Our Sense of Time During a Pandemic

2020 has flown. But then, we say that every year, don’t we? Perhaps. But there’s no denying that this year has been different in many ways. Swept up in all its changes, it is possible that we scarcely noticed how fast it’s gone by.

Take the pandemic lockdowns, for instance. I think many of us might have felt as if time had stopped. But did time stop or did it bring the world to a standstill? I don’t mean in the sense of the earth stopping to rotate, but in bringing life as we know it to a halt. Did we wake up like the character in the Ingmar Bergman film, Wild Strawberries, and find that the clocks had stopped? Or that they had no hands? And can we go back and start over, as if nothing had changed with the coronavirus?

It might seem like a reverie or a scene from a film, but for millions who have been infected with the Covid-19 virus and were hospitalised or succumbed to the infection, we could perhaps say that time had indeed stopped. Not to put too morbid a point on it, but life for most of these people would have been in suspended animation. Perhaps they had no sense of time whatsoever, or how it passed.

On the other hand, let us spare a thought for those who cared for them. All the millions of healthcare professionals and care-givers, who might not have had a moment to even pause to think about it. Chances are they might have felt that there just isn’t enough time to care adequately and save more lives. For them, it was always a race against time. It has been widely reported that most healthcare professionals haven’t had a moment for themselves or their families. Indeed, many hadn’t been home in days, even weeks. Perhaps the only way they could have thought of time was in terms of numbers of people who recovered and lives saved.

Covid Testing facility at the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), in Delhi; Image: PIB, Govt of India on Wikimedia Commons OGDL

And what to say of the millions of us still trying to go about our lives and our work, and to avoid the virus, if we can? How has it changed our perception of time and the way we manage it?

If we consider life during the lockdowns, it certainly seemed as if time had stopped. But did time stop or did our lives feel as if they had been halted in their tracks? The fact that we were no longer able to enjoy the things we like, or spend time with those we care about, or even work the way we have always been used to, meant that our lives were being reframed. Our first sense of it was that our freedoms and our style were being cramped. I remember people’s initial reaction to the lockdowns being, “Oh we don’t know what to do with our time. We’re so bored or tired!”

While the menfolk have expressed such views, women on the other hand, were working overtime now. Cooped up with their children, most were having a hard time juggling work from home as well as work at home. Which meant housework and homework with their kids. Not to mention all those women who are victims of domestic violence. For them, each moment at home must have seemed like an ordeal, an eternity.

So, you see, it isn’t time that stopped, but activity within that time frame that had changed. And with that, comes space and our sense of it. Lockdowns were always about space, about the confines of our homes and staying within them. About social distancing, about the 2-metre distance that we were to maintain.

Working from home and having to juggle one’s time; Image: Mikey Harris on Unsplash

Even generally speaking, so many of our observations about time are actually about space, as Henri Bergson points out in his book, Time and Free Will, which I just happened to finish reading. We measure our life through the amount of activity that we engage in.

I was prompted to read Henri Bergson’s book, after reading this article by Elisa Gabbert in The Paris Review on the Unreality of Time, which I shared with subscribers at The Whistle Library on my blog a couple of months ago. The article also referred to an essay by John McTaggart, on how time doesn’t really exist, and I must say that I agree with Elisa Gabbert when she says his arguments are not very convincing.

Bergson’s theory is more to do with how we humans experience time. That when we try and measure it quantitatively, we are almost always describing it qualitatively. And that therefore, time exists only in a qualitative sense, most of which we end up defining in spatial terms. In Time and Free Will, Henri Bergson says:

“Nevertheless, it is generally agreed to regard time as an unbounded medium, different from space but homogeneous like the latter: the homogeneous is thus supposed to take two forms, according as its contents co-exist or follow one another. It is true that, when we make time a homogeneous medium in which conscious states unfold themselves, we take it to be given all at once, which amounts to saying that we abstract it from duration. This simple consideration ought to warn us that we are thus unwittingly falling back upon space, and really giving up time. Moreover, we can understand that material objects, being exterior to one another and to ourselves, derive both exteriorities from the homogeneity of a medium which inserts intervals between them and sets off their outlines: but states of consciousness, even when successive, permeate one another, and in the simplest of them the whole soul can be reflected. We may therefore surmise that time, conceived under the form of a homogeneous medium, is some spurious concept, due to the trespassing of the idea of space upon the field of pure consciousness. At any rate we cannot finally admit two forms of the homogeneous, time and space, without first seeking whether one of them cannot be reduced to the other.”

Of course, we know that scientifically both time and space have been proven to exist. Einstein even proved that time bends across space, as I had written long ago in a blog post on how we can think about time.

Perhaps it is because we tend to think of and experience time in terms of space and activity, that people adopted new solutions almost immediately during Covid-19. I don’t ever remember people using videoconferencing so much at work, though the technology has been around for many years. All the constant and intense webinaring and Zooming that I see on LinkedIn and Twitter nowadays seems to suggest that we are in some way trying to fill the hole in our lives that the lockdowns had created. That we feel a compelling need to reach out and communicate and share our thoughts. I suspect a lot of it is also because of social media: the fact that we can share with the whole universe, what a few discussed over Zoom is incentive enough.

