From the minute we went into lockdown, there’s been a lively discussion, online and elsewhere, about how to fill all our extra spare time. We parents of small children permitted ourselves a hollow laugh at that (before immediately worrying that the hollow laugh was turning into a dry cough). Because for us, there was suddenly no time at all. Every waking second was accounted for, so the advice that we might seize this opportunity to reread the novels of Jane Austen or dust off our half-written screenplays felt deeply surreal – and therefore, I suppose, entirely in keeping with the times.
There’s nothing new about people having radically different quantities of time, of course – nor about the fact that time inequality doesn’t line up with economic inequality. (Low-income workers and senior executives wish they had more time; unemployed people and super-wealthy layabouts would be happier with less.) But never before has the distribution of time divided my social circle so sharply, providing another reminder that this thing we’re all doing these days is, in fact, a completely different thing, depending on who you are – rich or poor, parent or not, nurse or novelist, homebody or compulsive socialiser.
Equally strange, though, has been the discovery that this new form of busyness doesn’t feel very busy, in an unpleasant way. Mostly, it’s absorbing. It’s dawning on me that much of what I called busyness, before coronavirus, was really scatteredness – a focus on too many things, including some I unconsciously knew were a waste of time. In lockdown, I rarely doubt I’m spending my time on things that matter; not because I’ve become a time-management ninja, but because I have no choice. Honestly, I’m grateful not to have time to reread Austen because I know what I’d actually be using it for: ruminating impotently on the horrors in the news.
I hope it goes without saying that I know I’d feel differently if the time-crunch left me at imminent risk of homelessness or hunger, or if I weren’t so fortunate in numerous other respects. But the point isn’t that it’s good to be deprived of time. It’s that the pandemic is forcing us, in ways large and small, to confront reality. The big realities include the inadequacy of our safety nets and our utter reliance on essential workers we don’t properly support. One smaller reality, for me, has been seeing with fresh eyes what it means to have finite time. The truth is, I don’t have less of it than before (I’ve always had 24 hours a day). It’s just that now I’m less free to fritter it or be seduced by the various industries whose raison d’être is to try to persuade us to waste it.
Who knows if this insight will stick once the pandemic passes – or, conversely, should the virus hit closer to home. For now, there’s the oddly peaceful sense of days being spent as they ought to be: reading storybooks, loading the dishwasher, hunting bugs in the yard, checking in with family and friends, concocting vaguely nutritious meals from whatever is in the fridge, squeezing in as much work as possible, unloading the dishwasher… It definitely isn’t all fun. But I’m fairly sure it all matters. As dystopias go, this one has some things to recommend it.