Goldstein’s Gold Stars: Scrutinizing Time

Among the many, many things that COVID-19 has impacted in our recent lives, one has stood out to me as neither devastating nor overly beneficial. In the wake of our societal changes, so too has our perception of time.

Time: it’s vague (“give me one second”), it’s relative (thanks, Einstein), it’s one definition of the fourth dimension. It drags, it stops, it flies! It can be borrowed, bought, kept, lost. Time can be high, big, down, and even ripe.

According to physics, time is the reading on a clock—based on UTC, the worldwide system established in 1967 using atomic clocks. According to Google, it is “the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future.”

In many fantasy worlds, superior beings tend to view time nonlinearly: circularly, cyclically, et cetera.  They often have some kind of power over time, whether that be to escape its reach or to manipulate it. 

Like much of the universe, as it turns out, time is something we know very little about yet wish to control.

A UCSD study found that the Yupno, an indigenous people from Papua New Guinea, conceptualize time as related to topography: the past is considered downhill, the future is associated with uphill, and the present is construed as at the same level as the conceptualizer. When the Yupno speakers talked, the direction of their hand-gestures corresponded with whether they were referring to the past, present, or future. 

Not only did the Yupno people conceptualize time nonlinearly, their conceptualization reflected the local landscape. When speaking of the past, they gestured down the valley in which they lived, where a river flowed into the ocean. When speaking of the future, they gestured up, towards the source of that river.

It has been found that humans tend to think about time spatially, so we mentally organize events in this way. As for how we conceptualize time spatially, this seems to be determined by several environmental factors, especially literacy. Those whose languages read left to right usually conceptualize their mental timelines as progressing linearly in the rightward direction.

In any case, regardless of how we personally organize time in our minds, the way we handle it has recently changed.

In the face of COVID-19, our society has been forced to drastically reprioritize  our time. Time previously used in commutes and recreation is suddenly available for time spent binging, creating, practicing, you name it—the hobbies or specialties we may have set aside in favor of work, school, and other responsibilities. Time previously used for social gatherings or activities is suddenly available for time spent worrying, panicking, despairing, you name it—the struggles or burdens that we may have been keeping at bay, somehow or other.

We feel a sense of loss: loss of routine, loss of normalcy, not to mention loss of interaction and events and much of what we consider the basis of our lives, of our identities.

Thus, as we mourn the loss of these things, time causes a lot of guilt. Now that we find ourselves with a surfeit of “free time,” we feel pressured to do something with it. To be “productive” in the way that we used to be. We set high expectations despite the near impossibility of being at your best during a crisis, according to Vassilia Binensztok, PhD.

Conceptualizing time in a linear manner, as many of us do, seems disadvantageous now.

Where did April go? Just yesterday, it was March, but, look, here comes May just ahead… 

What did I do?

What does it mean to live??

Yet, while I whittle away at what was previously a mountain of homework and responsibilities (now reduced to the mere suggestion of a molehill), time seems to ooze by with all the speed and enthusiasm of molasses.

I am ambivalent about time, given both its consistency and simultaneous inconsistency. Time gives and takes so much from us. Admittedly, this standpoint may change with time.

The human concept of time is a strange thing. It limits the breadth and depth of what we do, and, simultaneously, forms the structure on which we organize our lives. It is a source of a wild disarray of emotions, including worry and wonder and pride, and, strangely, it is a force—an experience—that connects us to everything on this planet. 

I give—gave, by the time you read this—time three stars out of five.