Another cost of COVID: Our collective sense of time

By Georgia Faye Hirsty

April 20, 2021 – Today marks the day that all adults in US are eligible for the vaccine.

Four months have passed since I began this article, I was a bit taken back when I opened the draft to finish and realized the gap. It felt appropriate somehow, for an article about time, its passage, and how unstuck it has felt. Spring is here. Wisteria and jasmine are bursting open filling the neighborhood air with the sweet, seductive scents and promises of a sun-drenched summer.

Where I live in Oakland, spring always brings magnificent blooms and longer days, but given our temperate climate, it is a smooth, subtle transition. This year is different. As people are beginning to emerge from lockdown, restaurants tentatively open, and gathering almost permissible – there is fervent energy all around – a friend noted it felt more like Spring in the midwest coming out of a particularly dismal winter. A stark, glorious, and feverish reawakening.

Yet, deep inside of me, there is a kind of grief, some sense of ungraspable loss for our collective experience, for belonging, for connectivity, for touch. We all had very different experiences this last year. I, of course, can only speak to mine recognizing that to work from home was a privilege many did not have. Since this article is in many ways about the unstuckness of time, I will pick up where I left off in December.

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2020 is coming to end. I know that because 2021 budgets are due – but the truth is, something doesn’t feel right. This year, time and the passing of time – has felt very, very different. Even now, writing this article, the calendar on my refrigerator is still in October and one of my clocks never ‘fell back.’ Faded signs still hang from street lamps advertising the Oakland Running Festival on March 22nd. And while the pandemic has surfaced and exposed cracks and crevasses that have long been tearing at our social fabric, there is one cost that has gone largely unmentioned – the loss of the collective experience of time.

Calendars and clocks, work schedules and promotions, bills, and expiration dates are one-way time is measured. For me, those things have largely remained. However, there is another, much more important way to measure. A measurement that needs no numbers or devices – it is the emotional, social, communal passage time. It is a kind of measurement I was almost unaware of until I felt the weight of its absence. It is seeing birthday celebrations at restaurants, and couples on their first date, it’s hugging friends, and gathering to grieve. This year had made apparent to me that this measurement is not just how I experience these moments first hand or with my friends and family, it is also what I experience in community, in the periphery, with all those I share space with. The true cost of the absence of this measurement is profound and speaks to the depth of our human experience and sense of belonging.

Friday, March 20, 2020, in Los Angeles.
(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) NYTCREDIT: Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

In our work at Frailty Myths, we think and talk a lot about the importance of cultivating a sense of belonging in the workplace, in teams, and in our communities. We know that when people feel a sense of belonging in groups they are members of, they are more likely to thrive and bring their whole selves. We know that the behaviors and attitudes that perpetuate systems of oppression lead to those impacted by those systems feeling like they don’t belong. And while belonging is certainly subjective, there is widespread agreement across fields of study that it is a fundamental human need that each one of us desires to satisfy. (Allen et al., 2021)

A pandemic of loneliness predated the COVID 19 pandemic with the majority of adults in the US reporting that they often feel lonely (Cigna, 2019). The loneliness pandemic ran in parallel as COVID forced us further apart. What are the impacts of exchanging fewer smiles with neighbors, of not embracing your friends and family, of a top-level cultural shift that discourages touching and closeness? From hugs to handshakes…gone. I remember my grandmother told me once that the saddest thing about getting older, was the absence of touch.

What are the consequences of when births, rights of passage ceremonies, anniversaries, deaths, marriages, and funerals do not bring us into each others’ presence and rather pass without notice, without the intentional time and ritual we have traditionally set aside to process – whether grief or joy. The impact on our individual lives is clearly profound, but I think too, on our collective experience. On one of my daily walks, in the waning golden light of a late Californian afternoon, I passed an open window where I could see 3 people sitting around a table laughing. I was overwhelmed by feelings of nostalgia and grief, happiness and jealously. Not only did I long to join, but the moment exposed the wound from the absence of seeing people rejoice in each other’s company, of dancing, and music, of the simple and beautiful we share space.

We are social animals and derive so much from our collective experience. The morning it was announced that Trump had officially lost the presidential election, I couldn’t help myself. I ran out into the streets. I wept for many reasons that day, but the most visceral came from seeing my community rejoice. I was without words to describe the beauty. It was not until I was surrounded in celebration that I felt the release of admitting how deeply I’d longed for community, for togetherness, for belonging.

As so, this way of measuring time that is not in minutes and calendars – but rather, in the moments we spend sharing space and time and feelings, in the embraces each time we see distant loved ones or in the uncomfortable silences of navigating grief – Time measured in births and birthdays and holidays and feasts, anniversaries, weddings, funerals…. Jonathan Larson suggested over 25 years ago we measure,

In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee, in inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife… How do you measure a year in a life? How about love?

Rent

For me, the texture of this year’s loneliness is different, it is both more jagged and more blunt. It has swelled both from obvious separation but also the loss of more subtle things like the lack of exchanging smiles with strangers or standing in lines or the morning exchange with Ralph at the cafe. For all cultures and communities, there are celebrations, rituals, and ceremonies that mark the passing of time, that are tied to the essential qualities of life – in both the human and natural world. There were no full moons and harvests this year, no birthdays or new years. Each time I danced alone in my apartment, I longed to be surrounded by the stunning energy and life of a crowd of people moving to the same rhythm. A longing that began at the birth of humanity.

It’s not just that we have been unable to participate in our own ceremonies, but I think there is something to not seeing them around us. There is a collective loss that we must somehow find a way to grapple with.

I have spent the last 13 months almost entirely alone. I feel overwhelmed with both excitement and anxiety at the thought of embracing loved ones or going dancing or simply being indoors with others. I’m worried that the damage is permanent. As a vaccine is developed and distributed and we move away from this moment, how do we grieve together all we have lost so we can heal the wounds of loneliness? How do we reignite the power of touch and connectivity? To not acknowledge our collective loss will further isolate us. “Feeling as though one does not belong is robustly associated with a lack of meaning and purpose, increased risk for experiencing mental and physical health problems, and reduced longevity.” (Allen et al., 2021)

I believe that if we step into this moment intentionally, perhaps it is our opportunity to heal from both the covid and the loneliness pandemics together. I hope we can pause as individuals and a society to acknowledge how we have hurt, what has been exposed, how we have grown, what we have learned, and how we can step forward with purpose. I hope this is not a moment for further scarring but instead one of healing. We know how profoundly our shared, collective experience impacts each of our well-being and sense of belonging – I hope we can find in this moment the strength to rebuild structures of community and society with more heart and intentionality than they had before, where a sense of belonging is cultivated and sustained for everyone.

Citations:

Kelly-Ann Allen, Margaret L. Kern, Christopher S. Rozek, Dennis M. McInerney & George M. Slavich (2021) Belonging: a review of conceptual issues, an integrative framework, and directions for future research, Australian Journal of Psychology, 73:1, 87-102, DOI: 10.1080/00049530.2021.1883409

Cigna (2019) Loneliness and the Workplace. https://www.cigna.com/static/www-cigna-com/docs/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/cigna-2020-loneliness-factsheet.pdf


Georgia Faye Hirsty is the co-founder of Frailty Myths, a different kind of DEI consultancy that uses hands-on skills and the power of practice to transform workplaces and communities to advance justice.

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