Which brings me to yet another angle to the experience of time. How technology has altered our understanding and experience of it. If in the past couple of decades, digital technology has changed our sense of time, work and leisure, it is even more true of the Covid economy. Digitisation has accelerated rapidly, as many companies report that they are achieving their digitization plans of several years in a matter of weeks and months. It is likely to have a far more enduring and permanent impact on our lives and our work. We can already see the surge in virtual meetings and work, WFH, e-commerce, doorstep delivery and more. Entire industries are going to have to change their business models, in order to adapt to the new economic order.

Time standing still with shuttered businesses and empty streets during the pandemic; Image: Joe Stubbs on Unsplash

I must admit that at the start of the pandemic early this year, I didn’t think it would change our lives or business all that significantly. At the end of 2020, I tend to think a little differently. Not merely because of how rapidly technology has stepped in with solutions, but because of how long the virus itself will last. The longer it is with us, the more dramatic the changes to work and business will be. And unfortunately, many smaller companies might go completely out of business.

Speaking for myself and my aged parents in Goa, it’s made little difference to our lives. Being out of work as I have been for over 14 years, since I quit my last job in Delhi to return home to my parents, life during Covid has been much the same as before. In fact, it’s perhaps worth asking what time could possibly mean to someone whose best years of life and work have been rendered useless for so long. I prefer not to dwell on what might have been in my career for the past 15-16 years, even though that should have been the peak of my professional life in the advertising and brand communications industry.

I am just glad that I have had all that time to spend with my aged parents in Goa, who are in their mid-to-late 80s. None of us is getting any younger, and so all that time is precious. I am also glad that I started out on a journey exploring brands, 14 years ago and have been putting down my thoughts and ideas for a wide range of brands, as I have written previously on my blog. I have also enjoyed starting a blog and sharing my thoughts with you all, as also through my Owl Wisdom Podcasts. As you can see in my case, I was already working from and at home, not out of choice, though.

My parents must realise that they don’t have much time left, and that is what I feel awful about. That I have been prevented from fulfilling my responsibilities towards them and my grandmothers who passed on many years ago. As far as the pandemic is concerned, it affected our lives in the lockdown only to the extent that we had more housework to do, since our maid was also under a lockdown. In India, where most people depend on domestic help for household chores, that can be a pretty big deal. Besides that, it was only supply shortages of groceries that caused inconvenience.

On the subject of time, I put down my thoughts and ideas for two brands that operate in that space. Rolex and Titan, an Indian brand of watches from the Tata Group. I thought Rolex had a beautiful brand positioning after so many years in the business and I wonder why they gave it up almost immediately. Their tagline of “A crown for every achievement” seemed to suggest a brand positioning of Rolex being the ultimate reward for one’s achievements. Sadly, none of their brand communication reflects any of this. On Titan, I had thought the brand should position itself as the way to earn one’s future, expressed through the tagline: Earn your tomorrows. This was guided by the Eastern conception of time, and the traditional Hindu belief of karma, of earning the next life depending on how one lived this one. The idea was therefore about making the most of one’s time today to earn tomorrow. As you can see, both Rolex and Titan are about what we do with our time; activities and achievements, which is how we all tend to think of time, rather than time itself.

I am glad I started on a morning walk regimen at the start of 2020 and intend to keep to it in the next year as well. And although I mentioned cattle and stray dogs intruding on my walk before, I did not mention the presence of trucks. Yes, you read that right. Trucks. Each morning, various trucks of different colours and sizes are parked at various points on my morning walk route, since the Jogger’s Park in Chicalim, Goa, that I now go to has been shut since the start of Covid. This is to remind me of what the CEO of Perfect Relations said to me 14 years ago when I was joining their office in Delhi in the context of businesses that I could work on: “Nothing is cast in stone. We can even get a truck account tomorrow!” Why trucks, when I have worked on car brands in my career, you’d wonder. Because almost two decades ago, I worked on a brochure on AIDS for a friend of an old colleague of mine in Ogilvy. And as part of the reading that I did for that assignment, I learned that it was spreading in India mainly through migrant labour and truck drivers practising unsafe sex. Since the past many months, the truck menace on my morning walk has worsened, with one of them even stopping and asking me if I wanted a ride! I wish Jogger’s Park would reopen soon, but it is probably the same unprofessional crooks keeping them from reopening for even just a couple of hours in the morning for morning walkers.

I also found that I have had so much to do, since I work on my own now for around 15 years. After checking online, I started using ToDoist, an app for creating to-do lists and managing one’s time better!

Those of us who can work from home will probably end up dividing our time between office and home even more than now. Flexi-time, as I had written before, will become more common especially at senior levels in organisations. Dining and entertainment as well as shopping will probably come home to us, rather than us going out. Hopefully, our lives will not be entirely dictated by technology. And that we will still be able to retain some cherished aspects of our lives, even as we adapt to the new post-Covid world.

Only time will tell.  Wish you all a very Happy New Year.     

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