The Unending Anxiety of Waiting for What Happens Next

The pace of change is coming at a breakneck speed while we’re all stuck in place

New York City’s Fifth Avenue on March 23. Photo: Angela Weiss /Getty Images

Near my house is a bank. Most other businesses around it are closed now, as per municipal orders. But each of the four times I passed it this week, the bank’s parking lot was full. People were withdrawing cash. Across the street in one direction, a gas station still operates, selling fuel for a fraction of the price it did a few months ago. In the other, a chain grocery store remains the lone operating business in a deserted strip mall.

As the rates of infection from around the world continue to curve skyward — as well as the numbers of societal changes imposed in response — the pace of change has felt increasingly, well, febrile. For many, time has lost all meaning other than to have seemingly accelerated. This might make logical sense. We’re consuming more new information more frequently, and juxtaposed against the general monotony of isolation, things now feel particularly unwieldy. On the one hand, there is a constant barrage of terrifying news and updates; on the other, silence and calm.

Meanwhile, the status quo is disappearing — at least for now. Francis Tseng, a fellow at the Jain Family Institute, is curating a list of “things we allegedly can’t have except that we can,” a growing compendium of announcements from organizations and governments granting things for which progressives have long advocated, only to be told they were impossible: Direct payments to individuals in need, free public transport, waived overdraft and ATM fees, eviction moratoriums, mortgage payment relief, free national park access, unlimited data, and on and on. As much as these changes are welcome, the speed at which they’ve been enacted is itself destabilizing. Then, of course, we still wonder how long these changes will stick.

There is another way time has begun to feel warped. There is a factor of duration we can’t account for. We ask each other, and ourselves: If this goes on longer than another two weeks, how will things revert back to normal? And when will we know they can?

It’s all beginning to weigh heavily. Even when people aren’t talking about it directly, you can hear the unease, the anxiety of living through a potentially profound societal shift, the hopelessness of trying to grasp something so ethereal. You sense the moments of awe watching the economy collapse, industries fold, and borders close — those fleeting glimpses we have of the pandemic hyperobject, a thing that is massively distributed between time and space, that we can each never see as a whole.

“Crazy, isn’t it?” we say to one another. “Never seen anything like it,” we marvel.

About a week ago, before the societal lockdown was enacted, I went to the grocery store again. The toilet paper was long gone, and stocks of other basics were being quickly liquidated. Pasta. Beans. Soup. The fruit and vegetable area was wiped nearly clean. The bread was spread sparsely, the soy and almond milk gone from the shelves. When considering how to prepare for the unknown, these were the guesses people made, then.

We live in lag time, suspended somewhere between when the virus arrived and when we will start to feel it.

Were they correct? The queue for the cash stretched horizontally to the far side of the store, then down the frozen food aisle, a train of quiet, slouching figures, evaluating each other’s haul, each of us probably wondering whether we were missing something important — something our fellow hoarders had remembered, something that would save them when they get sick, whenever that is.

Already, that lineup feels historical, like it happened in another life. In the time since, many of us have likely realized our supermarket choices were a false security. The fruit, bountiful and lush days ago, has begun to decay. The milk is nearly gone. Time has passed, and still we’re waiting for the virus to hit. So what now? Maybe we run the banks? Does cash still mean something? For how long?

Just as the exponential virus has replicated itself through exponential data and exponential anxiety, its incubation period has done something similar, mirroring itself socially as a global sense of impending doom. We’re constantly checking the news, watching the data, worrying over the endless charts of growing case numbers. But as much as we know, it’s what we don’t know that’s scary. These numbers we see are, to some extent, inaccurate. We’re only seeing reality for what it is — what it has been for some time — because we know now how to look. The truth is, we’re not waiting for something to happen. It already has.

We live, for now, in lag time, suspended somewhere between the past, when the virus arrived, and the present, when we will start to see it and feel it. Until then, we hang, caught in the endless split second between what we know and what we don’t. Unmoving. Sheltered in place. Immobilized. Ultimately, this is what’s so disorienting about our current state. The lesson of the virus, wherever it has surfaced, is not that time is moving faster or slower, but that there is no time. No time to prepare, no time to adjust. This is where we find ourselves. Time, for now, has stopped.


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