When time stops
What happens when there's nothing to look forward to?
Time, like life, hasn't stopped under lockdown. It only feels that way.
Amidst the pervasive anxiety about illness and economic hardship, it can be easy to miss somewhat subtler forms of distress — like the sense that time itself is coming unwound, with forward motion halted.
Those of us working one or more jobs from home are all too familiar with the slippage. Our bedrooms and kitchens are indistinguishable from our offices. Children intrude on meetings; backlogged emails and Slack messages interfere with family time. Workdays seep into sleepless nights; the distinction between weekdays and weekends gets blurred.
But that's nothing compared to the dislocation afflicting our broader perception of time — and especially the future.
My son, a high school senior, has been accepted to college. As with every other college-bound kid, he's been thinking about and working toward this goal for years and was intensely focused on it during the two months before the world shut down in the second week of March. In his mind's eye, he was looking forward to a few more months of classes during which he'd attend his senior prom. This would be followed by a two-week internship and then a graduation ceremony in Philadelphia, with family members coming to town from Connecticut and Ohio to share in the celebration. After that would be a summer of work at a local ice cream shop where he'd recently been hired for a part-time job. Then in August we'd pack up the car and drop him off at school for the beginning of a four-year adventure in education and independence.
But now? In a world without time, nobody knows. What's left of senior year is a series of ad hoc and largely aimless online assignments and herky-jerky Zoom meetings. There will be no prom or internship. The ice cream shop has closed and may not survive. Graduation almost certainly won't happen, at least not in June, when it was originally scheduled. If it takes place at all, it will probably be online, with extended family staying safely at home.
And college in the fall? Schools are already talking about delaying their fall semesters, or running them entirely online. Paying tuition for my son to stare for months at his laptop screen in his bedroom at home? That doesn't sound smart. So maybe my son will take a gap year. But to do what? There are unlikely to be any jobs available. There certainly won't be opportunities for travel. It's possible he will have to get used to the idea that a year (or more?) of his life will be spent in suspension. Not moving backward, but also not moving forward. More like sliding sideways in slow motion.
My daughter is struggling with it, too. She's graduating from middle school this June, heading off to a high school in September. The transition to a new school was going to be a little scary, and more than a little exciting. But what will it be like, instead, to have this school year's educationally muted, technologically mediated, and socially stunted experience peter out without a graduation ceremony, bleed into an isolated and directionless summer, and then be followed by even more "distance learning" at a high school she's barely set foot in?
Of course we're fortunate to have any learning at all available to our kids. Plenty of school districts can't manage it, let alone manage it well. But that doesn't mean it's even the least bit fulfilling to "start a new school" and have it amount to staring bleary-eyed into the same old screen for several hours a day instead of interacting in person with teachers and peers in the physical world. Just as it's also hugely disappointing for my daughter's spring and year-end ballet recitals to be scrubbed permanently from the calendar after months of rehearsals.
Things are far worse for those graduating from college this spring. On top of the vanished rite of passage, these graduates will face a non-existent job market, with the overwhelming majority of them left to languish for months or even years trapped in an antechamber separating their educations from their careers. The economic peril is serious, but so is the psychological torment.
Human beings live their lives in time. Our sense of ourselves in the present is always in part a function of our remembrance and constant reinterpretation of our pasts along with our projection of future possibilities. We live for the person we hope to become. We look forward to who we will be a month or a year or a decade or more from now — and we commemorate the transitions from present to future with rites of passage celebrated in public with loved ones and friends. This makes us futural creatures. A high school senior applying for a university is living for the college student he hopes to be a year in the future. But what is a high school senior who can no longer look forward to a first day on campus next fall?
He's still a high school senior. But now he's one with a future lacking in clarity and definition, fading into a fog of uncertainty. The future is always somewhat uncertain, of course. That's a big part of what makes us futural in the first place: We imagine open-ended possibilities, each one of which, once chosen, opens up new possibilities and closes off others. And the choice doesn't guarantee anything. People die, get sick, have accidents, and suffer other misfortunes all the time. When that happens, a life gets wrenched off of its former path, with possible futures changing, and often constricting, dramatically.
For a young person unlucky enough to endure such a personally catastrophic event — and with a deadly virus spreading around the country and the world, there are plenty touched by such loss right now — there may be no consolation. But for those having to endure the less shattering but still heart-rending disappointments that follow from our efforts at limiting the spread of the contagion, the constriction of horizons is no less real.
A life without forward momentum is to a considerable extent a life without purpose — or at least the kind of purpose that lifts our spirits and enlivens our steps as we traverse time. Without the momentum and purpose, we flounder. A present without a future is a life that feels less worth living, because it's a life haunted by a shadow of futility.
Faced with a pandemic, we have every reason to think we're doing what needs to be done to limit mass death as much as we can. But the toll — on our psyches no less than on our economy — could turn out to be far greater than any of us fully realized or anticipated when the lockdown began.