I’ve been feeling recently like I’ve been spinning my wheels in my personal life. I’m pressing on the metaphorical accelerator as hard as I can, probably too hard for safety, and instead of moving forward, the wheels are just spinning, spinning, spinning. I think a large part of it is my perspective of time. “Time is canceled,” my friends and I would say continuously during the lockdown. And it isn’t back, not yet, not how it used to be, not for me.
I would be far from the first to note the disconnect between the literal, constant, inexorable progression of time in a physical sense, and the wacky way in which we remember it. As Groucho Marx (apocryphally) framed it:
“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”
When my friends and I would say “Time is canceled,” we meant it as a joke. But like many jokes, it was literally true; it was true of subjective time. While objective time is a physical property of the universe to be studied by scientists, subjective time is built out of rituals and milestones. Objective time is measured on clocks and dilated by near-light speed travel and gravity; subjective time is measured in hearts and minds and dilated by activities and events and locations.
Day isn’t just when our section of the earth faces the sun; it’s when we’re in the city, at or near the office. Night isn’t when we’re in the earth’s shadow; it’s when we’re at home, or at a bar. Weekend is not just a legal construct or a mark on a calendar, but it’s made out of brunches, mimosas, and daytime outings with friends, while still in Brooklyn.
Or at least that’s what these words meant before COVID. Once COVID hit, and the lockdowns came, all of these manifestations of time congealed into an undifferentiated gray goop. Subjective time was canceled, replaced with something incoherent. Time was simultaneously slow and fast: slow, because the beginning of COVID seemed infinitely long ago, as it felt like I had been starved of social contact for my entire life; and fast, as months flew by without commutes and outings and brunches and clubs and churches or anything at all to break up the gray goop of continuous apartment, apartment, and more apartment.
Then, eventually, after an infinite amount of time had passed in a few months, the restrictions started to lift. Gradually, and then suddenly, there was so much stuff to do. And so I experienced the summer camp effect.
The summer camp effect (not to be confused with, but perhaps related to, summer camp syndrome) is one of my favorite examples of subjective time. As I can’t find it via Googling, I think my friends might have discovered it from experience and first principles. The effect goes like this: When you were a child, summer camps lasted one week (leastways they did for me). But during a camp experience, you would make new friends, have a temporary best friend and rivalries, if you’re older maybe even a “camp girlfriend” or “boyfriend”!
Children at summer camps (and adults on retreats or vacations) get an entire in-camp life, squeezed somehow into a few objective days, but as large emotionally as an entire semester at school. This makes sense if you think about it. You’re doing completely different activities than you’ve previously done. Each day you’re doing a lot of adjusting, a lot of learning new routines, a lot of meeting new people. It’s just long enough that you take it seriously as something to acclimate to, a new context to judge everything by, but also short enough that every individual event has an outsized importance.
You know you’re experiencing this effect when you say things like “I just went swimming earlier today? That feels like three days ago.” And the reason is simple: Three days' worth of different things have happened since then, both different from each other, and different from what you’re used to.
COVID was the opposite of summer camp effect. During COVID, the set of events and activities I was used to dwindled to naught. Leaving the apartment at all felt like an event. “Three days ago? That felt like earlier today,” I would say, as less than a day’s events had happened in the past three days.
So then, as COVID restrictions thawed, completely normal outings, like going to a restaurant, felt like huge accomplishments – because in context they were. Every event where there were more than 2 or 3 people felt like a huge, even decadent, party! Because my baseline was so pathetically low, this was a perfect recipe for the longest-lasting summer camp effect I’ve ever experienced.
For months, for basically the entire second half of 2021, subjective time snapped back in the other direction like a rubber band. Each week felt like a month. Things that happened a few days ago felt like they were long-forgotten memories. So much was happening so quickly, even if it wasn’t objectively all that much, because I was de-acclimated.
