. What sent me to the monastery was my to-do lists, made not to win the race, just to justify my existence. Rather than blame myself for this compulsion, I blamed the clock, because time and what I filled it with had become almost inseparable.

Ben Franklin did a number on this country with his insistence that we “lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful.” Cardiac psychologists Diane Ulmer and Leonard Schwartzburd named his legacy “hurry sickness”: the urgency to achieve as much as possible as soon as possible. It attacks your heart from two directions, weakening the muscle and destroying the relationships that could sustain it. The signs will be familiar: a loss of interest in anything not connected to one’s goals; a tendency to evaluate by quantity rather than quality; a racing mind; disrupted sleep; an inability to accumulate pleasant memories because the mind is either preoccupied with the future or ruminating about the past.

Until we locked down, most Americans suffered at least a mild hurry sickness. We were, as philosopher Robert Grudin wrote in Time and the Art of Living, “incapable of real concentration,” our days “broken by distraction, scrambled up into muddles of chores, errands, impulses, evasions, interruptions.” He urged his readers to deepen and slow time by what today we would call mindfulness, lest they “feel small, momentary, almost transparent, like paper-thin facades of being.” The book came out in 1982, a decade before smartphones tugged even harder at our tissue-paper selves.

Now we know multitasking is inefficient, yet we still felt obliged to do it. After all, time is money—and it turns out, this is not a simple equation. Capitalism throws the two into inverse proportion: The more free time you have, the less money. And, as Sebastian de Grazia wrote in Of Time, Work, and Leisure, “The more developed the country, the less free time per day…. The more time-saving machinery there is, the more pressed a person is for time.”

We grew anxious for good reason. In our efforts to save time, we had stolen it from ourselves.

 

Clock time

Atop the Steeple Building in Bishop Hill, Illinois, is a clock with four faces—and only one hand on each. The settlers of this former Swedish religious colony were reportedly too busy building homes and planting crops to count the minutes.

I like that.

I have loathed clock time forever. I hate being asked how long something will take; hate the roulette of being late or awkwardly early; hate having to account for my time. “Be home by dark” was fine when I was little. “Be home by midnight” was not fine, a few years later, because it required an incessant checking of my watch or (so uncool) my date’s watch. My mom kept buying me watches, no doubt hoping to encourage greater accountability, and I kept losing them. We both blamed irresponsibility; today I credit a subversive unconscious.

I keep our antique mantel clock unwound, set forever at the time its owners would have dressed for dinner. Frozen, time wields no power over me. But stopwatches and blown whistles make me cringe, and even silent hourglasses terrify me with their relentless trickle. Had I lived in England in 1840, I would have sided with Charles Dickens, who, when railway time was standardized, exclaimed that it was “as if the sun itself had given in.”

Atop the Steeple Building in Bishop Hill, Illinois, is a clock with four faces—and only one hand on each. The settlers of this former Swedish religious colony were reportedly too busy building homes and planting crops to count the minutes.

The new airplanes and automobiles excited the air, but it was railroads that changed everything: No longer was it okay for the village clock to read ten-twenty when it was ten-forty in Poughkeepsie. With our vast interior, the U.S. was a far greater challenge than England—one table showed more than a hundred local times varying by more than three hours. It took us another forty-three years to standardize our railway time, and still people fussed, unwilling to give up their high noon for someone else’s timetable.

I think I could have handled the first mechanical clocks. Invented early in the fourteenth century, they were big, and no more invasive than church bells. By the seventeenth century, though, the clock had been miniaturized as a pocket watch, and then we strapped one to our arm, and now we carry it everywhere. (In the dystopian future, it may well be implanted in our brain—the ultimate means of control.)

Those most punished by clock time are those paid by the hour. In 1911, Frederick Taylor took his stopwatch into the factory and devised a way to increase efficiency and misery in a single stroke. Work must be done at someone else’s pace, not your own. Punching a clock was now a requirement—and a temptation.

Today, with so much work done by disembodied brains, clock time is more about communication, billable hours, and constant availability. Because we must make ourselves accessible via device, friends, families, and outside interests then flow into that space too. Some people find the barrage flattering. Others notice how it steals and fragments their time. “We no longer feel ‘at home’ with ourselves,” wrote Marc Wittmann in Felt Time, “and find it difficult to persist in any given activity because we are available at every moment.”

