Did Time Really Warp in 2020?

We’ve had to learn that in the pandemic, time means something new

Photo: yuanyuan yan/Getty Images

March, the first month of the lockdowns, felt like it lasted an eternity. Then April slipped past like it never happened. June, July, August were punctured with protests and emotional exhaustion as the summer seemed to simply evaporate. Suddenly, it was November, and there was an election again. Week after week, month after month, people gathering at a distance or on myriad video conferencing apps agreed: In 2020, it was impossible to tell what day it was. Time — that dependable, quantifiable metric of life — had become unpredictable.

How could this be?

As Reuters explained in July, variables like repetition, emotion, and memory distortion can mess with our subjective concept of time. Over at Vox a month earlier, philosophy professor Adrian Bardon, PhD, of Wake Forest University offered a similar explanation as to why it felt as though days or weeks were endless, but entire months seemed to zip by. By disrupting our routines, the pandemic skewed our interpretation of time — both as it was happening and how we interpreted it retrospectively, Bardon explained. It also filled us with anxiety. “The combination of negative emotion and inward-directed attention makes your moment-to-moment life seem intolerable and burdensome,” he continued. Yet, “when we look back on our day, we say, ‘Where did the day go? Nothing got done.’” In other words: The pandemic added new stresses and forced us to ruminate.

But the hours we spent working or taking care of kids or being bored weren’t the only measures of time that changed for us in 2020. So did our ability to plan ahead. The pandemic injected layers of uncertainty into our day to day, but also made it nearly impossible to predict what would happen weeks or months ahead. The future in 2020 almost felt as if it had completely disappeared.

Fittingly, the central premise of 2020’s only true blockbuster film, Tenet, deals with the concept of time manipulation. In it, The Protagonist (seriously, that’s his name) is tasked with saving the world from a shadowy faction of future humans who are set on running time on Earth backward. To do that, he has to reclaim time itself. By the time Tenet appeared in sparsely-attended theatres in mid-summer, the exhaustion with the pandemic and its restrictions as well as our new schedules and skewed perceptions of time, made it feel like a disturbingly prescient fantasy. This was, after all, the subject of countless 2020 daydreams: We longed for the ability to rewind to the world we once had — or to fast forward to the one we’ll inhabit when this is all over.

Before 2020, time was transactional and almost strictly conceptualized as a commodity. Time was money, a resource to save, spend, and bank.

What we really lost was our sense of control. We could no longer dictate how we spent our time. Our perception of time had been twisted and torqued, yes, but above all else, it felt as if time had been stolen from us.

The anxiety over time being taken away was everywhere. It surfaced most obviously in our confused annoyance about how the days felt like weeks and the weeks like days. You could hear it in our impatience with the length of myriad shutdown rules and, by extension, those who broke them, the thieves of the time we could gain if we all just abided.

It was even the undertones of what seemed an entirely different debate, the one over masks. When Fox News caught up with anti-mask protesters in Michigan in April, the infringements they reported being placed upon their rights seemed silly: People were furious they couldn’t do simple things like buy paint or go to the salon. But it wasn’t their rights they’d felt were taken away, it was their time. Admitting this would have complicated things. After all, from whom or what can we demand our time back? Certainly not a virus.

It’s here we hit the crux of the issue. All of our noodling over time in 2020 — our discussions over its speed, our desire to run it backward or forward, or our frustration with its apparent capture — assumed that time belonged to us in the first place. Einstein’s theory of relativity is, in part, prefaced on the idea that, as physicist Carlo Rovelli wrote in The Order of Time, “every clock has its proper time” — the time indicated while it measuring any particular phenomenon. And every phenomenon, Rovelli wrote, “has its proper time, its own rhythm.”

Apply this to 2020, and we see that maybe time was neither stolen nor warped. Instead, its pace was set at an unfamiliar rhythm, by a global, biological event in which we suddenly found ourselves caught. Time now belongs to the virus.

Time now means something different than it once did. Before 2020, time was transactional and almost strictly conceptualized as a commodity. Time was money, a resource to save, spend, and bank. Inside the pandemic, is it still? As we face countless lost jobs and closed businesses, the answer feels like yes — the longer the pandemic lasts, the more difficult it will be to recover both. But many of us seem to resist accepting that time is not a thing that can be uniformly divided, measured, and counted in units but rather an experience. Just one that we weren’t used to.

It became common in 2020 for people to refer to the years prior to this as the “Before Time,” as in the era where we could gather together, travel unrestricted, and live without face masks. By contrast, “Pandemic Time” is suspended and inescapable. Our only hope is that with the end of Covid-19, we’ll regain our separation from time. We dream of the day when we can think of time again as something we own or that works for us, that can be comfortably and routinely measured, that is transactional like cash. This is also the unspoken guarantee of a vaccine: an escape from not just the virus but from its rhythm and its clock. Perhaps we will call it the “After Time.”


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