Two weeks into Auckland’s second lockdown, Sam Brooks reflects on the strange distortion of time in alert level three.
I remember exactly where I was when Lockdown: The Sequel was announced. Actually, no. I remember exactly where I was when it was announced that Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield were going to be making a surprise press conference. I was having a drink with lovely friends at a local haunt, right in the middle of Auckland. The news flew by our screens via Twitter, and then violently via a civil defence alert that shot out from seemingly everybody’s phones, ricocheting off the buildings of the CBD. Level three from noon on Wednesday.
In a mere 15 hours, we’d return to that inconvenience-turned-horror (depending on the day) that stamped out the first wave of Covid a few months ago. Then, a little under two weeks (315 hours, to be precise) into level three, a finish line was announced. Level two is now in sight, with some semblance of level one over the horizon.
In that same second announcement, Jacinda Ardern said this: “Even though many of us haven’t been in the city or experienced the second round of level three, we know it’s been tough. I know there are many who have found it harder this time.”
Put my name right there, under “many”, thanks.
One notable impact of this lockdown has been the delay of the election. While some people have been, quite rightly, focused on the delay allowing a whole bunch of just-turned 18-year-olds to vote, I’ve been fixated on the morbid flipside. Because, statistically speaking, not everybody who would have been alive to vote on September 19 is going to be alive to vote on October 17. Time doesn’t stop because you delay the election a month, it keeps rolling on.
My fixation on this morbid flipside stems from my primary fixation in life: time. Time is the one true non-renewable resource; none of us ever get more, and we’re always running out of it. I’m more careful about my time than I am about my wallet. I’m the guy who loves that my Kindle tells me how much time I have left in a book, the person who is always checking how much time is left in an episode of TV, and the person who is calculating how much I can squeeze into any given day. I can justify that as useful, though.
Harder to justify is the time I spend feeling guilty that I’ve wasted my time. It sends thoughts going around my brain like a car trying to find the exit at a roundabout. That extra five minutes in bed is five minutes lost somewhere else. Getting halfway through a book and realising it’s not very good becomes an existential dilemma; do I finish the book and feel like it was a waste of time, or ditch it here and know that it was? My fixation on wasting time, ironically, leads to me wasting more time.
Contrary to my expectations, lockdown actually did good things for my brain the first time around. I learned how to cook, learned how to love cooking, and learned to partition my day into work time and relaxation time like I’d been managing that balance perfectly my entire life. Then we came out of lockdown, and while I kept some of those habits, I ditched others. The world partitioned my time for me again and, frankly, I started to take time for granted.
But now this return to lockdown has brought my fixation – my anxiety – screaming right back into my brain. The thing about these restrictions is that, regardless of their necessity, they feel like a cheat of the time that’s been given to us. It’s time spent away from loved ones, away from the places you need to feel normal, and the activities that make your life worth it. It is time not spent to its fullest. It’s time that has been taken away from you and then returned like a stolen car, with dents in the hood and missing mirrors. It’s not time to spend, it’s time to fill.
I go back to that election delay, that extra month, or 28 days to be specific. That’s 672 hours. That’s not nothing. You could watch Grey’s Anatomy nearly twice all the way through in that amount of time. For some people in New Zealand, those 672 hours will be the last of their lives, and they won’t be able to spend it to the fullest. But I know it’s unhealthy to focus on that. I can’t do anything for anybody else’s time, but I can choose how to use mine.
For most of us, the blessing of lockdown is that it’s a hardship with a deadline. It will be over. There will be normal days again. We will be able to drink with lovely friends at local haunts again. We will be able to see loved ones, do fun things, and spend our time in the way we want to. I think the reason that this lockdown has been harder, at least for me, is the guilt. It’s not that I’m wasting time now, or whatever warped version of time lockdown has presented me. It’s that I was wasting it when I could’ve been spending it to the fullest.
As with all hardship, lockdown reminds us to be grateful for what we have. If you’ve got the privilege to be able to spend your time the way you choose, do it. It’s the only time you get, and there’s no subsidy, no relief plan for it. Spend it well, every day, every hour.
But don’t stress out too much about it. Because that is, of course, a waste of time.