the collapse of time
written april 2020 | published august 2021
It is apparent that the world is currently watching systems in our society disintegrate before our eyes. The specific definitions of these systems have names representing the environment of falsely held stability, including our medical system, our housing system, and our food system. This COVID-19 pandemic is not the great equalizer in our communities but is the great exposure of these systems that have commanded over our communities for decades. Like an umbrella corporation of epoch proportions, capitalism holds all these systems in a stronghold, refusing to budge the grip that turns them into industrial complexes of profit. Unaware to most, there is a hidden system in capitalism that is the most delicately held under its umbrella of organized powers of corruption. Capitalism knows that if this system becomes unhinged then this fabricated man-made wheel of wealth inequality would be rendered unusable at the high price of countless human lives. This hidden system is capitalism’s linchpin, what the rest of the world calls our global concept of time.
Time has always been a concept that is held to a constant of quantification because the measurement of time exists as a simple fact. A minute is 60 seconds, and an hour is 60 minutes. However, that measurement is subjective to the human system of observation. The system of time is a collective agreement that is standardized effectively through conscious buy-in. Our concept of time is qualitative and descriptive through perception, which drastically diverts from the over-simplified quantification of its numerical value. The insidious nature of this diversion creates the illusion that the very nature of time is static, unfit to be questioned, when in fact it is dynamically connected to influence and power.
The Role of Time in the Survival Response
The concept of time is the backbone of our internal biological memory systems, and in the past, the distortion of this same concept has been pathologized through the mental health system. Dissociation can involve a disconnection to the concept of time which can create a distorted memory recall of events (Wang, 2018). This dissociative state of disconnection has been a pathologized symptom of many mental health conditions involving trauma origins (Wang, 2018). The origin of this time distortion is rooted in the effect of stress hormones released in the body when the sympathetic nervous system activates the “fight/flight/freeze/fawn” response during negative events (Arstila, 2012). The mechanism of the sympathetic nervous system in this survival response is to help to access the most amount of information during the shortest amount of time. This need for survival as the instinctual and functional response kicks in is so that we can actually stay alive. The consequence of this response: it appears that time slows down (Arstila, 2012).
This overlooked consequence of the survival response in the human body is often experienced as a personal navigation while experiencing trauma, however, the COVID-19 pandemic is the first opportunity to witness the experience on a global scale. This uncertain new world in the heightened state of a public health crisis is at the mercy of the human brain hardwired by its biological survival response, which is powered by stress hormones (Wirth, 2016). This means at any given moment billions of humans are forced to witness a world where systems are failing them, their survival mechanism is preparing them for the dangerous unknown, and various stress hormones, like cortisol and norepinephrine, are helping them to be as efficient at consuming information about their environment in the shortest amount of time (Wirth, 2016). When this efficiency is pushed to the maximum during a global period of extended trauma happening at the height of the digital age, the distorted perception of time slowing down is compounded by the in-real-time changing scientific journalism news cycle. Essentially, our survival mechanism to consume information for the very basis of survival is stretched to unthinkable bounds, which intensifies the perceived nature of internally quantifying time.
The Redefinition of Time
Distorting time to the very nature of it slowing down is not the only attack on the system of time needed to collapse such an integral part of capitalism. The next step in dismantling this hidden framework is through the redefinition of time. In our society, the classification of time has always been through the means of profits over people. Our goal in life is an efficiency model to be the most productive and efficient as a means to prove a worthy state of existing. Our nature is not that of ‘being’ but of ‘doing’, which is ultimately constrained by the nature of time’s defined value. When the phrase “time is money” is coupled with the phrase “hourly working wage”, our world view becomes accustomed to measuring time not in seconds or minutes but in dollars. This pandemic has challenged that very notion, burning it from the ground up with a forceful leveling. In a matter of days, millions of people lost their jobs, eliminating the ability to define their time by their financial stability. Suddenly their work was not available to define their time valuable, and the realization unfolded that productivity is the currency model of the system of time. Our global society was forced to answer the question: if time was no longer productive, did it make it automatically unproductive? The answer is no.
