Stop the clocks

Many of us may feel we have lost a year.  Here, Emma Johnson looks at how our idea of time can change for the better

The past year seems to have been endless, yet almost nonexistent. ‘I feel like I’ve lost an entire year,’ a friend told me. ‘How is it spring again?’ said another. But when we look back at 2020, we recall how lonely hours dragged and weeks of home-schooling crawled. Government announcements about extended lockdown may as well have said ‘Stay indoors forever’, yet Christmas hurtled towards us as quickly as ever.

How is it that time has felt so elastic? How is it that days and weeks felt painfully slow, yet we struggle to grasp that an entire year has gone by since we began talking about Covid?

‘When we live life in a linear way, moving through every day as though it should be the same, life passes us by,’ explains Kirsty Gallagher in her book Luna Living: Working with the magic of the moon cycles. ‘Every day blends into the next with nothing to pause or break it up, except perhaps a weekend or an occasional holiday. We blink and we miss it. And before we know it, we’re at the end of another year of unfulfilled dreams and goals.’

Gallagher’s words are a sobering indictment of our obsession with counting down time. We are conditioned to see time as linear, to count in months, days, weeks and hours, from past, to present, to future.

Viewing time in this way restricts our lives emotionally and spiritually. We know from the practices of mindfulness and spirituality that focusing on the present can help us feel more content, more connected to ourselves. Theologians have long considered the unspooling of time a barrier to peace and joy. ‘There exists only the present instant,’ wrote Meister Eckhart. ‘There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence.’

Perhaps it is time to think differently about time. If we do, what might we learn about ourselves?

THE MIND IN TIME

Time is a human construct. Unlike gravity, it is not set down in the laws of nature. We think of it as an arrow, going from past to present to future. When we die, we write only two dates on our headstones: the beginning and the end. And we draw a line between them. Time begins, passes, and ends. But this is a deeply reductive way of thinking about the quirky, complicated, mysterious beauty of human existence.

What do we mean when we say time passes? Do we move through time, or does time move through us?

According to Carlo Rovelli, author of The Order of Time, the world is a collection of events that are not ordered. To make sense of our lives, we have created a linear understanding of time, in which the past cannot be changed, the future is uncertain and we are on an imagined line between them.

‘We conventionally think of time as something simple and fundamental,’ Rovelli says. ‘The past is fixed; the future is open. And yet all of this has turned out to be false.’

THE SHIFTING SANDS OF TIME

In Ethiopia, time is measured with calendar featuring twelve months with thirty days and a thirteenth with only five. Consequently, the Ethiopian calendar is years behind the Gregorian one that is in use across most of the rest of the world. It’s 2013 in Ethiopia this year. Meanwhile, the whole of China uses the same time, whereas the US has time zones that span several hours.

In Sommarøy – a Norwegian island village in the north of the country – the sun neither rises in the winter nor sets in the summer. This prompted a campaign to remove the concept of time entirely. ‘Children and young people still have to go to school, but there is room for flexibility,’ campaign leader Kjell Ove Hveding told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. ‘All over the world, people are characterised by stress and depression. In many cases this can be linked to the feeling of being trapped, and here the clock plays a role.’

THE MEASURE OF TIME

For centuries, we measured time by reckoning dates, or looking to the stars, the moon, the seasons, sundials and water clocks. When we put numbers to time – created days and minutes, clocks and calendars – we transformed the fluidity of time into an immovable mechanism. Now we measure success by numbers devised centuries ago that shifted our view of the world from something organic, and connected to nature, to something rigid, detached and eventually monetised.

‘Before imperialists descended on the United States, there were no clocks,’ writes Teen Vogue education columnist Mary Retta. ‘No second hands tick tick ticking our lives away.’ But now, she says, ‘Labouring under capitalism… is to be asked: “How much is sixty minutes of survival worth to you?” And to answer: “For how long must I labour to earn the right to survive?”’

As time passes, we become more desperate to keep up, more regretful of the past, more anxious about the future. ‘The secret of time lies in this slippage that we feel on our pulse…’ says Rovelli. ‘This is what it means to think about time.’

Our fear of time passing is intimately linked to our fear of death – something that Rovelli calls an ‘error of evolution’. Animals, he observes, experience the terror of death at the moment a predator strikes, but it is instantaneous; they do not live with the terror all of the time. Yet humans do.

We need to come to a new understanding about time: one that allows us to move at our own speed, governed by desire and intention, not money or timeframes or avoiding the path into the afterlife. ‘I do not fear death,’ he says. ‘Job died when he was “full of days”… I too would like to arrive at the point of feeling full of days, and to close with a smile the brief circle that is our life.’

THE CIRCLING

Part of understanding our place in time is in thinking about where we sit in the story of our life. Do we move through it or does it move around us? The Aboriginal people, who for centuries did not use numbers, perceive events not as linear but in a circular pattern. An individual is at the centre of these circles, and events are placed according to their importance to that individual and to the larger community. The more significant events are, effectively, perceived as being closer in time. This profoundly different way of thinking allows us to hold the important parts of our lives close, even if they are distanced from us in conventional time.

This cyclical construct can be found across the world. ‘Navajo time is circular,’ says speaker and writer Mark Charles. ‘If an event is passed or missed, there is not as much concern. The understanding is that the event will usually come around again. In this perception of time, life is organised by completing tasks or events. Value and importance is communicated not by starting or arriving on time, but by staying until the interaction is over or the task is complete.’ There is no beginning or ending: only what is, what has always been, and what will always be. Death is not the end, but simply another milestone.

CHANGING SEASONS

The circling of time emphasises events, celebrations and festivals – many of which come around regularly – rather counting off days of our lives. And this way of thinking can be more easily understood by considering the importance of the seasons.

We recognise only four seasons. But, for the Druids, the seasons were more nuanced, offering a way to move through the year: an eternal circle of loss and renewal. Katherine May’s book /Wintering: The power of rest and retreat in difficult times/ touches on the eightfold Druid year, which begins with rebirth at the Winter Solstice. Imbolc, on the first day of February, is when early snowdrops show. In mid-March, Alban Eilir – the spring equinox – is celebrated. On May Day, Beltane sees spring in full bloom. The end of June brings the Summer Solstice, followed by the Autumnal Equinox in September. Samhain heralds the arrival of winter – and is celebrated on Halloween – before the Winter Solstice returns in December.

‘This means that we have something to do every six weeks,’ says modern Druid Phillip Carr-Gomm. ‘The pattern of festivals gives a rhythm to the year, offering a way through even the darkest periods.’

Inside these circling seasons we find the moon’s monthly wax and wane. This offers another way to think differently about days and weeks. Working in time with the moon gives us a natural rhythm, creating all-important spaces for both rest and creativity. We can use the gradual changing of the moon to mark periods of activity and creativity, as well as periods of quietness and introspection.

Rather than seeing our lives as moving from one day to the next, we can consider the ebb and flow of our seasonal, monthly energies – acknowledging the times of low mood, of needing solitude and craving sleep, because we know the brighter days of positivity and vitality will soon come again. We stop thinking in terms of 24 hours, seven days, four weeks, 12 months… and instead become in tune with the rise and fall of our mental and physical energies, using this as a measure of our lives. 

Our ancestors based calendars on the sun, the moon and the seasons. We can use this ancient sequence to keep ourselves in check and measure our lives not by minutes and days but by renewal and discovery.

‘Time is not an arrow but a shimmering pool,’ says Retta. ‘We submerge and take laps around the boundaries of aliveness. We have lived these days before, it seems, and we will live them all again.’