 

The future is behind us

We live as though there is only one time, and it flows uniformly and can be divided into equal parts at any point along the line. Yet when you split the stuff of life apart, you find particles dancing forward and backward in a minuet that mocks our linear time. In black holes, time literally stands still. In art, time follows shifting rhythms: James Joyce’s Ulysses paces itself to the spasms of digestion; the contractions of childbirth; the flow of traffic, thought, language. Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness is more of a butterfly-catching expedition, net darting this way and that, lured by flashes of color. In Salvador Dali’s famous clock painting, The Persistence of Memory, time stretches, decays, twists, is devoured. In Ovid, time itself is “the devourer of all things.”

Every place in the world has its own way of envisioning time. We think of the past as behind us, the future ahead. But the Aymara, who live in the Andes highlands, see it opposite, notes Stefan Klein in The Secret Pulse of Time. They point forward to the past because they can see it; it already happened. They envision the future as behind their backs, and they seldom glance over their shoulder; to them, the invisible is not worth speculating about.

Every place also has its own tempo—the hot rush of Manhattan, the easy mañana of Latin cultures. In A Geography of Time, Robert Levine describes “event time,” which still structures many cultures. It is an older way of thinking about time, more organic, more flexible. In farming communities in Burundi, people meet “when the cows go out” to graze or “when the rooster sings.” In Bali, clock time is referred to as “rubber time,” adding a little give.

We think of the past as behind us, the future ahead. But the Aymara, who live in the Andes highlands, see it opposite, … They point forward to the past because they can see it; it already happened. They envision the future as behind their backs, and they seldom glance over their shoulder; to them, the invisible is not worth speculating about.

People move fastest “in places with vital economies, a high degree of industrialization, larger populations, cooler climates, and a cultural orientation toward individualism,” says Levine. But the pace of life is more complicated than its tempo. The pace is the way we experience time as we live it, and it is “a tangled arrangement of cadences, of perpetually changing rhythms and sequences, stresses and calms, cycles and spikes.” Why? Because time is social, an aggregate of each individual’s impatience or ease.

Even in a single place, you can find cultural pockets that view time differently. Once I worked at a pharmacy college, its conservative culture different in every way from the edgy alt newsweekly where I had reported for the previous decade. There, people staggered in (sometimes literally) around noon and often stayed until midnight, raiding the vending machine or hitting the bar across the street for sustenance. At the pharmacy college, everyone went to the cafeteria at noon, returned by 12:45 p.m., and left work at 4:30 p.m.

Zooming out, even the large-scale mapping of time varies. Christianity’s Gregorian calendar might dominate, but there is also a Chinese calendar, an Islamic calendar, a Hebrew calendar. Every time I agitate to do something glamorous for New Year’s Eve, my Jewish husband lifts an eyebrow: “Whose New Year?” I grew up Catholic, the year divided between the anticipation and excitement of Christmas and Easter and thirty-four weeks of “ordinary time.” For teachers and students, the fresh beginning is always September. Had I been asked, I would have set the new year at the most obvious place of all, the beginning of spring, when the world comes back to life. But that would mean many different new years, unleashing chaos. How we organize time shapes how we see the world. In the U.S., we check our phones reflexively about ninety-six times a day, and the first thing we see when we lift that glass screen is the time. Zooming toward the future, we surf and skim, making near-instantaneous connections, and taking thin samplings of life as we go. Yet “all this time gained does not result in the feeling that we have more time,” Helmut Rosa notes in Social Acceleration. Living by clock time means submitting to an external authority. We are far less able to surrender to the moment (an apt phrase) because we cannot let our emotions respond freely; we are too keenly aware of what will come next, how long it will take, when we should leave.

A woman from Spain once blasted me because people in this country meet friends and then, after a certain interval, glance at their phone and seem almost to panic, looking wild-eyed for the server to bring the check and saying, “I’ve go to go.” Are they really that busy, she wanted to know, or do they just value the conversation less than they value their own schedule?

