“What is a week-end?” As the humorous line in British series Downton Abbey reminds us, the Industrial Revolution brought about more than machines: it fundamentally altered how society perceived time on a mass level.
Weekends came into existence. It was the start of clocking in and clocking out — of living by a clock with a degree of intensity the world had never seen. With trains came schedules, and with schedules came the notion of being on time to the specific second and minute and hour and day.
Put simply, time has undergone broad societal change before. Our dedication to clocks has arguably risen alongside the Internet, social media, and the immediacy they inspire. However, we’ve been running along the same path since the Industrial
Revolution. Until, perhaps, now. That path has forked.
Time has lost its usual parameters. The way we used to demarcate it, measure it, and live by it, has shifted. We don’t leave our houses at 7:15 am and walk into offices at 8:00 am and pick kids up from school at 3:15 pm and make sure those kids have eaten before their soccer games at 6:00 pm. Yes, we still have Zoom calls, and we’re far more likely to agree on meetings at 1:15 pm than “sometime after lunch,” but on a broad level, society no longer lives by the clock with the same acerbic intensity.
That, in it of itself, is monumental. It reminds us that perspectives are fluid, and that when living inside our lives, we can become prisoners of those perspectives. Time is everywhere, always, so it’s easy to think it has one identity, but it has always been relative. We’ve all experienced the passing of an hour doing something we love versus something we dislike. Week-long vacations
feel like they’re over five minutes later, and crises that last only minutes feel like weeks. 2020 has exacerbated this awareness of relativity. We do not know when we will again live by our clocks, so we live right here, right now, in our bubbles. The best way I’ve seen this described is by French philosopher François Hartog, who has coined the concept “presentism,” as Fortune discusses in the article, “It’s not your imagination—the pandemic has thoroughly upended our relationship to time.”
As Hartog explains, presentism “‘is the sense that only the present exists, a present characterized at once by the tyranny of the instant and by the treadmill of an unending now.’” Or, as Paul Simon would say, time is “slip sliding away.” When we live for the immediate now, every day can feel the same, devoid of visions for the future. Time can feel like it’s sliding out
from beneath our feet. Where did the time go? Why does March 2020 feel like a different year? The fact that American culture has experienced a decade’s worth of change in mere months just adds to this extreme disorientation. So, what can we do?
Remember perspective is everything. Weekends haven’t always existed. People used to agree to meet at sunset, not 7:15 pm. Look to the Industrial Revolution. Look to see how they grappled with the shift in time, from relying on the sun to relying on the clock. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the decade of change we’ve experienced in months because we believe each event is a decade-defining event. That’s based upon our past, and our perspectives, and our beliefs. But consider this: the ancient Egyptians did not experience significant change in society whatsoever for hundreds of years. The rate of societal change is always increasing, and has always been relative.
Einstein told us time is not linear, and if it is not linear, we cannot understand it as some straight, simple line with clear starts and stops and hours that always feel like hours. Whether time is, indeed, linear or not, it is certainly fluid, with our perspectives — our realities — defining time more than time defines itself. Someday, the pandemic will be over, and life will take on a new sense of normalcy. We get to determine what that looks like. 2020 has thrown our relationship with time under the spotlight. It can be disorienting and difficult, but it’s also an incredible opportunity to examine one’s own life in relation to the clock, as well as society’s relationship with time at large. Perhaps the way we lived before worked better for you. Perhaps it didn’t. Either way, you get to choose. Time does not control us. Our perspectives do. Don’t let yours imprison you.