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Life on pause: How the pandemic stole our sense of time

While we’ve been “waiting out” the pandemic, time has marched on. It is no wonder our perceptions of ageing have become skewed – but is there a way to take control?

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“When I was diagnosed with cancer, I had to consider the life stages that I wasn’t going to see,” said Luke Grenfell-Shaw.  

“I really didn’t think I was going to see Christmas. I had to try to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to have kids, I wasn’t going to get married, I wasn’t going to be there for a ten-year reunion with my university friends. By the time my friends were 40 or 50, they would have to try to remember what Luke Grenfell-Shaw was like.” 

Grenfell-Shaw, 27, is what he describes as a “CanLiver” (a term he coined to acknowledge that we can live with cancer). Diagnosed with an aggressive sarcoma at the age of 24, he has spent the past three years doing as much living as possible. This has included completing a master's at Oxford in between rounds of chemotherapy, running half-marathons and travelling the world.

On 1 January 2020, after months of planning, Grenfell-Shaw set out on his dream mission: an epic cycle ride from Bristol to Beijing. His plans – along with those of the rest of the world – were thrown off course following the outbreak of Covid-19 in China.

His response to being forced to return to the UK mid-ride was to launch a podcast, write a book, and get back on the road as soon as possible. Last August, when travel restrictions eased, Grenfell-Shaw resumed his charity bike ride. When we speak via Zoom he is in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he is pausing to get his bike repaired.

“I couldn’t have picked a worse year to cycle around the world,” he admits. “But the last thing that comes to mind is that it’s been a wasted year.” 

*** 

I wanted to get Grenfell-Shaw’s perspective because so many people have told me that, for them, the past 12 months do feel like a wasted year. I’ve heard them describe how they feel a form of mourning – not for a person, but for the time that has been lost. 

In England, more than half of the last year has been spent in lockdown, with the rest marked by severe restrictions on what we can do, where we can go, who we can see. We have primarily been confined to our homes, instructed to “wait out” the pandemic with Netflix, Zoom, online learning and Joe Wicks fitness classes. 

But while we have waited, time has kept passing. Babies have been born who have never met their grandparents or known a world without masks. Children have left school without getting the chance to say goodbye to their friends and teachers.

Nearly 700,000 people have died – of all causes – while funerals have been restricted. People have gone a year without seeing family, and some businesses shuttered since March 2020 look unlikely to reopen.

“I’ve almost given up ever having a family because the lockdown seems endless”

After a year like that, it is no wonder our perceptions of time – and of ageing – have become skewed. For some, like the lockdown lovers who made the impulsive decision to move in together last March, the pandemic meant hitting fast-forward. Fledgling couples have spent much of every waking hour together this year, and their relationships have concertinaed as a result. Many will have faced the kinds of trials – bereavement, financial worries, job insecurities, tedium – that usually play out over many years of marriage. 

At the same time, others feel their lives have been placed on pause. 

“Talking to my friends, we feel broadly that our lives have become stagnant and that we can’t move on,” said Ailar, who turned 30 a week before England first went into lockdown. 

[see also: How will we remember 2020?]

“Personally, I had a major break-up before lockdown and by the time I was ready to date, basically for the first time as an adult, I had to be cooped up inside for what is approaching a year.” 

Ailar understands the need for restrictions and accepts that hers may seem a trivial complaint in the midst of a pandemic. But the missed opportunities to meet potential partners, especially at what she considers a critical period in her life, fill her with despair. 

“Given how long it’s been since my break-up and the fact that I’ve had few opportunities to meet people, at 30, in my head, I’ve almost given up ever having a family because the lockdown seems endless and government policies seem to be directed towards families, not taking into account people who are single or live alone,” she said.

It’s a sentiment many of my own friends, particularly other single women, have echoed. 

*** 

This frustration, the sense that the pandemic year has stolen something from us that we will never be able to get back, is far from uncommon.

And it’s not just women in their childbearing years who worry they are being denied a crucial life stage. Many of the traditional landmarks of early adulthood have dissolved or been distorted beyond recognition by the events of the past year: the first time buying a drink in a pub, starting university, graduating from school or college, moving out. Even the more basic symbols of teenage independence – meeting up with friends, going to house parties – have been criminalised. 

It is true that this is not forever, but that is little consolation for restless adolescents. According to a January 2021 survey by the youth charity The Prince’s Trust, 68 per cent of 16- to 25-year-olds felt they were “missing out on being young”, while 62 per cent believed they had “lost a year” of their lives.

“Time is a block of ice on which you are shakily standing, and it’s forever melting” 

The comedian and writer David Baddiel hasn’t been a teenager for a long time. But at 56, he too feels the weight of time slipping past. 

“I have always had, and obviously it gets exponentially worse as I get older, a fear of mortality. I assume we all do, but some are more vocal about it,” he told me.

“I think lockdown has made it substantially worse, as the endless sameness of days creates a bad stasis in time – bad because actually time feels slower when it’s not stopped, when the days are full, and there’s lots to do, and you see many people. Being at home all day, and each day being similar, brings home to you just how much time is a block of ice on which you are shakily standing, and it’s forever melting. 

“I have travelled a lot in my life compared to most people, and that’s a privilege, but there are places, such as South America, I’ve never been – and I am suddenly now gripped by a panic that age and plague mean I never will.” 

Baddiel describes his feeling that time is being both paused and accelerated as a result of Covid-19, propelling him into a life stage he didn’t think would arrive so soon. 

“I think this phase of life may be summed up as the last one that isn’t going to be spent mainly in hospital… or at least, as you approach your sixties, there’s a sense in which this is the last point of your life where you can seize the day – travel, try new things, meet new people, go and have those experiences that old age won’t allow for. And now I haven’t been doing any of those things, because I’m staying in my house all day.” 

*** 

I put this idea to Luke Grenfell-Shaw, who has more cause than most to be anxious about the passing of time. His cancer is now in remission, but it could return at any point. He also understands how quickly a promised future can be snatched away: while he was in his first round of chemotherapy, his brother had an accident in the Lake District and died, at the age of 25. 

“I think we’re lucky to grow old. And I think we’ve forgotten that as a society,” he said. “My personal feeling is that anyone who gets to the age of 60, 70, 80, is incredibly fortunate. How we choose to live is infinitely more valuable than being alive for a long time.” 

I find it difficult to fully embrace this mind-set. Like Ailar, and Baddiel, and the anxious teenagers surveyed by The Prince’s Trust, I feel I have lost something during the pandemic. There are places I had planned on visiting and experiences I wanted to have before I “settled down”. Because of Covid – and lockdown – that period of my life is gone. Even as I recognise how fortunate I am, I can see the missed opportunities of the last year far more vividly than I can the potential gains.

“In life, there are situations we cannot control – like cancer, like Covid. What we’re left with is a choice of how we deal with them”

But maybe that’s as much about fear of losing control as it is about an actual loss. After all, no one’s life ever goes entirely to plan, and it is rare doors are shut forever: people fall in love, have children, break up, change jobs and travel at every stage of their lives.

“Out of all people, maybe I have a really strong reason to be angry and resentful and upset [about the past year],” Grenfell-Shaw reflects. “But ultimately I realised that’s an unhelpful way to think. The question really is: how can I make the most of this time? 

“My attitude, and it’s something I learned through having cancer, is that, in life, there are often situations that we cannot control, things just happen – like cancer, like Covid. What we’re left with is a choice of how we deal with them. I believe we’ve always got that choice.”

Luke Grenfell-Shaw is raising money for various cancer charities by cycling from Bristol to Beijing. You can donate here.

Rachel Cunliffe is deputy online editor of the New Statesman