We live, I told her, by an interpersonal version of the Doomsday Clock, which was designed to tell, not time, but its end.

On the Doomsday Clock, the number of minutes until midnight symbolize how close we might be to global catastrophe. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists could have chosen a different symbol—a scale thrown off balance, a fragile glass globe sliding up and down a teeter-totter, floodwaters rising—but they chose time, not space, to signal urgency. At the dawn of the Cold War, they set the clock at seven minutes to midnight. It rose to seventeen relief-filled minutes in 1991. It shot down to 100 seconds this past January, even before the pandemic exploded. Not just because nuclear war and climate change posed such dire threats, but “because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.”

Psychologist Steven Pinker once criticized the Doomsday Clock as a gimmicky attempt “to preserve civilization by scaring men into rationality.”

That is what clocks do. They scare us into rationality.

 

Naked time

Time is created by our consciousness of it and our measurement of it. Arrows turn, numbers click into place. Before those markers, we had only our body’s fatigue, the earth’s seasons, the moon’s phases, and the slant of the sun, casting shadows across Egyptian obelisks, tall woodhenges, or mossy sundials. Though that arc still describes our day, telling time that way has been reduced to a parlor trick. We prefer our smartphones, set by the atomic clock that reached chip-scale precision in 2011. (Four years later, we sent an atomic clock into deep space, perhaps to evangelize.)

By the clock, the day begins at midnight. Common sense says it begins at dawn—but that defies the clock, because dawn cannot be standardized. Nature and experience set their own time. The minute we try to rationalize it, universalize it, legislate it, time becomes arbitrary and abstract.

Our bodies know this. Every cell has its own biological clock, spitting out proteins until they reach a certain level and the twenty-four-hour cycle starts over again. We even have “clock” genes that tell us when to sleep and wake: the period gene, for example, makes a protein that accumulates at night and dissipates by day, driving our circadian rhythms.

Those rhythms matter—jet lag can ruin a weekend in Paris, shift work plays havoc with the immune system, and as for daylight saving, the Society for Research on Biological Rhythms says all this springing forward and falling back is damaging our health, our moods, our sleep.

The brain also has its own internal clock, set and reset by the emotional tone of every perception. Just as rage and panic cause “the ticker” to race, the brain’s clock speeds up whenever the body goes on high alert. We gulp in sensory data, recording way more experience than we normally would: the shivery cold, the way the light slanted, the door that was ajar, the way the doctor’s eyebrows wiggled. Because our brain is processing faster, time seems to slow down, unfolding in slow motion.

This can happen in a high-adrenaline state, when we are chasing a thief or falling off a cliff. But we can also lengthen time simply by stepping out of it. As we paint or invent or make music, we can enter the quiet “flow” state of absorption, losing track of both clock and body time. Or we can transcend time altogether by meditating, nibbling hallucinogenic mushrooms, having wild, intense sex, or climbing Mount Everest and reaching the peak at sunrise.

If, that is, nature cooperates. Its own time is increasingly off kilter: Cities flood the earth with so much artificial light at nighttime, and climate’s wild fluctuations and extremes have destroyed seasonal predictability, causing plants and animals to miss their natural cues to blossom, mate, migrate, or hibernate. Because of our careless, time-pressured industry, those slower rhythms have been altered.

 

The time lords

Clock time is social time; alone on an island, who would bother? Standardized public time takes its shape from a society, then acts as a metronome for all that society does. Without its steady ticking, the modern world would fall apart. Criminal convictions hinge on time-stamped photo or security footage. Wall Street’s bell opens a melée in which timing is everything. Documents are made important with a “time-sensitive” label. There are no clocks in public rooms anymore, but only because they have attached themselves to us instead.

Adrift in a pandemic, we urged one another to use this time well. Write a novel! Learn Portuguese! In the same breath, we reminded one another to keep to a schedule—and by that we did not mean to heed the body’s rhythms. We meant to set an alarm, rise at seven of-the-clock, begin work by eight, and end at five. Supposedly, this would keep us both sane and productive. Except, it might not.

“The key to a relaxed attitude involves controlling external demands,” says Rosa. We are stressed not so much by the amount of work we have to do but by “the fact that the work is imposed—without our being able to control it.”

