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No, this isn’t an impatient plea for the easing of lockdown! In fact, I think that here in the UK we started lockdown too late and that we’re possibly relaxing it too early.
But this piece is about lockdown and, in particular, about our experience of time in lockdown and our perceptions of it.
Strange things seem to be happening to how we perceive time. The position of the hands on the clock doesn’t seem to matter as much as it normally did. We seem to have a distorted image of time. It’s a bit like the melting clock faces in Salvador Dali’s painting ‘The Persistence of Memory’.
I’m going to talk briefly about three aspects of our experience of time in lockdown.
- Changed rhythms of life
The first is about the changed rhythms of life that we are experiencing. Human, animal and plant life all have their rhythms. There are the rhythms of day and night, weekdays and weekends, months, seasons, and years. There is the rhythm of annual festivals and celebrations.
Talking of seasons, Val and I lived in East Africa for a year. We were about two degrees north of the Equator. When we came back home after that year, we noticed just how good it is to have the rhythm of the seasons. It was something that we had missed for that year.
Of course, in lockdown there are some new rhythms! Here in the UK we have been going outside our homes at 8.00 pm every Thursday to clap in appreciation of the work of people in our National Health Service, people on the frontline in the battle with the coronavirus.
The rhythms of life have a powerful beat as Sammy Davis Jnr sang years ago. The beat of those rhythms is slower in lockdown!
Even though we have slowed down and been putting less pressure on ourselves, it seems, as we look back, that time in lockdown has been passing surprisingly quickly.
It is surprising because when everything stays the same (our activities, our location), time seems to pass slowly. We give more attention to time and the more attention we give to it, the slower it seems to go. A watched pot never boils!
However, in retrospect as we look back upon the weeks or months of lockdown, it all seems to have gone very quickly. This seems to be because there have been fewer changes, fewer new memories being made, fewer landmarks in time.
Even if we are busy with Zoom meetings all day, we are still in the same location. There is still that sameness which feels slow to experience while we are going through it but seems to have gone very quickly when we look back upon it.
The rhythm of work and rest is especially important. The first blog I wrote back at the beginning of the year before we knew that all these changes were coming was entitled ‘Green spaces in time’. We need those green spaces.
The Sabbath is the climax of the week for Jewish people. Sadly, our UK government is considering totally relaxing the Sunday trading laws for the sake of the economy and people’s jobs.
Let’s be thankful for the rhythms of life and let’s make space for God-filled moments in those rhythms!
2. Irreversibility of time
A second aspect of our experience of time is of its irreversibility. The arrow of time goes irresistibly in one direction only.
Isaac Watts in his old hymn ‘O God our Help in ages past’ talked of time as being “like an ever-rolling stream” bearing all of us away.
As we see the daily statistics of how many people have died and as we hear the news of deaths of friends or acquaintances as a result of coronavirus infection, we become very aware of mortality, very aware of the irreversibility of time.
Henri Bergson said that the most naked experience we have of time is that of a death and a birth occurring together. Thirteen years ago, in March, my mother passed away and, in less than a month, our second grandson was born. Dylan came into our lives. I had that very definite feeling of the past being gone and irretrievable and the future opening up with all its possibilities, all its promises.
Let’s remember, as we contemplate this arrow of time, this irresistible movement of time, that Christ is risen and because he is risen, we can have the possibility of resurrection ourselves.
3. Uncertainty about the Future
A third aspect of our experience of time is of total uncertainty about the future. We feel almost as if we are backing into the future. The Ancient Greeks and the Mesopotamians thought of the future as being behind them. They were reversing towards it and the past was in front of them. They could look over the past and contemplate it.
Our modern western notion of time has us facing the future and the past is very definitely behind us. Our younger son, Gareth, was just a little boy when, one day, he was searching for the word ‘yesterday’ and couldn’t get it. He said “the day at the back of this one”! In saying that, he showed that he had already imbibed the notion that the future is something that we are moving towards or something that is moving towards us and that the past is behind us.
In our experience of lockdown and this total uncertainty about the future, about what’s going to happen about our jobs, about the economy, about when we are going to be able to have our loved ones come to visit us in our homes again, it is as if we are rowing facing back rather than forward. We can see where we’ve come from and we don’t know where we’re going.
Of course, in a rowing boat, although the rowers are looking back, there is a cox and he is always looking forward. He or she is steering the boat and coordinating the power and rhythm of the rowers.
As we go backwards into the future and wonder what may be coming, we need a cox. The biblical image is not that of a cox in a rowing boat but that of a shepherd.
Psalm 23 says that the Lord is my shepherd. Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd”. The shepherd doesn’t drive the sheep before him. He goes in front and leads the sheep … and they follow.
I love the Russian translation of ‘good shepherd’ as ‘dobryy pastyr’. I love the sound of those words when spoken by Russian-speaking followers of the Good Shepherd.
We need the cox in our rowing boat, we need the Good Shepherd. We can trust him as he goes on in front of us. We know not what the future holds for us but we can know who holds the future.
I conclude with a prayer, quite a long prayer. It was written by Robert Banks. He is an Australian writer and it is in his book, The Tyranny of Time.
Let us pray.
A Prayer about Time
God our Father, you are the maker of everything that exists, the Author of the world of nature and of all living things, the Creator of both space and time.
Without you there would be no past, present or future; no summer or winter, spring or autumn, seedtime or harvest; no morning or evening, months or years.
Because you give us the gift of time we have the opportunity to think and to act, to plan and to pray, to give and to receive, to create and to relate, to work and to rest, to strive and to play, to love and to worship.
Too often we forget this and fail to appreciate your generosity: we take time for granted and fail to thank you for it, we view it as a commodity and ruthlessly exploit it, we cram it too full or waste it, learn too little from the past or mortgage it off in advance, we refuse to give priority to those people and things which should have chief claim upon our time.
Help us to view time more as you view it, and to use it more as you intend: to distinguish between what is central and what is peripheral, between what is merely pressing and what is really important, between what is our responsibility and what can be left to others, between what is appropriate now and what will be more relevant later.
Guard us against attempting too much because of a false sense of our indispensability, a false sense of ambition, a false sense of rivalry, a false sense of guilt, or a false sense of inferiority: yet do not let us mistake our responsibilities, underestimate ourselves, fail to be stimulated by others, overlook our weaknesses, or know our proper limits.
Enable us also to realise that important though this life is, it is not all, that we should view what we do in the light of eternity, not just our limited horizons, that we ourselves have eternal life now.
God our Father, you are not so much timeless as timeful, you do not live above time so much as hold ‘all times … in your hand’, you have prepared for us a time when we will have leisure to enjoy each other and you to the full, and we thank you, appreciate you and applaud you for it.
The story of the grandmother and granddaughter in the photo is told in my blog ‘Knowing of the Third Kind’. The photo is used with the kind permission of Canadian Guardian journalist Daniel Brown.
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 Quoted in Paul Fraisse, The Psychology of Time, 1964, p. 281.
 Robert Banks, The Tyranny of Time, 1983, pp. 200-201.