What Even Is Time?

Pocket watch.
What does time mean anymore? Photo: Nicholas Eveleigh/Getty Images

More than usual, I’ve been reading news articles that are quite literally about time. If you’ve come in contact with a person infected with coronavirus, you could show symptoms between two and 14 days after exposure (if ever). The United States is ten days behind Italy’s coronavirus timeline. In about 45 days, New York City’s caseload will peak. Most distressingly: The Department of Health and Human Services is warning that this pandemic “will last 18 months or longer.”

And yet, over the past however-long-it’s-been since I stopped leaving my apartment, I’ve completely lost all sense of it. When did the days start feeling so long, or do they actually feel short? How have I managed to pass so much time, doing I don’t even know what?

Other than feeling increasingly feral, I couldn’t describe to you what I’ve done this week. Instead, all my waking hours seem to have coalesced into one single blur, which goes like this: Upon waking up, I think, “Oh, yeah,” after which I occupy myself by doing a series of largely unproductive movements. I flick my thumb across my laptop touchpad, taking brief breaks to swipe that same finger in the same motion on my iPhone. I do deep-breathing exercises in bed after watching a video about the devastating number of obituaries in Italian newspapers, and move to the ground when I seek a cool, hard surface. Hours later, I lie in that same spot on the floor and hump the air, as a bubbly aerobic instructor on my computer screen encourages me on my journey to getting a bubble butt that I worry no one except for my roommate will ever admire. I lie in bed some more. I ask my cat, “How are we doing?” I fall asleep drinking a dirty gin martini that’s approximately 50 percent olive juice. And then, once again, “Oh, yeah.”

I do not mean to complain about my new largely inactive lifestyle. I’m lucky to be able to stay inside all day, working from home; I’m fortunate to still have an income, which many workers across industries recently found themselves without. Even when I’m feeling particularly restless, I know this imposed timelessness is a luxury in its own way. But still, it’s a disorienting adjustment to make, to this weightless-feeling reality that was imposed nearly overnight. It’s even harder to wrap my head around the larger question of timelessness: How long will life be like this? Will the ordinary, orderly passage of the hours ever return? Did time ever exist?

Unfortunately, for me, there are no clear answers to any of these questions. So, for now, I foresee myself spending progressively more and more time in an alternative universe on my new Nintendo Switch, which people in a bygone era would’ve considered a “time suck.” Seeing as I no longer know what time is, I do not understand this concept, but I look forward to finding out.

Please note the story you’re reading was published more than a day ago. COVID-19 news and recommendations change fast: Read the latest here to stay up-to-date. We’ve lifted our paywall on all essential news and updates about the coronavirus.

What Even Is Time?