The Real Time Context of COVID-19

COVID-19 exists in the context of Real Time.
Animals and plants grow and develop in Real Time.

We have heard many leaders say they “are deciding” when their people will come out of quarantine or self-isolation, when businesses will reopen, or when children will return to school. Social media is filled with people lamenting their restlessness, insisting they cannot possibly bear another day cooped up with family or isolated from friends, describing the ways they are anxiously pacing up and down the cage bars they see as having unbearably closed on their lives right now. These people are caught in the painful grinding of gears that takes place when Real Time and human time come into conflict. There is only one way to escape this sort of pain, and that is to stop fighting Real Time and float on its currents. Because Real Time is, well, REAL. There is no arguing with it. There is no negotiating with it. It is what it is.

When you were a child, did you ever try to pry open the petals of a flower to see its beauty when it seemed it was taking too long to bloom? If so, you know the surprise and disappointment of discovering that flowers cannot be rushed. Both dogs and cats carry their babies for about 2 months before they give birth. If you were breeding a dog or a cat, what do you think your vet would say if you brought it in after just one month and said, “I just can’t wait any longer for these babies to get born! Induce labor right now so they are born today!” And if somehow you managed to induce labor yourself, what do you think would happen to those half-developed kittens or puppies when they were born? Flowers and babies develop according to Real Time and do not respond to human impatience. The same is true for disease, which is another natural thing. Epidemics move through communities according to their own patterns of ebb and flow, in Real Time. When health professionals caution against making an arbitrary decision to end quarantine and reopen businesses, they are talking about recognizing the Real Time nature of the way COVID-19 is moving through the population. When people ask, “When will this be over?” the true answer — regardless of what anyone does or doesn’t do — is, “It will be over when it ends.” Natural things flow in Real Time, which is something over which humans have no control. When we try to control it by setting deadlines for births and quarantines and other natural processes, we get very unpleasant outcomes.

Thinking about flowers and babies, you might imagine that Real Time is such an obvious concept that everyone can simply step into it and live it out. But attempting to control time is an integral part of Western culture’s efforts to control things in general. I have already addressed Real Time in an earlier blog post about COVID-19 but I am coming back to it now because it’s so hard for people of today’s culture to truly engage with Real Time. They approach it intellectually, but the relentless time pressures of the world around them are so strong that they’re unable to translate what they know with their minds into a practice of real living. Further, the intensity of conflict between Real Time, which is the natural experience of every biological entity, and the human time we are all pressured to march by, is so intense that it leads to dissociation and anxiety.

But the conflict between Real Time and human time has physiological impacts, too. Artificial light has dramatically altered the daily Real Time rhythms that pattern our lives, in ways we’re beginning to realize contribute to health problems such as cancer, obesity, insulin resistance, and cognitive dysfunction. The tremendous increase in heart attacks, strokes, and car accidents that happen the first Monday of Daylight Savings Time every year is a direct result of the conflict between the Real Time our bodies naturally live on and the human time — or perhaps I should call it the inhuman timing — our society insists we adhere to. The sudden displacement of human time by just a single hour disrupts the already-precarious balance of our diurnal cycles so much that it reveals the magnitude of the underlying asynchrony.

Real Time also has seasonal elements. One of the best-known of these, in many Indigenous communities, is the way winter slows things down and tells humans, animals, and plants to slow down, too, and go inside — whether that’s inside a home or under the ground. So winter is traditionally a time for staying in, for telling stories, for being still. It’s not a time for going out and about, for rushing to accomplish things. When there are lots of terrible accidents and deaths on icy and snowy winter roads, it’s because people have been pressured by human time demands — from their jobs, from schools, from gymnastics practice and karate lessons — to buck the natural Real Time flow of winter. You can only buck Real Time so far. You can put snow tires on your car and put studs on your snow tires. But you’re skating, as they say, on thin ice.

Here is a Real Time understanding of COVID-19: The situation asks us to be still and stay in. If we do, the disease cannot spread. The people who have the disease will recover without transmitting it to other people. (The longer we delay the being still part of things, the longer this will take.) After the last transmission happens and this last person recovers, a little more time passes. Then the disease dies out because it has no one else to visit. Without someone new to visit, the viruses have nowhere to go, and they can’t live any longer in a person who has recovered and whose body has learned how to kill the virus. So the viruses in the last person to recover from the disease die out without leaving a new generation behind. When that happens, this event will be over. Then it will be safe for everyone to come out again.

You could picture COVID-19 like a wave of cannon balls flying through the air 5 feet off the ground. If everyone ducks down and is still so they just fly overhead without hitting anyone, after a while the wave will have passed. Then everyone can stand up safely again. But in this example, we imagine that if someone stands up and gets hit by a cannon ball, the people shooting are encouraged to fire a whole new round. So as long as people keep standing up and being hit, cannon balls will keep getting shot through the air. But if everyone stays down, there are no targets to shoot at. So after a while, the people with the cannons quit shooting and go home.  If we could have all stopped moving and been completely still at our homes when COVID-19 first came to America, we could have done this fairly quickly. But people won’t stop moving. They won’t be still. They say they CAN’T be still . . . but of course, they can be still if they are hooked up to a ventilator. People seem to have forgotten the difference between “can’t” and “don’t want to.” It’s an important difference.

At any rate, the longer that some of us keep moving, and the more people who keep on moving, the longer it’s going to take for the wave to pass over us and be gone. If people keep insisting on living in human time — on saying “I have to do this now” and “I have to do that now,” it’s possible this hard time will never really end. Health professionals are warning us about that, too, but we don’t want to listen. We want to have our cake and eat it too: we want to do what we want to do now, but also have this wave pass over us and be done. That is, we want to have healthy puppies and kittens we can sell, and we also want to have them after just one month instead of waiting the two months it takes.

Reality doesn’t work like that. And it’s finally time for Western culture to come to grips with Reality.

COVID-19 is not taking “no” for an answer.