Productivity is only considered valuable when unproductivity is punished with less value. If the value of time is a currency model in capitalism then it is the currency model of time that is being dismantled through this redefinition of time. Productivity is just the lack of unproductivity. The actual process of redefining time requires divorcing productivity as the only prescribed value of time. Our society has been forced to refocus the value of time outside of capitalism, taking precarious measures to see how that refocus is painfully woven into the other systems nestled under capitalism. When our time has lost its productive value of stability, it simultaneously starts to destabilize our food systems, our housing systems, and our medical systems. The redefined value of time is still being written, so the liminality of it appears rudderless of meaning. If time is not being measured by capitalism during this pandemic, our static currency model of profits can be replaced by a dynamic community model of possibility. Still, our personal definition of time has always had innate meaning, a worthwhile nature that is inherent and priceless. The redefinition of time is exacting a pointed reconsideration to who was allowed to author the definition in the first place.
Time as Mechanism of Endurance
The final nail in the coffin of the system of time is the notion that enduring any long hardship is ultimately a ‘test of time’, or an unknown battle that we are meant to overcome. This test often relates to the fact that time has the final decision into how our cards play out, often mixed with the systemic oppression of the other capitalistic systems. When this pandemic first revealed itself, our society was met with many grim narratives of future times that would be coming towards us, ultimately as the many endurance tests we were about to face. One by one, these dark milestones came to fruition, often in a quicker timeline than was previously expressed. This test of time is not one giant test of time but little tests of time played out over a slowed-down perceived version of time that is being redefined in every changing moment. In previous considerations of enduring time through our own grit and willpower, it was never questioned that the ‘test of time’ would be changing as it was happening. Unfortunately, time is moving the goalposts quicker than our reactions can readjust. Without knowing where the goal is in this uncertain public health crisis turned political game, our invisible opponent time will always be one step ahead of us. This ‘test of time’ does not play by the tried and true waiting game rule from previous battles. Our current position in this global test of time provides the illusion of a rock and a hard place, between the death of our economy or the death of our loved ones. This type of no-win scenario is compounded by the grief in how swift this pandemic has taken over our global understanding of life.
Endurance is often viewed through the lens of surviving, often looking towards the other side of a situation as a better positional narrative. When our lives are challenged with stressful environments, it is determined that successfully passing the test of stress through the endurance of hardships equates to a badge of resilience, a notably prized possession as deemed by society. However, when surviving as an act of endurance is the only prescribed way to win the ‘test of time’, anyone forced to play in this coerced game of politicized public health narratives is never given the chance to do anything but survive. The idea that there is a third option to this testing by the system of time gives space to consider the nature of thriving as a possibility in this dynamically changing environment. Could the very act of thriving be the checkmate to a no-win scenario of this unthinkable magnitude of grief? What does it look like to go beyond surviving and go further than enduring? The story is still being written.
The previously hidden nature of time as a system has caused this pandemic to feel surreal like our experience is floating on a bedrock of uncertainty and danger. However, this hidden aspect of time is coming into full view for many people to witness and question its static stronghold as capitalism’s prized possession. If the world is questioning everything that is considered real and stable, this collective inquiry should also include a close scrutinizing evaluation over our time in our lives. Our time is not profits for other people to take nor is our time objectively free of influence from our political and traumatizing environment. The real test of time is not endurance through some maladaptive survival of the fittest but through the ideas that our survival is not just in our hands and that there is more to living than just resilience. As a global community, our survival is in the hands of everyone around us. This pandemic is pulling the linchpin from the overtly unbalanced wheel of capitalism. What is on the other side when the dust settles? Only time will tell.
Arstila, V. (2012). Time slows down during accidents. Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00196/full
Wang, P. (2018). What are dissociative disorders? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/dissociative-disorders/what-are-dissociative-disorders
Wirth, M. (2016). Hormones, stress, and cognition: The effects of glucocorticoids and oxytocin on memory. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, 1(2), 177-201. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40750-014-0010-4