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Our Altered Sense of Time in a Bewildering Pandemic

Joseph Mazur—

Our real world is now a setting that was once just a fantasy in the minds of futurist science fiction writers. For decades it was an inevitable scene that loomed largely in the opinions of our leading infectious disease experts, but in early January U.S. intelligence agencies predicted its imminence when coronavirus case numbers were rapidly increasing on the other side of the planet. We are living in a nonfiction world without cafes, restaurants, and cinemas, a lockdown world of empty streets and frightening news. And in these dim pandemic months, time itself is confused.

Time measures the lines of our existence, our appointments to keep, places to be, deadlines to meet, expectations, times to eat and times to sleep. But unlike the time of the clock, time in the mind is elastic. Reading a novel brings you into the time of another world, a dilated time, or a long-drawn-out time. You will hear the clock bells of Dublin sounding when you read James Joyce’s Ulysses. The whole of it takes place in just one day. But in that single day, time greatly expands through the dreams of its characters, their ages, all in conflict with those Dublin clocks. In Ulysses, time in the mind is far from the time of the clock. 

A comparable elasticity of time is captured in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a love letter to the English poet, Vita Sackville-West, in a time both stretching and shrinking across three centuries. “The mind of man,” Woolf wrote, “works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.” 

Our world, turning as it still does, is beginning to be lost in time. In the midst of its current pandemic nobody knows when normal life will return. There is no end to guide our sense of time as it dilates, inflates, contracts, and confuses our daily routines and practices. Without duration, we live anxiously and impatiently with a dim aura of time. A reliable, clear duration would give us a feeling that time is accelerating to an end of the event. All durations have that power, along with the potential to calm anxieties. They are the time-keys to the serenity of life.

Thinking about the end of any duration of routine activity alters our sense of time. One envisions vacation at a spa resort as the end of a month approaches. Soon, the anticipated trip arrives and there comes a sequence of indefinite new experiences. Meals and mealtimes are changed; sleep cycles are changed, as are attentions to time, itself. Time seems to pass slowly at first. Then, after a few days, the empty future fills in to create a new routine. As one adjusts to that new routine the lengths of days seem to accelerate toward the end date of that duration. The block of time, with its pre-established end, plays with the mind. 

Often there are biophysical changes, blood pressures, sunlight exposures, and drinking practices that complicate matters to confuse time. So our sense of time requires a sense of duration, not simply a mark of a particular time that is in no relation to another mark of time.  As William James once put it, “The unit of composition of our perception of time is a duration with a bow and a stern as it were—a rearward- and a forward-looking end.” That is certainly true; however, one’s sense of duration will be gauged by one’s activity and the intensity of one’s interest. Read a novel. Try to sleep while thinking about when the world will return to normal. For each, time will beat by different clocks in the mind. 

Happily, there are still many intervals of pleasure, even in these hard times. They are filled with moments when we bite into something delicious, moments when we are in the flow of an energized focus, perhaps enjoying a spring walk in a garden, or rhapsodically relishing a meaningful piece of music, or absorbed in what we love most, or perhaps just moments of deep intellectual focus. Those are the significant durations of time when we feel alive. They’re often buried and mixed in the timelines of life, but they are the intervals of concentration that move us along with meaning. They come and go throughout our days, jerking, contracting, and dilating time, fervently stirring our yens for more. 

Joseph Mazur is professor emeritus of mathematics at Marlboro College. His previous books include Euclid in the Rainforest: Discovering Universal Truth in Logic and Math and Fluke: The Math and Myth of Coincidence. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Vermont.

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