I would throw away all timekeeping if I could—but no, I would not. Because clock time keeps us in sync. Were we to try to live as the Burundi do, most of us would fall off the earth. Time coordinates our friendships, collaborative projects, celebrations, travels. It is a flashpoint in any relationship: “We don’t need to leave that early for the airport.” “Why are you always late? You don’t respect me!” “We should be saving for the future.” “Stop dwelling on the past.”

I would throw away all timekeeping if I could—but no, I would not. Because clock time keeps us in sync. Were we to try to live as the Burundi do, most of us would fall off the earth.

For better or for worse, time is our matrix. We cannot zoom about in H.G. Wells’ handy time machine, and we cannot stay sane if—as happened in one Dr. Who episode—time stops moving altogether, and all historic periods intermingle. Yet isn’t that what technology now allows? The internet makes all eras present at once and all cultural forms accessible, much of this content flattened and stripped of context. Content on Snapchat and Stories dissolves like a spy message, making the brittle, beribboned love letters that used to be called “ephemera” look permanent by contrast. Twitter and Instagram have not had timelines since 2016, when they switched to an algorithm weighting relevance—yet they kept the word “timeline” as an anchor.

True to its name, Instagram is obsessed with capturing the moment, even if users lose any real experience of that moment as they fumble to capture it. Ironically, the new “timeline” was designed to shatter real-life time: “If your favorite musician shares a video from last night’s concert, it will be waiting for you when you wake up,” Instagram promised, “no matter…what time zone you live in.”

News, meanwhile, floods us nonstop—not manageably, on a piece of paper unfolded with toast and marmalade, but through all media, all the time, at Alexa’s bidding. I signed up for New York Times alerts expecting to receive occasional briefings about disasters and assassinations. Instead, I get multiple Breaking News messages a day about anything worth a bold headline. An emotional diagram of my interaction with my smartphone would look as jagged as lightning: happy-sad-worried-laughing-happy again-alarmed-reassured-outright scared-cracking up-happy again.

On the larger screen, first TiVo, then streaming, cut television loose from chronology. We can binge all episodes at once; pause and freeze the TV show to analyze it; go retro and watch shows that are decades old; or wait in suspense, as many serious directors would prefer us to do, for the next episode to drop. That, they say, is how storytelling works: Our brains crave the Aristotelian structure of beginning, middle, and end. Coincidentally, “narrative” became a buzzword just as that structure shattered, with multimedia and multiple endings and interactivity fragmenting linear time.

 

The clock of the long now

Clad in a formal gown, her face whitened, performance artist Marina Abramović sat, still and silent, for 700 hours. “She was all body. In this, she was very close to the passing of time,” wrote one critic of the 2010 exhibit, “The Artist Is Present.” Well over a thousand people—among them Bjork, Isabella Rossellini, and Lou Reed—lined up to sit across from her, one at a time, and lock eyes. Many were moved to tears.

There is an intensity to living in the moment; this is what I miss most when I am yanked forward or backward. “Forever is composed of nows,” Emily Dickinson wrote, but we rarely act as though that is true. We live in the past, turning a failure of nerve into a maudlin escape, or we live in the future, draining all joy and impulse from our lives.

Living in the present can mean swilling champagne from the bottle, running naked in a rainstorm, or driving eighty miles an hour on a narrow, winding road—sensation-seeking, in other words, with a rogue’s careless disregard of consequence. I crave a little of that, too. But present tense can be simpler: It can mean our minds are as limber and warmed-up as a ballerina’s, fully aware of each moment, free of the past’s baggage and the future’s worry, alive to joy and possibility.

As I write that sentence, an email pops up: I am being asked to go on furlough. Will I spend the next three months worrying? I am not sure. But I know how I want to use—no, live—the time.

In a psychology experiment, people were hypnotized and told to allow the present to expand and the past and future to move farther away, becoming insignificant. Like children in a Montessori classroom, they became totally absorbed in the present moment. The result? They accomplished more, with less anxiety. and more playful creativity.