And then, while still de-acclimated, while still experiencing this post-COVID perpetual summer camp effect, I up and moved to a new town. Now that I’m in said new town, visiting new places, meeting new people, navigating new obstacles and forging new routines, I added an additional layer of summer camp effect on top of the “COVID recovery” time dilation I was already experiencing.
But of course, settling into a new place – especially a new house, when I’ve never owned a house before – is a lot of work, work that takes time.
And it’s not just the logistics and paperwork of moving (though of course there are ungodly reams of paperwork). I have to get acquainted with this new town, learn the dance that this town dances, a dance with a different rhythm than I’m used to. Some processes simply can’t be rushed, and that includes meeting new people and setting up new routines here.
So now I’m in a bit of a pickle: I’m experiencing time as going slower, while also having a lot of goals that simply will take a lot of time, no matter what I do. Between these facts, everything in my life is taking forever.
So I’m just here, spinning my wheels, particularly within my social and personal life, making no apparent progress on my urgent goal and top priority of developing a routine for my spare time and settling into my new living situation. Why don’t I have a routine worked out? Why don’t I have a full complement of local friends, a weekly game night, hobbies both social and solitary? Am I just not cut out for small town life after all?
Simultaneously, I’m feeling extremely busy setting up the house: Why isn’t it set up yet? Why is everything so untidy, again? Why do I feel like I’m perpetually behind on making the house look remotely presentable, or even correctly furnished? Am I just not cut out for home-ownership?
There’s a word for this feeling: burn-out. The popular conception of burn-out is when you’ve worked too hard, are exhausted from it, and cannot work anymore. And I certainly have worked hard: Getting a mortgage and buying a house is one of the most difficult, convoluted, and bureaucratic journeys I’ve ever undertaken. And I’ve since had to do a lot to “settle in,” a shockingly pleasant euphemism for a deeply stressful process.
But that isn’t the entire picture. Burn-out doesn’t come just from working too hard. Burn-out comes from a feeling that your hard work isn’t accomplishing anything – that accomplishing things may be impossible, because nothing’s happening even with all the effort put in.
Some examples of burn-out:
- Therapists get burn-out when in spite of all their efforts, they can’t fix everything, and their patients still have the same problems.
- Teachers get burn-out when in spite of all their efforts, whether creative lesson plans or well-structured incentives, still leave some students struggling at academic concepts and skills.
- Programmers get burn-out when they spend aeons learning a new code-base and learn all its flaws, but instead of being able to fix the flaws and make everything easier in the long run, they just have to learn to live with it as the technical debt gets even worse and every simple task just takes 5x longer than it would if they could just spend some time to clean up some things.
It can be hard to recognize burn-out, because in the moment, it feels like laziness, failure, or procrastination. But it’s not about the amount of work. It’s about the ratio of (felt) work to (perceived) results. It’s about the feeling that maybe if you try even harder, you’ll get better results, when what you really need to do is step back and take stock of things, and make sure you have the right overall approach and right goals.
So here’s my example of burn-out to add to the list:
- New residents of a town can get burnt out when they feel like they’ve done gazillions of things, but their life in that city is still not as full as their old pre-COVID life.
But, though I may have done gazillions of things, I haven’t actually lived here that long in objective time. I’m measuring my results in subjective time, and that’s unfair to my efforts. Some things just can’t be rushed.
All I can do now is remind myself it is too early to be making conclusions. Even if small town life is perfect for me, I shouldn’t expect to be in my regular groove already. Even if home-ownership suits me perfectly, I still should expect to be setting up this house for a while. I had to start reminding myself of this the day after I moved, and I have to keep reminding myself of this now. It’s my new constant mantra: “Some things just take time.” And also, when that gets old, I can chant: “It hasn’t even been that long!”
Because in the end, subjective time is not objective time. I can remember that, and use that fact as the weapon to fight my unreasonable emotions. Because in truth, all things properly considered, everything’s going according to plan. I may not have enough friends or activities here yet, but I’m working on it, and after all, I just moved here.