The average song is approximately three minutes long. It takes me three songs to get from my dorm room to the dining hall, four songs to grab breakfast, and five to eight songs to get to class, depending on how fast I’m going. On days when I have some money, it’s a four-song walk to the cafe. Two more songs while I’m standing in line to order. Three while I’m waiting for my drink. On the rare occasion that I take my headphones out, the world is eerily silent. Everybody, it seems, is measuring their time in the number of songs it takes to get from point A to point B.
The settling silence is a feeling that disturbs me, even though on the surface there’s nothing wrong with it. Walking a mile in sub-zero weather is dramatically more enjoyable when I’m listening to music; why wouldn’t I indulge? I put my headphones in the minute I get out the door, convinced that I’m stepping into a movie montage of my own creation. Wallowing in this musical dream state is suspiciously intoxicating, and I know I’m not alone. Everybody everywhere is plugging into their own little universe, of which they are the brightest star.
Of course, my attention span has suffered. Sometimes I can’t make it through a three minute song. I get jumpy and skip to something else, until something in the next song makes me think of another song I want to hear, but now I’m thinking of something else and what was the name of that song again? The impatience I feel with the music I crave is exhausting, and it’s a restlessness that’s beginning to leak into other spheres of my life. In school, to get through even the bare minimum of readings, I have to coax myself to stay on task. Just get through half of it. Just get through a quarter. My tendency towards distraction is a persistent cranial itch that I can only scratch by switching songs, switching platforms, pressing buttons with a compulsion that borders on mania. The idea that music doesn’t count as screen time is laughable; I’m just as distracted as ever. Like an itch, this everlasting entertainment appears diminutive, unthreatening, but that little itch is taking up a whole lot of my time.
Auditory and visual stimulation have dulled my brain in ways that might be irreversible, but what I notice most insistently is my changed perception of time. Time sliced up into little slices like fruit at a banquet, time spent flitting from image to image, time spent on platforms that make every word a statement and every post a definitive act. The pesky nature of technology has created a sense that every project must be started and finished quickly, success achieved in one swift motion, every meal consumed in its entirety without taste. The quantification of time, and the feeling that it is relentlessly spilling through my fingers, is the central anxiety of the children of the digital age. I find myself counting minutes constantly- I cannot be everyone and everywhere at once, but Lord knows I keep trying.
The endless chugging along of modern life, in which time waits for no man, was forced to stop quite abruptly when the coronavirus threatened world-wide domination. On the Friday before spring break, I packed my things, got on a bus, and went home for what I suspected was the rest of the semester. You all know the rest. Since that Friday, doors across the world have been shut and locked; skin has paled from a lack of sunshine. By now, staying at home has become so commonplace that sometimes I forget the meaning of it all, the construction of this new reality. After the initial flash of hypochondria that comes with a pandemic, I started to panic, not only for my health, but for the quality of my life. All my plans were cancelled; there was nothing to do. Initially my screen time went through the roof, but it didn’t take long for me to cast my phone aside and begin drawing again and rededicating myself to art. It’s the unexpected joy of hours spent in solitude; time to work on passion projects. Multiple friends of mine are painting or writing again for the first time in ages; some are dusting off their musical instruments. Without minimizing the horrors of the coronavirus, I can safely say that quarantine has given a lot of people a chance to reconnect with the things that fulfill them and reconsider the ways they spend their time.
The pressure to never stop, fueled by the gig economy and smartphone technology, makes it hard to take a step back and evaluate what we value and if our way of life is really working for us. It has long been established by popular television shows and T-shirts that “family comes first”, and that everyone should “be themselves” and “follow their dreams”. But how much of our culture really suggests this? In the United States, to live a balanced work-family life that includes the pursuit of self-fulfilling activities such as drawing or reading suggests luxury and wealth. To follow a path that is not established suggests financial doom. This is not a question of politics; it is a fact of American culture, and it’s time to reconsider what we’re willing to tolerate. These things- reading, creating, taking time for oneself and one’s family- don’t have to be the property of some artistic elite. Perpetual distraction and anxiety force us to be obsessed with the little things- the next task to be completed, the next bill to be paid, the next video to watch- so much so that we forget to question the arc of the culture we are saturated in. Rare is the day that a person in power has said, “It doesn’t have to be this way!”, and even when they do, all of our ears are occupied. People are suffering and there is no one left to pay attention for more than a few minutes, no one brave enough to break through the wall of rhetoric.
I’m not suggesting that hard work or struggle are negative, by any means. I’m suggesting that we are so wrapped up in our own little worlds we have forgotten to be conscious of the meaning of our lives, that we are going forth blindly in a culture that we are too distracted to question. Some of us may be powerless to question it. But the unexpected rose of the pandemic is that for the first time in a long time, we all have time. Time to reconsider what it is we want, to replace blind ambition with meaningful ambition, to replace a wall of distraction with active consciousness. It’s time to decide whether we intend to keep the promises we have made to ourselves about the kind of people we want to be.
I’m trying to reconnect with my instincts. To be “productive” you don’t have to work in one particular way; you can find a flow, picking and choosing the endeavors that fit you best at any particular moment. It’s a luxury that I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy during these past two months. There is a lot of work to be done, in the United States and around the world. I want to get back to my normal life, but then again, I don’t. I want a different version of the life I had, a life where I’m less careless and more honest. I hope everybody emerges from the pandemic ready for a change.