Zen masters know this. So do the founders of the slow food movement, the sages who teach mindfulness, the writers who have taken up the cry to do nothing. The philosopher Henri Bergson (who married, natch, Proust’s cousin) insisted that time was fluid, and that we felt its passage intuitively. He called this subjective felt experience “durée,” duration, our personality enduring across time. It bore scant relation to the quantitative measurement that turns time into space and chops it into past, present, and future.

 

Know enough science, and you can understand many different kinds of time. Know enough about human beings, and you realize that Bergson is right: Felt time is the result of emotion and experience, and none of us live in the same zone.

Unfortunately, the times we are most acutely aware of duration—of feeling time’s passage—are when we are shifting restlessly between tenses, bored with the present, miserable about what has just happened, or eager for the future. Forget Dr. Who—our lives are time travel, organized to escape the present. Why do we think in only three tenses? Why not separate, as tarot cards do, the near past and near future? Why not distinguish our personal time from other people’s time, or from official, public time, or the vast scale of the earth’s time? A “Clock of the Long Now” is being built in the desert, where it will run for 10,000 years, synchronized to the sun and keeping track of five different kinds of time.

Know enough science, and you can understand many different kinds of time. Know enough about human beings, and you realize that Bergson is right: Felt time is the result of emotion and experience, and none of us live in the same zone.

 

In your own time

Watching a nervous young violinist prepare to audition, I heard the maestro say gently, “In your own time.” The phrase blossomed inside me, and I held it softly, remembering it whenever I felt rushed. In your own time. Not the world’s.

“Our time is our life,” Miles Davis insisted. “Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.” Does it fly for you, or creep along like a tortoise? Were you a late bloomer, or are you ahead of your time? Are you patient enough to wait for what you want, “all in good time”? What is a good time, as the philosopher Peter Maurin once earnestly asked a sex worker. Is time money (as hers was), and if so, how do you spend yours? What have you decided is a waste of time?

Once I asked Rabbi Susan Talve for an interview, apologizing because I knew how busy she was. “We will make a time,” she assured me, that deliberate phrasing a hint that it is possible to create what we need, rather than violently “carve it out.” We stew over time’s passage, yet it takes only a minute to fall in love after years of longing; only a minute to have an idea that changes the world or an epiphany that changes our whole life. The greatest compliment is to be so engaged in a conversation that you look out the window and realize a blizzard has blown in three inches of snow.

Wasted time, on the other hand, sets my teeth on edge—boring meetings, unwanted phone calls, technological snags, my own dithering, a frittered afternoon. “If one has no time,” writes Wittmann, “one has also lost oneself.” I forget that regularly, thinking of time as separate from my psyche, a guard watching from a tower. And then Bergson reminds me: The real time is my own. It is felt experience, not countable intervals. When I ignore that inner need to slow down or obey a delightful impulse or match my body’s rhythms, society’s brass pendulum sweeps me along on its arc, and all I can do is hang on tight.

We stew over time’s passage, yet it takes only a minute to fall in love after years of longing; only a minute to have an idea that changes the world or an epiphany that changes our whole life. The greatest compliment is to be so engaged in a conversation that you look out the window and realize a blizzard has blown in three inches of snow.

These last weeks, sheltered in place, our routines shattered, we all felt time more acutely. We felt its public face dissolve, and we felt our inner time unfold. Will we eagerly ramp up again? Or will something deep inside us resist the tyranny of clock time, the pace that left us breathless because it left no room for solitude, dreaming, creating, or relaxing in any way more meaningful than a slump on the couch with our brains switched off? So much of this pandemic has been about time—counting down two weeks if you are afraid you were exposed; counting down a quarantine; spending long stretches of time alone at home; living in the present because every plan and idea about the future has ten caveats. For weeks, our leaders spun crystal balls to learn when, rather than exploring why or how. When will the surge peak, when will the ventilators run out, when will the stimulus checks arrive, when do restaurants reopen, when will the economy return, when will a second wave hit, when will the vaccine be ready?

If the suspense ever lets up, we will all exhale at once. This new time pressure is very different from the old distracted hypervigilance, but it is similar, too, in that once again we are afraid we will not have enough time—in this case, to live out our lives. Once again, we are tugged out of the ability to just plain live in the moment. Once again, that is the only real option.

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